Reality check: This is a vulva
With 18 years’ experience as a stripper under her belt, Wrenna Robertson has noticed a recent trend that bothers her: more and more women want to go for labiaplasty, a cosmetic procedure that changes the appearance of the vulva. It’s not just the fact that dancers with gorgeous bodies are considering the surgery that irks her. It’s the bigger picture.
Given society’s impossible beauty ideals and the way in which women are held up to scrutiny in the media, it’s not enough anymore to aspire to a Kate Moss–like frame. Instead, women of all ages are opting for everything from Botox to boob jobs. Will plastic surgery to reshape or reduce the labia be the next big thing?
Robertson—who has two bachelor of science degrees and a master’s in plant biology—thinks so. She says coworkers have asked for her opinion on whether or not they should go under the knife to make their vulvas more closely resemble the airbrushed versions on display in mainstream porn, such as the “clamshell”, in which the labia minora, or smaller, inner lips of the vulva, are barely discernible. Not only did some of her fellow dancers seem ashamed of the way their vulvas looked, but they were genuinely embarrassed by the subject matter too.
“What struck me was that women started talking to me in a very self-conscious, private, shy manner,” Robertson says in an interview at a downtown Vancouver office. “If anyone should be comfortable talking about it, it should be these dancers.”
So Robertson embarked on a project to get women of all ages, races, sizes, and shapes talking about their sexual organs in a realistic, unabashed way. The result is I’ll Show You Mine (Show Off Books, $40), a hardcover book she edited that features life-size, close-up, colour photographs of women’s vulvas as well as personal stories about them. No two tales—or images—are alike.
The 60 women who took part in the project range in age from 19 to 65. Some are moms, some are grandmas, some are transgender. Some have piercings, some shave, some have “outie pussies”, meaning the labia minora protrude. A few refer to their vagina as their “yoni”; one calls it her “concha”.
While Eve Ensler’s 1996 play The Vagina Monologues started out as a celebration of female sexuality and evolved into an ongoing international movement aimed at addressing violence against women, Robertson describes I’ll Show You Mine as part empowerment tool, part educational resource.
She maintains that easy access to porn, particularly among youth in the Internet age, doesn’t give women an accurate frame of reference regarding their physical features. It does, however, contribute to poor body image. And that can have more than just psychological consequences. According to a study published in the U.S.–based Journal of Sex Research in 2005, women who reported being dissatisfied with their bodies (“feeling frumpy”) had sex less often and experienced less sexual pleasure than those who didn’t.
“What’s represented in porn is not reality,” Robertson says. “Women don’t know what normal is.”¦Porn does not at all represent the full range of diversity.”¦The purpose of this book is to display a much broader range of diversity.” (As someone who makes her living by dancing naked, Robertson isn’t against pornography: “This is not an antiporn campaign,” she stresses.)
Research backs up the claim that false representation of female genitalia exists in popular media. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Sex Research found media perpetuation of a “Barbie Doll” ideal, characterized by a low body mass index, narrow hips, a big bust, and “hairless, undefined genitalia resembling those of a prepubescent female”.
The London, England–based biannual journal Medical Humanities, meanwhile, ran a study last year concluding that images of female genitals frequently don’t accurately reflect true variation in the population. “Women and health professionals should be aware that”¦consultations for genital surgeries should include discussion about the actual and perceived range of variation in female genital morphology,” the paper said.
The artificial aesthetic proliferated by porn is having an effect. According to a 2010 study in another London-based semiannual publication, Reproductive Health Matters, a British medical group saw a threefold increase in the number of labiaplasties being performed in 2007–08, while inquiries rose sevenfold over the course of three years. “In almost all cases, labiaplasty is a response to the physical appearance of completely normal labia and a desire for more ”˜attractive’ genitalia,” the paper stated.
If a future surge in labiaplasty rates seems far-fetched, Robertson notes that when breast-augmentation surgery became available in the 1950s, it, too, was considered a fringe procedure.
Even if the demand for labiaplasty continues, Robertson is hopeful that I’ll Show You Mine will at least give women more information so that they can make educated choices. She’s hoping moms will share the book with their daughters, who might be worried that there’s something wrong with their appearance. The book is for men too: Robertson says the prevailing misrepresentation of female genitalia misinforms boys, who grow up thinking female genitals should be a certain size and shape and that large labia minora are undesirable. And she’s confident the book will stir dialogue and debate.
“I want to get people talking,” she says. “And this book will definitely get people talking.”
Partial proceeds from I'll Show You Mine will go to charity, and free copies are being made available to schools, teen centres, and medical offices. It's available through Show Off Books.