I don't normally use my journalistic skills to give the scoop on what others are up to with their vaginas. I mean, honestly, what a person does with their genitals is really up to them, and I don't care much beyond hoping everyone is healthy and functional. However, my ears perked up like a police dog when a writer friend of mine got access to the the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery's 2015 statistics.
Basically, all the normal stuff like boobs and lipo were massively popular, but one formerly unusual procedure seemed to have a ginormous spike in the past year: labiaplasty. The increase in labiaplasty surgeries was in the double digits for the third year in a row, up 16% from 2014.
When my friend texted me the then-off-the-record labia stats, I knew it was newsworthy stuff, and not just because women were getting rid of their plusher-than-average labia by choice. I mean, this is America, dammit. Our land, and our tea, and our vaginas are supposed to feel liberty all the time.
And then I caught myself judging. Judging the people who get labiaplasty, because, there's no better use for time, energy, and money? Judging the concept in general, and then, frankly, judging myself for judging.
I figured I'd call some of the top labia experts in NYC to sort out exactly what the hell is going on with American women. I mean, I've had kids. Bodies change. Maybe this was all just a post-pregnancy kind of thing. If so, I'd get that. In fact, I'd relate — my kids were delivered by C-section, so I'm intact down there, but I have other lingering tell tale signs of motherhood that bother me.
I called my friend, Richard Swift, MD, board-certified plastic surgeon, to explain what exactly goes on with all this labia-related madness, and what his take on it is. He performs tons of these surgeries and is especially popular amongst Middle Eastern patients looking to preserve the appearance of virginity, and no, I'm not kidding.
"The best candidates for labiaplasty are those who have enlarged or what they perceive as enlarged labia minoras," he said. "Patients often say it inhibits their lives, causing them extreme embarrassment especially during intimate activities."
Okay, I can get behind that. I mean, if you feel like your parts look weird, off, or unusual, I can see how it'd inhibit a loving relationship. But why the sudden uptick in Americans wanting perfect labia?
Dr. Swift says it's all about social media, particularly Instagram, where normal humans are encouraged to post photos of themselves fake-fitnessing in awful yoga pants, athleisure is chic, and everyone suddenly is a "model" or something. There are published research articles in Oxford Journals about this very idea, too.
"Women are basically being pressured to be 'perfect' — whatever perfect means individually. Everything must be perfectly manicured, sized, plump, thin, lifted, narrowed, widened, trimmed, painted, contoured, extended... I think you get my drift. There is unsurmountable pressure on young women to be perfect, down to their vaginas."
Holy shit. This is where the Internet has gotten us. Like, we can order toilet paper to be delivered to our doorstep in 10 minutes via Amazon Prime, but must sacrifice confidence in our labia for all the wonders and conveniences of email.
What's worse is that the general public and all the people we know personally — you know, the ones we consider the opinions of — have a chance to figuratively vote on whether or not we look cute, pretty, sexy, fit, or just about anything else. All those little hearts, likes, thumbs, etcetera are cues to whether or not we're visually appealing. They're seldom affirmations of our minds, spirits, or souls. Weird. So very weird. It's no surprise that so many gals soak up as much of the positive attention as possible, and when they don't get enough, well, then it's often time to make improvements.
What is even more mind-boggling is that it actually has nothing to do with motherhood. Dr. Swift's labia-perfecting expertise isn't put to good use by tons of wealthy Upper East Side moms; it's young women at mid-level jobs just trying to be cute, everywhere, in their 20s. And yes, it's a real surgery with real knives. It's not some casual "here's a little vagina Botox" type situation. There's an anesthesiologist involved, and a small portion of your labia is removed and then thrown out.
I asked about that, too, obviously. There are no labia recycling centers for under-equipped vaginas, and the pieces don't get fed to sharks. Medical waste. Boo. The nerve endings are left in tact and apparently sexual contact feels just as jazzy as pre-labiaplasty, but it's a fairly severe measure to take just in the name of Spandex-laden fashion, isn't it?
