Vagina in Vogue

Juliana Shulman's picture

In recent years, the number of women going under the knife for cosmetic genital surgery has skyrocketed. More and more women are regularly participating in painful bikini waxing procedures to return to the bare pubis of their youth, and increasing numbers of adolescents are seeking genital piercings to decorate their labia. The popularization of all of these procedures begs the question, what is the Western female genital aesthetic and how is it established? Furthermore, we must ask: What are the implications of women pursuing a genital ideal? 

American representations of the female genitalia are extremely varied. Certainly, there are aspects of a popular culture that celebrate the vagina. From paintings by Georgia O’Keefe to the popular activist play The Vagina Monologues, works of art and literature have represented the female anatomy in a positive light.  However, these positive expressions of female genitals and the accompanying symbolic power of vaginal iconography exist as counter-efforts and are far less prominent than the negative representations that prevail. 

We might even say that the negative representations of the vagina dominate cultural discourse. From the implications of our linguistic practices (including the use of slang euphemisms for vagina as crude and caustic insults—i.e. the terms “cunt” or “twat”) to the wide variety of “feminine cleansing” products that imply the gross nature of the vagina, negative imagery of the female genitalia is all-too-common. These representations of the ugly female form play a significant role in how women think about their bodies and, resultantly, about modification practices. As women increasingly respond to this negative imagery by altering their genitalia to suit some cultural aesthetic, genital modification becomes more than an individual choice, but an increasingly normative cultural practice that rearticulates the negative notions of the female genitals. 

These days, it’s not uncommon for women find fault with the aesthetics of their genitals: some complain of lips that are too long, asymmetrical, or “freakish.” These same women will go to great lengths to avoid oral sex or certain intercourse positions because they fear that their partner will see their uneven labia minora or lopsided clitoral hoods; others, overtaken by anxiety about their genital appearance, turn to modification methods such as surgery and hair removal to meet shifting aesthetic ideals. 

In an interview with Dr. Alfred Smith[1], a Chicago-area plastic surgeon, I was told the story of one young woman who threatened to take a knife to her own genitals if the surgical procedure did not readily present itself as an option. The 19- year-old recently sent the doctor an email saying that she has been extremely distraught with the appearance of her labia. She wrote that, due to her lack of money for cosmetic surgery, her intention was to get drunk one night and cut off the “excessive labia” with an Exacto knife and superglue the edges together. “Don’t change my mind,” she writes, “I know this is what I have to do. I am writing mainly because I would appreciate any suggestions you may have.” This case may represent an extreme, and is presumably an anomaly among the majority of women who seek surgical help. Yet it demonstrates the exceedingly damaging ways in which our cultural conceptions of a genital aesthetic are informing the way that women view and respond to their bodies. 

As images of genitalia become more readily accessible due to the accessibility of pornography, women who may not have previously been given the opportunity to view another woman’s labia or clitoris, now have a model to which they compare their own bodies. Our “privates” have become so public that they fall prey to ridicule if they don’t conform to the gold standard. Like airbrushed images of stick-thin models that distort women’s understandings of how much they should weigh, the vagina in vogue is based on an idealized and highly artificial representation of the genitalia. Pornographic images (also airbrushed and altered) portray women who have often undergone surgical procedures and grooming techniques that, until recently, were not understood within or available to the general population. The presumption of what is “normal” has become so quietly entwined with the artificial that society is unable to distinguish between these exaggerated ideals and what is the true range of human forms in the society. 

As pornography embraces an aesthetic ideal, so too do women who feel pressured to look like the hairless, smooth porn stars about whom their boyfriends fantasize. Women become increasingly aware of their genitalia, because men, inundated with affected images of what is “normal,” inform them about how they deviate from other women.

Additionally, as Dr. Smith noted in our interview, some of the increase in the number of women seeking labial contouring and reductions of the clitoral hood may be attributed to various cultural trends, including altered grooming habits and more revealing clothing and underwear. “One begets the other,” he notes. “An ever-increasing number of women are removing every last bit of pubic hair and the result is that people are exposing anatomy that they have never seen in the past.” Popular practices like the Brazilian wax, again, the porn standard, increase self-consciousness, as previously hidden parts of the genitalia are suddenly revealed. Thong underwear and the so-called “camel toe” effect have caused women to pay greater attention to the size and asymmetries of their anatomy. 

Within the realm of female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) there exists an entire spectrum of procedures in which women can take part: Labiaplasty/labioplasty (labia minora reductions), labia majora ‘augmentations’ (tissue removal, fat injections), liposuction (mons pubis, labia majora), vaginal tightening (fat injections, surgical tightening), clitoral hood reductions, clitoral repositioning, G-spot ‘amplification’ (collagen injected into the G-spot, which swells it significantly), and hymen reconstruction (to restore the appearance of ‘virginity’). The population participating in these procedures is fairly diverse. Dr. Smith counts sixty-nine-year-old women and seventeen year-old girls (accompanied by their mothers) among his patients, though he states that the vast majority of patients are “young, fit, and disproportionately attractive.” Because the procedures, deemed by insurance companies as not being “medically necessary,” are almost never covered by insurance, the population is largely upper-class and, though their reach is expanding across the U.S., the highest concentration of doctors offering these specialized procedures exist near metropolitan centers and meccas of cosmetic surgery like New York, Miami, and the “porn capital,” Los Angeles.  

As has been proven in past studies of depression and other illnesses, magazines and the popular media have the ability to “invent” syndromes, causing women to desire solutions to problems that they did not view as previously existing. Therefore, the emerging genital aesthetic of a cookie-cutter vagina to which women must conform is nothing more than a socially conceived syndrome.  Our culture has pathologized large labia and sadly, women have been enticed to believe this irregularity is a flaw that must be transformed.


[1] The name of the doctor has been changed to ensure the confidentiality of the reported stories.

Juliana Shulman graduated from the University of Chicago, receiving a B.A. in both Comparative Human Development and Gender Studies. Currently, she is working as a political organizer with Green Corps, a one-year training program for grassroots organizing, with plans of pursuing a career in activism.

Artwork: "Iris in Irish Crystal Vase" by Carla Sanders, (c) 2005, all rights reserved.