Breasts. Butts. Noses. And now, add labia to the list of body parts that women feel the need to surgically modify. Yes, even the shape of a vagina is becoming standardized under a very specific conception of female beauty. Somewhere, a Cathy cartoon has passed out in frustration.
Since 2001, there's been a five-fold increase in the United Kingdom in labiaplasties, cosmetic surgery to reshape labia to be either smaller or more symmetrical. And a new study from Australia shows how young women's definition of what is considered "normal" is driving the industry.
A report from the University of Queensland in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology studied the responses of young adult women to different images of vulvas. One group was shown surgically modified vulvas, a second natural ones, and a third wasn't shown any images. Each group was then asked to a rank a series of images of vulvas that were a mix of modified and natural.
Unsurprisingly, women who had initially viewed modified vulvas were 18 percent more likely than the control group to rate these vulvas as normal, while 13 percent were more likely to rate them as fitting society's ideals. "The results demonstrate that exposure to one kind of image impacts women's perceptions of normal," Claire Moran, the lead researcher on the study, told Reuters. In particular, "there seems to be massive misconceptions around perceptions of normal genital appearance."
Of course, throughout history breasts, butts, legs, and other visible body parts have all been cause for comparison and envy. But how did women go from wanting to lose 10 pounds to getting a more symmetrical labia?
The short answer: Porn. Lots of it.
While there were plenty of pornographic magazines and films several decades ago, it was not nearly as accessible as it is today. Also, in porn pubic hair used to be more prevalent, which obscured female genitalia even in an extra up-close-and-personal shot. In fact, the general trend towards "greater genital visibility due to Brazilian and genital waxing" is another factor Moran cites in the rise of genital insecurity among women.
Of course, women aren't the only ones internalizing what they deem to be the picture-perfect vagina. Men are doing it, too, and they are not afraid to make their preferences known. Madeleine Davies at Jezebel writes, "If all they [men] see up until the point they have a real-life vagina in front of them is hairless Barbie labia, then anything other than a hairless Barbie labia is going to seem strange or wrong to them."
Indeed, a quick search on the ever-classy BroBible site (NSFW) shows that some men have some strong opinions of what a vagina should look like. They are not only disappointed, but flat-out repulsed when it doesn't meet their expectations. And while in a just world these awful men would never get laid, their ignorant comments still have a less-than-positive effect on women.
But a countermovement has started to diversify women's and men's conceptions of what a "normal" vagina looks like. The Tumblr Large Labia Project (also NSFW) displays many, many selfies of various labia. Australian Emma Green created the Tumblr to "show the beauty of large, long, thick, fleshy vulva." She encourages women "to submit your stories, your feelings, and photos of your labia, too," so that "together we'll help each other and other women feel better about ourselves."
The thought of scrolling through photos of random women's vaginas may sound creepy, pornographic, and counterproductive, but considering how the "designer" vagina images have become the norm, it may be one of the most effective ways to inject a much-needed dose of reality. "The same technology that allowed a porn standard to proliferate is now allowing women to challenge the norm," writes Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon.
And hopefully, that means realizing that normal is just a concept in our heads, not our pants.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Dick Cheney's America is an ugly place
- The age of miracles is over — even for the religious
- The liberation of Barack Obama
- The Hobbit: A disappointing set of movies, but a worthy set of prequels
- America is building a Sunni army in Iraq to take on the Islamic State
- How to make the ultimate grilled cheese
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
Subscribe to the Week