For the vast majority of cisgender girls, the physical changes in puberty can feel downright uncomfortable. We get periods, grow breasts, sweat more, discover hair in spots we didn’t expect. Compounded with this is the gross lack of information presented to us about the awesome individuality of our bodies. Not only have we been cheated out of some kickass female empowerment lessons as kids and teens, but we’ve also been conditioned through the media and beauty industry to see skewed images of women that give us a ton of anxiety if our physical parts don’t match up to them.
There are two really important topics in my high school health class that no one ever covered, and I really wish they had. They are the sexual pleasure we as females deserve to receive and experience, and that it’s normal AF to have your labia look unique to you. Can you imagine if our teachers had been given free rein to openly discuss the undeniable magic of the clitoris and how female orgasms have unexpected health benefits, or if they had shared with us this nifty photo gallery courtesy of The Labia Library? I know I personally would’ve been getting my big O on a little earlier had I known how to actually make it happen and felt totally cool to doodle underneath that poster of my teenage crush Angelina Jolie hanging in my bedroom. Instead, I was taught to see my reproductive parts as two main things — the source of my generationally stigmatized menstrual cycle, and that spot where the unprotected sex need never happen.
Seriously though. Maybe, just maybe, if our educational institutions acknowledged the very real and very deserving perks of having a vagina, the right to choose what to do with it, and the confidence that comes with allowing ourselves the pleasure of enjoying it, we might not have a growing number of teenage girls feeling so ashamed of their genitals that they’re going to extreme lengths to surgically alter them.
I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. According to the BBC, girls as young as nine have been seeking out cosmetic labiaplasty and going under the knife to voluntarily trim their labia in an effort to make it appear closer to what they think one is “supposed” to look like. And yes, our adolescents are most definitely being exposed to images of vaginas online and taking mental notes, I can assure you. They’re also looking at their own body parts in confusion and potential disgust, because they don’t have the necessary resources around them to understand that each labia is different in its size, shape, and composition. Hell, there’s even a surgery available to fuse the outer labia together like a clam shell called “The Barbie,” and it’s gaining popularity among teens.
This is obviously a terrifying reality, considering that Barbie is completely made of plastic and doesn’t even have a vagina.
Between 2013 and 2018, The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that labiaplasty surgeries have seen a 53% increase, with more than 35 million dollars spent in 2018 on the procedure and 12,756 total surgeries performed. Of those documented procedures, 491 had been performed on girls under the age of 17.
Between 2018 and 2019, The American Society of Plastic Surgeons noticed a 9% increase in cosmetic labiaplasty procedures, and I can only imagine that girls and teens may very well still be an active demographic for those seeking out the procedure. There are also few extensive guidelines for screening adolescents prior to surgical approval. This poses a huge risk to our girls in more ways than one. Since their outer labia doesn’t finish growing until they turn 18, there is the great potential for scarring and even asymmetrical genitals if an adolescent surgically alters her vulva before it’s had a chance to properly grow.
“The labiaplasty trend has become so worrisome that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued a statement on the procedure, which is rarely medically indicated, has not been proven safe and whose side effects include scarring, numbness, pain and diminished sexual sensation,” explains Orenstein. “Now, admittedly, and blessedly, the number of girls involved is still quite small, but you could see them as canaries in a coal mine, telling us something important about the way girls see their bodies.”
Just months before the author’s groundbreaking Ted Talk, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published an article stating that the surgical alteration of the labia is not necessary to the health of an adolescent girl, and it can even be considered a violation of federal criminal law in many cases. And yet, girls under 18 have still been getting this procedure, with one of the only major screening guidelines suggested being the examination of whether a young patient has body dysmorphia.
For these impressionable young girls, the desire to cosmetically alter their genitals can often stem from our society’s impossible beauty standards and the media imagery they compare their bodies to, along with the infuriating lack of positive sex education available to them in school. According to Orenstein, this assuredly results in female adolescents feeling shame and the fear of humiliation if their anatomy does match up with what they may see online, keeps them from prioritizing their own pleasure during sexual encounters, and leads a bunch of girls to even avoid self-exploration.
“Kids go into their puberty education classes and they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations, and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancy,” she says. “And they see that internal diagram of a woman’s reproductive system — you know, the one that looks kind of like a steer head — and it always grays out between the legs. So we never say ‘vulva,’ we certainly never say ‘clitoris.’ No surprise, fewer than half of teenage girls age 14 to 17 have ever masturbated. And then they go into their partnered experience and we expect that somehow they’ll think sex is about them, that they’ll be able to articulate their needs, their desires, their limits. It’s unrealistic.”
Obviously, a major fucking (no pun intended) shift needs to happen here. It’s ridiculous enough that there is still an overwhelming amount of stigma around periods and postpartum bodies, not to mention living with racist and discriminatory industries that constantly pick apart our perceived physical “flaws” in order to profit off of the self-loathing they helped to create. We don’t need to add the damaging reality of teens thinking that their vaginas are a problem to be fixed, or an area devoid of pleasure, to this unhealthy mix. And we certainly don’t need them seeking out a cosmetic genital surgery, that goes against medical advice, before they are even done growing.