A distressing trend is on the rise for girls as young as nine years old. Labiaplasty, a risky procedure that involves shortening or reshaping the labia alters the appearance for cosmetic reasons. I know what you're thinking, why in the hell would a nine-year-old need to cosmetically shape their labia?
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that labiaplasty is on the rise with over 12,000 procedures performed in 2016. The most disturbing part is that five percent of those procedures were patients who were under the age of 16. While that may not seem like a large percentage, that's over 500 young girls who believe that their body looks disgusting.
Moreover, labiaplasty isn't typically done out of medical necessity. Aesthetics are at the forefront of the popularity of the procedure.
In a BBC article, Paquita de Zulueta, a General Practitioner said that the numbers of patients coming in for labiaplasty have risen only in the past few years. She writes, “I'm seeing young girls around 11, 12, 13…" and they come to Zulueta thinking there is something wrong with their body—it's the wrong size, it doesn't look normal, it's the wrong shape. She says they are “really expressing almost disgust."
You may have heard of labiaplasty before—it's a non-uncommon procedure for altering the labia minora (inner labia) and the labia majora (outer labia), the folds of skin surrounding the human vulva.. It's marketed towards older women or women who have given birth. But trimming and tucking the labia for younger women is on the rise.
“The big thing I tell patients about labiaplasty is that there are a lot of unknowns. The labia have a lot of nerve endings in them," says Dr. Julie Strickland, the chairwoman of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists committee on adolescent health care. That means that numbness, sexual sensation, pain, or scarring could be a side effect of the surgery.
When a patient has a previous injury, ongoing pain, or discomfort, labiaplasty can be considered as a pertinent medical procedure. Some patients will often insist that their labia is interfering with sports, daily activities, or sex.
How can we avoid this rise in numbers? How can we encourage young children that their body is still growing, changing and that there is no one singular vision of what a body looks like?
Renee Engeln, Ph.D. and award-winning professor at Northwestern University tells me that the answer isn't telling children and young adults that they are simply “beautiful" to improve their self-esteem. Instead, there should be an emphasis on “teaching girls that their bodies are tools." She continues, “Bodies are meant for doing things. They're meant to help you explore your world and communicate with others. Their primary purpose isn't to be evaluated by others. We should model for young girls what it looks like to care for your body and treat it with respect, and make it clear that your body deserves respect no matter what it looks like."
Where are young people getting information on what a so-called “normal" labia look like? First, sex education still actively abandons any mention of sexual pleasure for women. We discuss erections and penis-in-vagina sex, but never the specifics of what happens to a person with a cervix when they are turned on. Because of this, young children are often at a loss of understanding their own genitals. This body image issue can be carried well into adulthood without a complete understanding of how accurate body functions. Engeln says that because young adults aren't given any reference for pleasure, “it's no surprise that some young girls already view their genitals in an objectified way, that is, in terms of how they might look to other people."
I've heard certain people compare the surgery to creating the lips of a Barbie doll—completely invisible with no protrusion. Another influence on young people (no surprise) is pornography, which young people are viewing more than ever at a younger age. In mainstream pornography, actors are fitting a certain mold that is following a trend—it's not the reality of sex.
Moreover, genital aesthetics and comparisons are more prevalent now that so many young women wax or shave their pubic area. Their genitals are exposed; however, there is a recent surge in body hair being included in the mainstream, and in porn. The internet, and mainstream pornography, introduces a body that is airbrushed and false inaccuracy.
Shape, color, size, and asymmetry come in all varieties, for everybody. Just like the freckles on your back or the shape of your fingernails—we are all uniquely made up of our characteristics, labia included.
But people are fighting back. The Labia Library in Australia is a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching women what a healthy body looks like, no matter how diverse. Their photo gallery features a large selection of images of real labia so that women seeking genital cosmetic surgery are properly informed.
Engeln advises parents to look at what types of messages they are sending their children. If a guardian is vocally stating that they hate their body, or certain types of bodies, then their child will receive this message and internalize it negatively. “These kinds of comments also reinforce the truly destructive notion that feeling shame about your body is just a normal and expected part of being a woman," says Engeln.
