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Deconstructing the perfect vulva myth

From full waxes to plastic surgery, the “perfect vulva” myth sells. Beyond cosmetic considerations, this is about more than mere personal preferences.

da Giada | 30 January 2022
Illustration of a person looking at her vulva in the mirror
Illustration by Cecilia Grandi

It is highly likely that we have, at some point or other, questioned and doubted the way our genitals look. From full waxes to plastic surgery, the “perfect vagina”. The fact we even wonder whether we meet certain beauty standards is a cause for concern; and what about those of us who may have experienced negative feedback or rejection for that very reason? Something is off, and it is about more than mere “personal preferences”.

What does a “perfect vagina” even look like? And for the record… it’s vulva, not vagina!

Deeply rooted in our collective consciousness, our beauty standards have redefined the way we see our bodies, all the way down to our most private parts, be it a nipple, a penis or a vulva. Vulvas especially seem to have taken the biggest hit as a direct consequence of lack of representation in mainstream media, which has generated and fed distorted fantasies.

“Get the Barbie look!” and the perfect vulva according to the cosmetic surgery industry

Cosmetic surgery answers a wide variety of needs and is constantly evolving, including in the genital field. Fancy the ultimate doll-like vulva? “The Barbie Labiaplasty” offered by the Toronto Cosmetic Clinic might be just what you’re after.

Labiaplasty is surgery to reduce the size of the labia minora (“inner lips”), the flaps of skin either side of the vaginal opening. Surgical interventions such as the Barbie procedure aims to remove most or all of the inner lips a completely tight and petite look. By removing this part of the vulva, the labia majora are allowed to close completely, creating a smooth “single line” opening. In other words, the vulva is pretty much cancelled.

Labiaplasty has been trending in the United States since 2013 before eventually reaching Europe and the rest of the Western world. While it might have a real medical purpose to address serious issues that cause discomfort and pain and can be a true lifeline for anyone who has been the victim of genital mutilation or has undergone a challenging childbirth, a majority is still conducted for aesthetic reasons, especially amongst teenagers, as a way to address a sense of inadequacy. But what drives us to even consider surgery?

  • Negative perception of our own anatomy. 
  • Concerns our genitals might not be “normal”.
  • Little to no realistic representation in mass media, on television, on social media or in mainstream porn.
  • Shame in talking about it.
  • Lack of education.

Teenage years are highly stressful on a number of levels, including in terms of body image. Peer pressure and beauty standards that weigh heavily on the female body create a truly difficult environment for anyone to discover and start exploring their sexuality. Already insecure about their vulvas despite their young age, underage teenagers started undergoing labia surgery with up to an 80% year on year increase.

Dr Naomi Crouch, head of the British Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology, raised the alarm after witnessing girls as young as nine asking about such cosmetic procedures.

Vulvas are different, they change and they are beautiful.

We do not yet have enough evidence to judge the long-term effects of such procedures. Not to mention that most studies are conducted by the cosmetic surgery industry itself, thus further feeding the stereotypes. As a result, gynaecologists started advocating for in-depth consultations prior to any intervention, in order to dissuade patients who didn’t have a valid reason to undergo surgery and possibly spot any potential body dysmorphia. 

Reality is altered to the point of becoming unreal and creating surreal expectations. 

There is no such thing as a “perfect vulva” or vagina. It is a concept that was sold to us to the point where we started forgetting every body is different. “Flaws” and asymmetry are much more natural than picture perfect genitals. This is why we need to include diverse representation in our sex education, just as reminder Barbie is a freakish exception rather than something to aspire to. 

Puff-shaped, tulip, horseshoe, curtain… Every vulva is different, just like our faces or any other body part. And just like many body parts, vulvas evolve and the inner lips evolve with them. Full of nerve endings, blood vessels and erectile tissue, labia minora might become bigger or larger, as a result of hormonal changes that occur throughout puberty, pregnancy and menopause.

How many types of vulva are there? Alternative representations.

Vulvas have always been as fascinating as they have been confusing. While the digital sphere has taught us new ways of approaching and altering life and things on a number of levels; bodies. however, are very much made of flesh and no two bodies are the same. This infinite diversity is celebrated by artists around the world whose work is rooted in reality. Through installations such as The Great Wall of Vagina, which displays no less than 400 vulvas, the private becomes public (and political).

Beyond raising questions, art is also about education, awareness and visibility. Artist Hilde Atalanta created The Vulva Gallery as an online platform, which eventually turned into a book, whose purpose is to show diversity and create a platform for everyone to talk openly about their experiences and insecurities, a safe space where we can learn to change the way we look at bodies, especially our own.

If you don’t know yet, we bet you’re wondering what shape your vulva is. Grab a mirror, start observing and exploring your body and learn to love, enjoy and take care of it every single day.

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