"We get a lot of very timely requests because the patient has some type of 'event' happening in about a month's time," Dr. Swift explained to me as he emailed me some photos and diagrams of exactly how it all happens. What does that even really mean, though? Like, is he getting calls along the lines of "Hi, my name is Mary, and I need a really small set of labia before I go on a Carnival Cruise next month with my soulmate?" I need to know, but I suspect HIPAA laws will prevent me from this important journalistic angle. American writers and American vaginas are experiencing a shortage of true liberty.
I started to google what the recovery is like, and apparently there's sandwich wrap involved. According to TheFemaleSugery.com, "Your surgery will issue you with prescriptions for anesthetic cream to be used prior to the labia surgery, cream to be used afterwards to aid recovery, and prescriptions for painkillers and antibiotics. You should purchase these and have them in your medicine cabinet before you come in for your operation. You will have been told how to apply the anesthetic cream, and will probably be advised to get a Saran wrap to cover the area once you have applied the cream."
I'll leave it at that, because I don't even know what to say. Sandwich wrap, you guys. Recovery is seemingly minor and discomfort only lasts a few days, but, OMG — what's peeing like? Is it an open wound down there?
I posted in a "beauty obsessed" Facebook group asking if anyone had the surgery and would be willing to talk to me on the record. While nobody was willing to give me their full name, I did get a 20-something girl named Tara K. to give me her experience with her labiaplasty and how she got there.
"When I was in college, I had my first really serious boyfriend. I was a virgin, too, but he was a little older and more experienced and I guess he had seen his fair share of labia. He told me he wanted to marry me and all the usual crap that boys tell girls like me, so I dropped my pants after about two months after he slept over one night. There was bright sunlight coming in my third-floor dorm window so he could sort of 'see' all of me. He made some comment about 'wow, it's so soft and big' and I thought I was going to die. My insides were more or less crying and I never felt fully confident down there again even though I don't think he meant to be mean. I got the labiaplasty procedure after I turned 26 and had a steady job, no boyfriend to sway my decision, and some PTO. It wasn't complicated or painful, surprisingly, but I did drop a cool 5k on my now-perfect vaj."
Her sharing that with me officially blasted all my judgment away.
The world is so cruel when it comes to making women feel secure. I remember all the comments people made about my pregnancy weight gain, post-baby weight loss, my nose, my smallish boobs, and tons of other stuff. We're like sponges. We absorb all the noise, and when we get drowned in social media noise, it's stuff like our labia that pay the price. We've all done things to make ourselves look and feel better. Push-up bras, eyeliner, injections — because according to those 2015 statistics from surgery.com, over $13.5 billion USD was spent on cosmetic procedures in the USA alone, and 90 percent-ish was from women. That's a ton of money heading straight for the trying-to-feel-pretty zone, and I guess it all just boils down to one thing: who even cares?
I'm typing this as a proud feminist in a sweatshirt with the hashtag #girlsrock emblazoned across my boobs, so while my gut reaction was to be horrified, I'm actually sort of okay with the whole thing. Back in the '80s when a girl could dream of being a flight attendant or sexy receptionist my mom sat me down and taught me the word feminist, but she used a definition that wasn't quite textbook. Her definition to me, as a then four-year-old, was "It means you're a girl and you can grow up to do and be whatever you want. If someone tells you otherwise, you tell them you're a feminist and you can make your own choices." This was in response to a man who came to our house to make new sofa slipcovers and asked me if my dream was to be a ballerina when I grew up. I had never taken a ballet class at that point in my life and was standing there in a mini lab coat with a stethoscope draped around my neck.
Fast forward to 2016, and all I know is that I don't actually give AF. Everyone should do what makes them feel happy and beautiful, but I think the journey needs to start inward. If after all that inward stuff you want to get covered in tattoos after having your labia perfected, then so be it. Peace, love, and whatever labia makes you happiest.