Cutting away at your labia sounds extreme, but more and more women are going under the surgeon’s knife. Amy Clare reports on a Channel 4 documentary which attempted to shine a light on why this is happening
Television is not exactly woman’s best friend. It bombards us with sexist advertising (when will dad ever go to Iceland, I wonder?); it harangues us with the likes of Loose Women and the hateful, self esteem destroying 10 Years Younger while offering us few non-stereotypical female role models to compensate. As a feminist, I am frankly sick and tired of television. But when I saw the trailer for The Perfect Vagina, broadcast on Channel 4 on Sunday 17 August, I actually got a little bit excited. Here was a documentary seemingly set to address an issue feminists have been shouting about for decades: that there is something pathologically wrong with a world in which women fear and hate that most female part of their bodies, their vaginas. As it turned out, this programme was a baby step in the right direction, but one which only partly fulfilled its subversive potential.
Fronted by Lisa Rogers, this part of Channel 4’s ‘G-Spot’ series focused on the rise in vaginal cosmetic surgery, specifically labiaplasty. For the uninitiated, labiaplasty involves cutting off the inner labia so that they don’t ‘hang’ below the outer labia. Ouch, ouch and thrice ouch. The labiaplasty business has skyrocketed over the past few years, and Lisa’s mission was to find out why so many women hate the appearance of their vulvas to the point that they’d willingly have pieces of them surgically removed.
First of all, we met gynaecologist Linda Cardoza, who informed an appalled Rogers that NHS labiaplasties have doubled in the past five years, and that she has received requests for this procedure from 14-year-old girls. Cardoza, makes one of the most important points of the programme: “They want to look like a small child, but you’re never going to look like a small child as an adult woman.” It was great that this point was made even once, but it ought to have been repeated many times throughout, in order to indelibly scorch it onto the minds of viewers – as it is the root of the whole issue. Some pointed questions wouldn’t have gone amiss at this point either, such as: Why do women want to look like little girls? What is sexually desirable about children’s genitals exactly? No, really, what? And so on.
During the programme we met three women who all hated their vaginas: 21-year-old Rosie, who went ahead with a labiaplasty on camera, and thirty-somethings Regan and Kelly, both mothers.
They used words such as “cauliflower” and “hot dog bap” to describe their vaginas, and it was upsetting to hear about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of their nearest and dearest – Rosie’s sister and male friends had teased her nastily about “hanging hams”, and Regan’s ex partner had used the words “Mersey Tunnel” to describe the organ by which his children were born.
Saddening though it was to hear of this bullying, it emphasised that women are not having vaginal surgery because they are imposing unrealistic beauty standards on themselves. There is clearly a loathing of vaginas at large in society, and women are driven to hate themselves at least partly because of their treatment at the hands of others. This was emphasised again later in the programme, in a moment of documentary film-making which admittedly raised class issues, when Rogers asked two builders working on her house for their opinion. The two men refered to vaginas with phrases such as “squashed hedgehog” and the obligatory “beef curtains”. About the prospect of an imminent sexual encounter, one of them remarked: “If she’s got an ugly fanny, then sorry mate.”
But where does this hatred come from? This was a stone left virtually unturned by the programme. Rogers had a quick look at some porn mags and concluded that: “The fannies that [the readers are] looking at aren’t real fannies, and there is the problem.” True enough, but porn has a lot more to answer for than simply being unrealistic, and this was never touched upon.
Thankfully, not everyone shares the view of Rosie’s sisterm the builders or the porn mags. We also met sculptor Jamie, who took plaster casts of women’s bits in order to make a giant work of art out of them. I couldn’t quite make up my mind at first whether he was truly doing great work or just wanted to cop a feel, but after seeing Kelly’s delighted reaction to her own plaster cast, and her fascination at the variety of vaginas which had been cast before hers, I plumped for the former, deciding that bringing real vaginas out into the open in this way can only help to stem the tide of harmful, childlike images. Sex therapist Rachel is also keen to get women to accept their bits, and has great success with a technique involving women looking at and discussing their feelings about their vaginas in a small, all-female group. Rogers was very sceptical at first, but she changed her mind later on, after she and Regan both participated in the therapy. As a tearful but elated Regan said: “Once you get over the initial bit, it’s like, fucking yes!” It was a heartwarming moment, and more importantly Regan no longer wanted surgery.