It's imperative for guardians—of all kinds—(be that a teacher, guidance counselor, babysitter, coach, etc.) to teach all children about body positivity and to eradicate any notion of objectifying a woman's body.
“It's never too early to instill some activism in your daughters. I'm angry that we live in a culture that teaches young girls there's something wrong with how their labia looks. I want girls (and their parents) to join me in that anger. Let's raise girls who want to change this part of our culture instead of changing their bodies," says Engeln.
The labia is still growing during adolescence and the appearance will change over time. By the age of 18, the outer labia will have grown, making the inner labia not as prominent (which is typically what concerns most patients). According to the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery, if a young person decides to go through with the surgery, there could be potential scarring which could lead to an asymmetrical labia.
It's clearly important to note, shout, scream, yelp, and repeat that “All vaginas are different" and diverse, and unique, and beautiful. No one labia is the same.
“It's essential that parents push back against the cultural narrative that teaches young girls their bodies are problems to be solved," says Engeln.
Following are excerpts from "Unleash the Girls, The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (And Me)" By Lisa Z. Lindahl
There is an idea that has popped up everywhere from Chaos Theory to Science Fiction and New Age memes known popularly as the "Butterfly Effect." Simply put, it is the notion that one very small thing—the movement of a butterfly's wing say, or the ripple in a lake caused by a pebble being thrown into it—can cause tremendous effect far away: the butterfly's wing a tornado, the ripple a large wave on a distant shore. Cause and effect, does it have limits? The field of physics is telling us that it takes only observation to bring a thing into being. We cannot consider these areas of investigation and not acknowledge that everything—everything—is in relationship in some way or another with everything else.
So, it is evident to me that commerce of any kind is, also, just about relationships. It all boils down, on every level to this simplicity. While we usually think of relationships as occurring between people—it is far more than that.
I used to teach a course in entrepreneurship specifically for women in The Women's Small Business Program at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont. I made this concept of relationship and its importance central in how I taught the marketing thought process. I would stress that for a product or service to be successful, it had to meet a perceived need. There is a need, and it wants to be met; or it may be thought of as a problem to be solved. Or there may be an existing solution that is less than adequate.
For example: In my universe as a runner there already were a plethora of bras available, but they were inadequate for my purpose. The relationship between my breasts, my running body, and my bra was creating discomfort and distraction. A new solution had to be found, the relationship occurring when all these things came together had to be fixed. Utilizing this point of view, one sees a set of issues that need to be addressed—they are in relationship with each other and their environment in a way that needs to be changed, adjusted.
Nowhere is this viewpoint truer than in business, as we enter into more and more relationships with people to address all the needs of the organization. Whether designing a product or a service or communicating with others about it—we are in relationship. And meanwhile, how about maintaining a healthy relationship with ourselves? All the issues we know about stress in the workplace can boil down to an internal balancing act around our relationships: to the work itself, to those we work with, to home life, friends and lovers. So quickly those ripples can become waves.
Because Jogbra was growing so quickly, relationships were being discovered, created, ending, expanding and changing at a pace that makes my head spin to recall. And truly challenged my spirit. Not to mention how I handled dealing with my seizure disorder.
"My Lifelong Partner"
Let me tell you a bit about my old friend, Epilepsy. Having Epilepsy does not make any sort of money-making endeavor easy or reliable, yet it is my other "partner" in life. Husbands and business partners have come and gone, but Epilepsy has always been with me. It was my first experience of having a "shadow teacher."
While a child who isn't feeling she has power over her world may have a tantrum, as we grow older, most of us find other more subtle ways to express our powerfulness or powerlessness. We adapt, learn coping mechanisms, how to persuade, manipulate, or capitulate when necessary. These tools, these learned adaptations, give a sense of control. They make us feel more in charge of our destiny. As a result, our maturing self generally feels indestructible, immortal. Life is a long, golden road of futures for the young.
