(from the archives, April 27, 2012)
Last March a commercial began to spread across television sets in India promoting a new product called Clean and Dry Intimate Wash, designed, according to its parent Fair & Lovely corporation, to “address the problems women face in their private parts.”
Their vulvas are too dark.
According to its website, Clean and Dry’s pH-balanced formula offers “protection, fairness and freshness” and “even makes the skin fairer.” With use of the product, the ads imply, these qualities will transcend simply a woman’s genitalia, and, as the website promises, “Life for women will now be fresher, cleaner, fairer!”
While the ads have been met with outrage both in India and the U.S., they nonetheless illustrate the latest in a rising trend of products and procedures marketed to women that base themselves–and depend upon– the notion that women’s genitals are somehow “wrong” (read: ugly) and in need of a cure. Fair & Lovely’s Intimate Wash merely represents the newest way in which women’s self-loathing and anxiety is manufactured and provoked in order to sell a product. Now, in addition any other concerns women may have already fostered regarding their sexuality or their anatomy, women are free to worry that their vulva might not be the right color.
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Even more frightening than the use of creams and chemicals to alter women’s genital appearance has been the relatively recent surge in popularity of female genital cosmetic surgery among women in industrialized Western nations.
The demand for this procedure has experienced a dramatic boom in the last decade—with Britain seeing a fivefold increase in the surgery in the last five years. (BBC, http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/kirsten-oregan-labiaplasty-part-i/)
As Kirsten O’Regan wrote in an article for Guernica Magazine,
The American College of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons recorded 2,140 vaginal rejuvenation surgeries in 2010. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons estimates that 5,200 procedures are performed annually. While this is markedly less than breast augmentation surgeries, over 300,000 of which were performed in 2011, the figures are alarming given the relative newness of vaginal rejuvenation procedures-the first recorded labiaplasty occurred in 1984, but the surgery remained relatively obscure until the late 90s-and the lack of auditing and regulation in the field. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the vaginal rejuvenation industry was worth around $6.8million in 2009. This number is now undoubtedly much higher and does not take into account any procedures performed by gynecologists.
Meanwhile this is in a context of increasing concern over women in underdeveloped nations being forced to undergo female genital mutilation “against their will”—a distinction some argue is not actually all that distinct.
Authors Lih Mei Liao and Sarah Creighton of the recent report “Requests for Cosmetic Genitoplasty: How Should Healthcare Providers Respond?” argue that the recent upsurge in popularity of surgery is due to “misguided assumptions about normal vulvar dimensions.” They say that while very few women actually have a sense of what “normal” is, many have recently come to the assured conclusion that they themselves are not normal– and their wrongness or ugliness is in dire need of fixing.
Tragically illustrative of this is something one anonymous blogger wrote in a post titled “Labiaplasty: One Woman’s Story,” in which she explains how she came to question her own desire and motivations for getting the surgery prior to going through with the procedure. As she recognized and began to call to question her own entrenched sense of what constituted “normality” (as opposed to her own lack-there-of) she explains how a quick internet search showed that her anxiety was not at all uncommon. She writes,
women of all different ages [ are] populating online forums asking whether they [are] normal, whether they had done something to cause it [their perceived abnormality] and in most cases, how they could get the surgery… Girls as young as fourteen [are] asking whether they [are] eligible for labiaplasty and even suggesting frightening extreme solutions if not.
On top of the internal self-loathing such unrealistic standards induce, many of these women noted that they “avoid relationships because of the fear of a partner discovering this part of their body.” As the author of the post editorially concludes, “The fact that this part of our body is so essentially female, and only open to viewing in the most intimate of situations, add[s] a heartbreaking psychological impact for many of us.”
According to many critics of female genital cosmetic (purely aesthetic) surgery, the normalization and proliferation of porn and pornographic advertisements in recent years have promoted the notion of what constitutes an ideal, “pretty” vulva– something which has led to new anxieties for millions of women now worried about how their own parts “shape up.” Consequently, a report from the BBC noted how the most common reasons cited by women who sought genital surgery were: dissatisfaction with appearance of the vulva; low self-esteem; and sexual difficulties—the latter of which, although cited by many proponents of the surgery as a more “legitimate” rationale for the procedure, arguably has more to do with the first two factors that anything physical.
