Designer Vaginas Are Ruining Your Idea of What Real Vaginas Look Like

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The popularity of labiaplasties is causing us to forget the normal shape of ladybits.

Labiaplasties are swiftly becoming one of the most sought after surgeries on the planet. In the past year alone, the UK has seen a 109 percent increase in labiaplasty inquiries. Why? Because your vagina is saggy, asymmetrical, smelly, hairy, brown, and presumably, never quite right. That's what magazines, porn, brochures, and talk show roundtables are telling us, and if we keep exposing ourselves to images of modified vaginas, we'll be feeding ourselves the same destructive mythology.

A newly released study in the BJOG: International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology has found that our continued exposure to cut and colored images of vaginas influences women's perceptions of not only what is considered normal in society, but what kinds of vaginas are desired. The study featured 97 women ages 18 to 30 who were put into three groups: those exposed to images of modified vulvas, those who saw non-modified vulvas, and those who had not seen any images. Then all three groups were shown a mix of images of surgically modified and natural vulvas and asked to rate what were the most "normal" and "desirable" images. Sure enough, women who viewed no images were 18 percent less likely to view a modified vulva as the norm. Women who had seen images of surgically modified vulvas hands-down thought those were the most normal looking and they were 13 percent more likely to see a modified vulva as society's ideal. 

A hilarious take on vaginal diversity by Jennifer Lauren Martin.

The findings aren't exactly surprising. The more we are exposed to an image, the more ordinary and appropriate it seems. A modified vulva tacitly becomes the natural image we privately conjure of a vagina when that depiction monopolizes the public sphere. And that applies to all parts of the body. What's equally, if not more, destructive about these manipulated images of vulvas is that they encourage the purchase of useless products and unnecessary surgeries that have not been tested as much as other elective surgeries. There is currently no data on the clinical long-term effectiveness or dangers of these procedures, though short-term risks such as bleeding and infection are well-documented. Unlike some medical procedures for men, labiaplasty is a purely aesthetic surgery that doesn't reap any health benefits -besides advertised "confidence"- for those that opt into it.

If the normalization of vaginal modification is not something that seems pervasive enough to cause dismay, take a look at 2013's conversation around the vagina. Sharon Osbourne made tabloids in November when she claimed to undergo excruciating vaginal rejuvenation surgery and then revoked that statement on another talk show. Then there was the introduction of the "gym for your vagina," FemiLift, which uses laser pulses in five 30-minute sessions to tighten your vagina. The treatment costs $4,000 and is dangerously advertised as the noninvasive way to shrink your vaginal canal. The product is specifically marketed towards aging women who are unable to fulfill their husbands sexually because of their "undesirable" post-childbirth bodies. This joins the ranks of vajacials, vajazzling, vaginal shrinking cream, vaginal tattoos, and "Barbie" surgeries that completely clip the labia minora. If the shape of a vulva isn't under scrutiny, then the market can also find something wrong with the color, as a Clean and Dry Intimate wash ad from India, which went viral earlier this year, indicates with its own harmful depiction of a brown, unwanted vagina saddening up a marriage. In 2013, body-shaming vagina alteration came full force.

The vulva image study underlines the creeping normality of abnormality. We're forgetting that vaginas aren't supposed to be uniform. You never know what you're going to get with twats. Long curtains, lopsided drapes, innies, outies. Pink, purple, brown. Instead of promoting sameness surgeries, we should educate and refamiliarize ourselves with the full spectrum of vaginas. These fun vaginal emojis help. So do blogs like Show Your Vagina and Bare to Bush. Because, of course, it is our standards and our conversations, not our vulvas, that need modification.

Image via Veer.