The same could not be said for Rosie. The cameras watched as she had two pieces of her entirely normal inner labia cut away under local anaesthetic. She screamed in pain, to which the (male) cosmetic surgeon sensitively responded: “Are you on drugs?” After the surgery, Rosie experienced severe pain and bleeding, but after having her stitches agonisingly removed, she remarked: “It looks a lot better now, doesn’t it?”. Watching this, I felt a sympathetic twinge in my own bits and it made me feel incredibly sad. Those small pieces of pink, wrinkly skin lying on the operating table were probably two of the most sensitive areas in Rosie’s body, and she had just had them cut off because she thought they didn’t look nice.
This issue came up for me throughout, and was one of the areas where I found the programme lacking. I kept waiting for Rogers to make the point that inner labia are highly sexually sensitive, and that removing them thus reduces a woman’s sexual sensitivity, but while the programme criticised the idea of “designer vaginas”, at no point did it mention sexual pleasure. The vagina’s function, rather than its appearance, was barely mentioned aside from a few nods to childbirth – and since a woman may give birth on a handful of occasions in her life, but has sex hundreds if not thousands of times, this seemed to me quite odd. Is the subject of women’s sexual pleasure so taboo that it cannot even be mentioned in a documentary which showed viewers several close up shots of women’s vaginas and didn’t bleep out the word “cunt”? I felt cheated – the programme makers had the perfect opportunity to tell women not just to accept the way their vagina looks, but to enjoy the pleasure it gives them, and they bottled it.
Labiaplasty wasn’t the only surgery examined by The Perfect Vagina. Rogers also touched on the practice of hymen restoration among some parts of the Muslim community. After highlighting the hideous double-standard of virginity by interviewing a particularly cocky and objectionable young man over a pool table, Rogers broke down in tears over a young woman who insisted that her parents would kill her and then themselves if they found out she was no longer a virgin. These surgeries were worthy of a whole programme in themselves, but I was glad to see this documentary touch the tip of the iceberg, if nothing else. Rogers was somewhat off the ball with her analysis, though: she opined that “sexual liberation” has not been the solution to women’s miseries, in fact, it has led us to want to “cut off our flaps”. Wrong, Lisa. We are not sexually liberated. We have just swapped one type of oppression for another; we live in a society where images of male sexual fantasies and desires are ubiquitous but where women’s own sexuality is still seen as something to be feared, hated and sanitised.
It may seem churlish to criticise a programme which fundamentally had a positive attitude towards women, and whose “love yourself as you are” message couldn’t be faulted. I found Rogers to be a charming, warm and investigative host: she questioned the assumptions of the surgeons (one of whom had operated on a 16-year-old), implored women to accept themselves, and clearly loved her own bush. Given the usual programming schedule, I was grateful it was broadcast at all. However, I want more – this programme could have really plumbed the depths of what makes our society so fearful of female sexuality. It could have told women to go play with their bits and delight in the pleasure therein. It could have asked the question, why are similarly large numbers of men not experiencing a plethora of painful emotions at the sight of their penises? Why has it apparently been decided that we should judge our genitals on visual desirability and not on sensitivity and function – and who sets this standard of desirability anyway?
C4 probably feels like it is the most feminist channel in the world after broadcasting this documentary. This is far from the truth, but The Perfect Vagina was a good springboard for further debate, and I hope it does dissuade women from going under the knife. It should however remind us all that there is a desperate need for feminist programme makers who will push the boundaries further, and channels who will broadcast their work.
The Perfect Vagina is currently available to watch on 4OD.