As Liao argues, advertisements “promote labial surgery as easy answers to women’s insecurities about their genital appearances– insecurities that are fueled by the very advertisements that prescribe a homogenized, pre-pubescent genital appearance standard for all women.”
Along this regard, in an article that was written in response to the first prime-time TV special that featured a woman undergoing the surgery, Massachusetts General Hospital obstetrician and gynecologist, Dr. Erin Tracy was quoted, saying
Most of the patients I have coming in asking about this [labiaplasty] are teenagers that look entirely normal… The majority of them, after some probing, seem to have some underlying body dysmorphic disorder or problems in their relationship that make them think they’re abnormal.
According to Braun, women bring into the surgeon’s office images they would like to be altered to mimic that show flat vulvas with “no protrusion beyond the labia majora, similar to the prepubescent aesthetic featured in advertisements [and porn].” As several critics explain, many of these women are probably unaware that such images have often been digitally altered to represent what actually could be perceived as an extremely rare vulvar appearance.
Many argue that the risks from surgery far exceed the perceived benefits or satisfaction associated with the procedure. Because the labia minora has many nerve fibers that are highly sensitive and become engorged with blood upon sexual arousal– risks associated with the surgery include impaired sensitivity, inability to reach orgasm, or extreme pain associated with sexual experiences– all of which seem like high prices to pay for an alteration that itself is purely aesthetic.
When these procedures are justified on the basis that women have the freedom to choose whether they want the surgery or not, such “choices” must be scrutinized within their social and cultural contexts in order to deem how truly “free” they are. As Braun writes,
In a [society] where the individual should be a (self-improving) agentic subject, choice rhetoric simultaneously promotes [female genital cosmetic surgery] as a (viable) consumer ‘choice’ to ‘improve’ what is simultaneously being (re)constructed as problematic: the vulva, and female sexuality… In the name of consumer choice,… articles [and advertisements] provoke consumer anxiety… [and] a brand new worry is being created.
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When the procedures that women are increasingly seeking out are known to carry great risks, and when studies have shown that satisfaction (“glad-you-did-it?”) rates are highly questionable, we need to ask: what is it about our society and culture that is causing increasing numbers of women and girls to sacrifice sexual pleasure for some (absurd and surreal) manufactured standard of beauty—especially one that affects a part of the body that most of the world won’t ever see and most lovers could not care less how it appears?
Vulva-transforming procedures like surgery, as well as its newest sister products like Fair & Lovely’s “Intimate Wash,” need to be scrutinized and confronted—not only for the fact that they take advantage of women’s emotions and anxieties, but also for the devastating risks associated with such attempts to alter the appearance of the vulva. Resources should be put into helping women deal with feelings of insecurity toward their genitals and bodies in general like education, support, counseling, and other opportunities for general dialogue and communication that promote confidence and positive notions of self. But in addition to such efforts, the sources that create these anxieties in the first place need to be confronted. Women (and men) should be taught that genitals vary greatly—and that all forms are healthy, desirable, and “normal”—and that notions of a standardized “ideal” are fabrications created by those trying to profit off of women’s body-confidence-related concerns and anxieties.
Braun, Virgina. “In Search of (Better) Sexual Pleasure: Female Genital ‘Cosmetic’ Surgery”. Sexualities. 8: 4: (2005): 407-424; see also: Anonymous, “Labiaplasty: One Woman’s Story”
Braun, Virgina. “‘The Women are Doing it for Themselves’: The Rhetoric of Choice and Agency around Female Genital ‘Cosmetic Surgery.’” Australian Feminist Studies. 24 (60:2009): 233-249.
“Clean and Dry Intimate Wash” TV commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Tx9vVVMWw0&feature=player_embedded
“’I feel like I’m deformed down there’: Reality TV show sees woman get plastic surgery on her genitalia,” MailOnline, 22 November 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2064934/The-Doctors-Woman-gets-labiaplasty-plastic-surgery-US-reality-TV-show.html#ixzz1rTdEuRXe
“Labiaplasty: One Woman’s Story,” (anonymous author) Mamamia, June 28, 2011, http://www.mamamia.com.au/health-wellbeing/labiaplasty-one-womans-story/
Liao, Lih Mei, and Sarah M. Creighton. “Requests for cosmetic genitoplasty: How should healthcare providers respond?” BMJ : British Medical Journal. 334 (7603): 2007, 1090.
