The fastest growing cosmetic procedure is the labiaplasty, where the size or shape of the labia is altered. While this procedure is sometimes performed to reduce pain, it is primarily an elective surgery — one that has been the subject of controversy as women face growing pressure to have vulvas that are considered, by society’s standards, “normal.”
Healthing.ca spoke to Alexis, who had a labiaplasty at the age of 22. She shares her experience, including why she ultimately decided to opt for the procedure and how she hopes less women will feel the need to have one in the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Alexis is a pseudonym to maintain privacy.
When did you first begin to be concerned about your labia?
I think I had a deep sense of shame about my labia from when I was very young. The first conscious memory I have is from when I was 13 years old. I was in sex education class, and an image of the female body was up on the screen. Our teacher was saying that the inner lips fit nicely inside the outer lips of the vulva. At that point I was already aware that’s not what my body looked like, and I remember thinking that there was something wrong with me.
What made you consider having a labiaplasty?
The pain is hard to describe, but basically my labia would rub against my underwear and become swollen. I remember walking around feeling so uncomfortable that I would try to readjust or moisturize or rearrange it, but nothing really worked.
The decision to have the surgery came when just got tired of the pain. If I was doing it for cosmetic reasons, I don’t think that would be right, but I acknowledged this had been causing me pain since I was a teenager and I couldn’t see an alternative.
I did some research and concluded that the surgery had little risk, and I made an appointment with a plastic surgeon. She very quickly looked down there and presented a few different options of what the surgery could look like. I had gone alone as a young woman not having seen a doctor beforehand and the surgeon didn’t ask me any questions or provide any alternatives for alleviating the pain. Though I left the appointment thinking that I wouldn’t go through with it, later I decided to.
What was the surgery like?
I had the surgery when I was 22 years old. It lasted about 45 minutes and I think I was listening to music and podcasts the entire time. I had to take about a week off work and there were three or four days following the surgery where it was very painful.
It sounds like the decision to have surgery was a difficult one.
Something that was difficult for me, and still is to some degree, is that there’s a big part of me that doesn’t think this surgery should exist. There’s so much misrepresentation around what vulvas should and shouldn’t look like, when the reality is there are many ways to have a healthy body that women shouldn’t be shamed for. I had mixed feelings going into this surgery because I worried that I was promoting it.
Where do you see the intersection between women getting this surgery, not for medical reasons but because they are made to feel insecure about their bodies, versus a woman’s right to feel confident about her body?
It’s a complicated topic. There’s a part of me that thinks women should have ownership over their bodies. But there’s also this very worrying trend where more and more women are getting plastic surgery. I don’t think it’s beneficial to society that more women are getting labiaplasties because this means we’re not moving towards a place of accepting how wonderfully diverse women’s bodies are.
For me, I made the decision to have the surgery because I was in pain. I definitely did struggle with the aesthetics of the way it looked and I felt a lot of shame over it, but ultimately the reason I did it was for the pain. That being said, I don’t mention to people that I’ve had plastic surgery. Even if they were to ask me flat out, I would say no because to me it doesn’t fit within that definition of plastic surgery which I associate with a cosmetic purpose, which might show some cognitive dissonance on my part.
Would you recommend this surgery?
If someone were to ask me about whether they should have the surgery for cosmetic reasons, I would probably give them a list of why you shouldn’t sleep with people who make you feel bad about your genitalia, rather than recommend the surgery. I wouldn’t lie and say I had a terrible experience, but I wouldn’t be encouraging anyone to get this surgery.