This was not the case for me. I learned very early on when I started having seizures that I was not fully in charge of the world, my world, specifically of my body. There are many different types of epileptic seizures. Often a person with the illness may have more than one type. That has been the case for me. I was diagnosed with Epilepsy—with a seizure type now referred to as "Absence seizures"—when I was four years old. I have seen neurologists and taken medications ever since. As often happens, the condition worsened when I entered puberty and I started having convulsions as well—what most people think of when they think of epileptic seizures. The clinical name is generalized "Tonic-clonic" seizures.
In such a seizure the entire brain is involved, rather like an electrical circuit that has gone out as a result of a power surge. I lose consciousness, my whole body becomes rigid, the muscles start jerking uncontrollably, and I fall. Tonic-clonic seizures, also known as "grand mal" seizures, may or may not be preceded by an aura, a type of perceptual disturbance, which for me can act as a warning of what is coming. The seizure usually only lasts for a few minutes, but I feel its draining effects for a day or two afterwards. Although I would prefer to sleep all day after such a physically and emotionally taxing event, I have often just gotten up off the floor and, within hours, gone back to work. It was necessary sometimes, though definitely not medically advised. I'm fond of saying that having a grand mal seizure is rather like being struck by a Mack truck and living to tell the tale.
Having Epilepsy has forced me to be dependent on others throughout my life. While we are all dependent upon others to some degree—independent, interdependent, dependent—in my case a deep level of dependency was decreed and ingrained very early on. This enforced dependency did not sit well with my native self. I bucked and rebelled. At the same time, a part of me also feared the next fall, the next post-convulsive fugue. And so I recognized, I acquiesced to the need to depend on others.
The silver lining of having Epilepsy is that it has introduced me to and taught me a bit about the nature of being powerless—and experiencing betrayal. I could not trust that my body would always operate as it should. Routinely, it suddenly quits. I experience this as betrayal by my brain and body. It results in my complete powerlessness throughout the convulsion. Not to mention an inconvenient interruption of any activities or plans I might have made.
Hence, I am the recipient of two important life lessons—and I was blessed to have this very specific and graphic experience at a young age. It made me observant and reflective, giving me the opportunity to consider what/where/who "I" was. I knew I was not "just" my body, or even my brain.
So, who or what did that leave? Who, what am I? Much has been written about trauma, and about near-death experiences, both of which seizures have been classified or described as. I won't delve into that here except to say that experiencing recurrent seizures and the attendant altered states of consciousness that sometimes accompany an episode (the euphemism for a seizure) changes one. It deeply affects you. It is both illuminating and frightening. It opens you up in some ways and can close you way down in others. For me it made it easy to consider the possibility of other ways to perceive, of other realms. And as an adult I became interested in quantum physics, where Science is pushing and challenging our long-held perceptual assumptions. Me, who was poor in math and disinterested in Science while in school! So if not merely body and brain, who am I? Spirit. And with Epilepsy's tutelage, I was encouraged to question, seek, try to understand what lies beyond.
Living with Epilepsy has also given me great strength. In realizing the futile nature of trying to have "power over" Epilepsy, I developed a deep well of "power within"—that inner strength that comes in the acceptance of that which one cannot change—and looking beyond it.
Through my experience building the business of Jogbra with the unique lens afforded me by my Epilepsy partner, I came to understand more fully the nature of power and what it means to be truly powerful.
Specifically, that having power and exercising it is not simply a manifestation of the ego. It need not be "power-tripping." It is how I wield my power that matters, making the all-important distinction between creating a situation of power over, power with, or empowering and having and creating strength in oneself and others.
Being powerful is a big responsibility.
To put all this another way: do I choose to create situations in which I am able to wield power over others? Or do I choose to empower others, sharing my strengths with them, while nurturing their strengths as well? The first is not true power. It is control. The second I believe to be the essence of true and positive power: strength. And integral to creating a more harmonious world, oh by the way.
While this may be apparent, even basic to others, it was an "aha!" moment for me. Too often in the years ahead I would give away my power and question my own strengths,. Time and again, however, my inner strength, my shadow teacher's gift, helped me survive and thrive until I could take responsibility for and embrace more fully my own power.
© Lisa Z. Lindahl 2019