Misener, Jessica. “Vagina Bleaching Ad Sparks Controversy Over Who Needs A Paler Va-Jay,” The Huffington Post, April 12, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/12/vagina-bleaching-ad_n_1420825.html?ref=style
“New Warning on ‘Perfect Vaginas,’” BBC Health News, 11 November 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8352711.stm
See Also (for kicks)
From Dodson and Ross, re: Labiaplasty:
“Did Labiaplasty Ruin My Sex Life?” http://dodsonandross.com/blogs/betty-dodson/2011/02/did-labiaplasty-ruin-my-sex-life
“Will Labiaplasty Help Me Orgasm?” http://dodsonandross.com/blogs/betty-dodson/2009/12/will-labiaplasty-help-me-orgasm
“Labiaplasty & How Censorship Has Skewed Our Notion of What Normal Genitals Look Like” http://dodsonandross.com/blogs/carlin/2010/03/labiaplasty-how-censorship-has-skewed-our-notion-what-normal-genitals-look
“Learning to Love My Labia” http://dodsonandross.com/blogs/betty-dodson/2011/09/learning-love-my-labia
“The Perfect Vagina” DOCUMENTARY (2010, 60 min)
“How to Privatize (and Profit ff of!) Those Privates” (mock video, 10 mins)
“Feminists Ban Cosmetic Surgery Advertising,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/mar/14/feminists-ban-cosmetic-surgery-advertising
For more on the New View campaign (against the medicalization of sex and the commodification of women’s sexual anatomy): http://www.newviewcampaign.org/fgcs.asp.
 “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash” TV commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Tx9vVVMWw0&feature=player_embedded
 Ibid, emphasis added
 Jessica Misener, “Vagina Bleaching Ad Sparks Controversy Over Who Needs A Paler Va-Jay,” The Huffington Post, April 12, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/12/vagina-bleaching-ad_n_1420825.html?ref=style
 While there are many debates as to whether this procedure in underdeveloped nations should actually be considered a form of women’s oppression, or whether this is simply cultural bias/racism/sexism on the part of Westerners, or some where in the middle, this essay is not going to go into this.
 Virginia Braun, “‘The Women are Doing it for Themselves’: The Rhetoric of Choice and Agency Around Female Genital ‘Cosmetic Surgery’”. Australian Feminist Studies. 24 (60:2009): 233-249.
 Other words I think could be lovely are vulvatic, vulvoid, vulvaceous, vulvin…
 Liao and Creighton, “Requests,” 1090.
 See Braun, “The Women are Doing it for Themselves,” 241, also “Labiaplasty: One Woman’s Story,” Mamamia, June 28, 2011, http://www.mamamia.com.au/health-wellbeing/labiaplasty-one-womans-story/
 “Labiaplasty: One Woman’s Story,” emphasis added.
 Anonymous, “Labiaplasty: One Woman’s Story”
 BBC, “New Warning on ‘Perfect Vaginas’”
 BBC, “New Warning on ‘Perfect Vaginas,’” emphasis added
 “’I feel like I’m deformed down there’: Reality TV show sees woman get plastic surgery on her genitalia,” MailOnline, 22 November 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2064934/The-Doctors-Woman-gets-labiaplasty-plastic-surgery-US-reality-TV-show.html#ixzz1rTdEuRXe
 Virginia Braun, “In Search of (Better) Sexual Pleasure: Female Genital ‘Cosmetic’ Surgery”. Sexualities. 8: 4: (2005): 407-424; see also: Anonymous, “Labiaplasty: One Woman’s Story”
 Compromised ability to reach orgasm is more commonly associated with procedures that include reduction of the clitoral prepuce or corpus, besides simply cutting of the labia minora.
 For more on associated risks of the surgery, see http://www.gaia-health.com/articles101/000121-Womens-Genital-Surgery.shtml; http://www.mylabiaplasty.com/html/labiaplastyrisks.html; http://www.womenrepublic.co.uk/beauty/cosmetic/labial.htm; http://www.healthcentre.org.uk/cosmetic-surgery/labiaplasty-risks.html
 Braun, “The Women,” 244, emphasis added.
 See Liao and Creighton, “Requests for Cosmetic Genitoplasty”
 Like the private surgeons, corporations like Fair & Lovely and others looking to profit off of women’s insecurities, aspects of the porn industry…