Girls didn’t talk about labiaplasty when I was nine years old. The thought of wanting a crotch like Barbie’s – bare, smooth, undefined – would have struck us as bizarre.
We still learned to hate our female bodies, but in ways appropriate to our time and place. We starved and self-harmed, binged and purged, but our hatred was blunt and unrefined. We didn’t yet know that each body part merits a hatred all of its own.
Today’s pre-teen girls are different. It’s not enough to despise your budding breasts, or the soft expanse of your stomach, or those thighs that you pinch until they’re bruised. You have to go much further than that. There are specific tests to pass – do you have a thigh gap? A bikini bridge? – plus there are constant developments in the field of cutesy terminology for places where you might have excess fat (muffin tops, side boobs, bingo wings, back fat and cankles aren’t even the half of it).
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that under-tens are now asking to have their vulvas reshaped. Why not? There can’t be an inch of female flesh that isn’t in need of fixing – why stop once you get between the legs? It may seem inappropriate to be considering something so intimate at such an early age, but it’s also an age at which girls start to learn more about their sexual selves. In today’s pornified, misogynistic culture, why wouldn’t their first thought be “so what needs correcting here?”
It’s been suggested that this trend is down to “insecurities stemming from adult content such as pornography”. Speaking to the BBC, GP Paquita de Zulueta argues that “there isn’t enough education and it should start really quite young, explaining that there is a range and that – just as we all look different in our faces – we all look different down there, and that’s OK.”
She may have a point; then again the fact that we all look different in our faces hasn’t prevented the existence of a multi-billion-pound industry committed to injecting and slicing women’s faces to make them all look the same.
Yes, girls and boys are seeing pornographic images which distort their perception of what is “normal”, but even with images which counter that, they still know that the pornified female body is being held up as the ideal.
There’s a subtle form of victim-blaming going on here. No one wants to come right out and say “images in porn are damaging to women and girls”. So instead we talk about girls and their insecurities, of their need for education, of gaining a positive body image as something akin to gaining a GCSE in French. Rather than challenge a culture that is destroying girls’ mental health, we accept the destruction, then generously offer to teach girls to be less vulnerable.
It would be quite unthinkable to take away the men’s porn, and equally unthinkable to ask why the women in pornography should all have genitals that resemble those of a child. Instead, let’s look a nine-year-old girl in the face and tell her the way she feels about her body is all down to her own lack of worldly experience.
It’s at this point that feminist voices should be heard, pointing out that double injustice of making young girls responsible for mitigating the harm done to them by patriarchy. Unfortunately, modern feminism, with its squeamishness regarding the sexed body and its obsession with agency, has painted itself into a corner. Your body, your choice – if you want to wax it, plump it, bind it, slice it, then who can tell you otherwise? Who can possibly tell the difference between a girl who wants to look like a Barbie doll because the patriarchy’s told her she should, and one who freely chooses to present as a plastic, dead-eyed doll because that’s her identity? No one, that’s who.
Hence feminism’s version of “accepting your body” has become a matter, not of accepting the body you have, but of embracing your right to do whatever might be deemed necessary to make it “acceptable”. You can argue the toss over whether a nine-year-old should have the same rights to do what she wants as an 18-year-old (in this instance I don’t think she should), but you can’t blame her for thinking there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with hating your labia and wanting it sculpted away. Look, those other women are doing it!
There’s nothing foolish or deluded about hating your vulva; on the contrary, it’s a perfectly logical response to the onslaught of negative messages women and girls receive about their bodies. Nonetheless, the depth and authenticity of that feeling doesn’t make it an inevitable fact of life. Women and girls aren’t lying when they say their bodies disgust them, but that doesn’t mean surgeons should be lining up to validate that disgust.
Plastic surgeon Miles Berry told the BBC that his work “can change people fundamentally, the feelings they have about themselves, their confidence and self-esteem”. He describes seeing “patients aged between 16 and 21 who have never had a boyfriend because they are so concerned about this”.
Berry doesn’t seem disturbed that young women feel this way in the first place. If you are afraid a man will judge you unless your labia is perfectly symmetrical, then what other lengths will you go to in order to please? I once threw away a women’s magazine because it featured an interview with a lads’ mag editor who boasted that he’d “kicked a woman out of bed” for not shaving her pubic hair. But that was the nineties; we were innocent then. And at least pubic hair grows back.
Now in my forties, with three vaginal births behind me, I admit to having my own concerns about the state of myself “down below”. None of these are cosmetic, however, and I’m aware that no one’s all that interested in messy, non-pornified, birth-giving vaginas and their flaws. This may be why hundreds of UK women are currently taking legal action over pain and disability caused by vaginal mesh implants used to treat birth injuries. It may also be why an estimated two million women globally are debilitated by obstetric fistula, a preventable birth injury which causes incontinence. If only the research, time and money that goes into “fixing” perfectly healthy vulvas went into fixing the damage done to women’s bodies by the miracle of birth, think how much suffering could be prevented!
Then again, this would require the understanding that women’s bodies aren’t just objects being offered up for male approval; they are indivisible from women’s whole, fully human selves. But even a nine-year-old girl knows that’s just not how the world works.