WARNING: The following contains images of genitals and discussion using frank and sometimes foul language.
Working as a stripper for nearly two decades has given Wrenna Robertson a unique vantage on cosmetic surgery. Before breast implants became de rigeur among her colleagues (and, for many, in society at large), strippers openly asked each other for opinions on their breasts — and, after an operation, would unabashedly display their chests for the other women to view and touch.
Robertson, 36, noticed the desire for another surgery build among her peers in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., strip clubs a few years ago. The same dancers began to ask her opinion on labia-reduction surgery. And when they approached her this time, Robertson says, they were more furtive.
“Women were very, very, very shy,” Robertson says on a recent morning in her backyard studio in Victoria. Robertson, who holds a Master of Science from the University of British Columbia and has lectured on women’s health, took an academic tack. She wondered: “Why do these women not know what normal is? Why are they so insecure? Why are they considering having their bodies cut up in yet another way?”
Out of those conversations, a crusader was born. Robertson ascertained that if strippers —“among the most sexually liberated in our society,” she thought — were uneasy about their appearance, then their anxiety was likely more widespread. Her response was a book, I’ll Show You Mine, that compiled portraits of 60 women’s genitals and a short personal essay by each of the subjects who replied to Robertson’s call for volunteers. The aim of the project was to expand the definition of what women could imagine to be normal and to give them a more accurate baseline for self-assessment than pornography or textbooks.
The book joins a small but fierce cultural response to labiaplasty, a cosmetic surgery that Robertson and other critics say can exploit insecurities around a body part that most heterosexual women rarely, if ever, compare with another live person. At the root of the projects by authors, documentarians and journalists, is a sense that a demand for smaller labia — achieved by slicing off protruding skin of the labia minora — owes as much to surgeons’ marketing and unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies than it does to any innate need.
“They’re an important counterbalance to the strong marketing message that is being put out by surgeons and which has been reproduced in many mainstream media outlets,” says Virginia Braun, a lecturer in the University of Auckland’s Department of Psychology who has published critical academic papers on labiaplasty. “Books like Wrenna Robertson’s and documentaries like The Perfect Vagina work to disrupt the message that they should look a certain way and that if they don’t look like that you as a woman have something wrong with you. There are lots of negative messages that exist around women’s genitals.”
Statistics are hard to come by on the frequency of labiaplasties, Braun says, but she estimates the surgery probably numbers now in the tens of thousands annually. That’s up from a mere handful when it was first pioneered in the mid-’80s as a cosmetic procedure. Numbers began to spike about 10 years ago, she says. Credit for that trend has gone largely to surgeons’ marketing and fashions around hair removal that have made previously obscured parts more visible.
“If I’m really honest, I think it’s from the makeup industry to the clothes industry to the porn industry,” says Heather Leach, who directed, produced and shot the 2008 U.K. documentary The Perfect Vagina. “They’ve all got reasons why women feel inferior. Women make other women feel inferior. It’s about status and it’s about an unachievable perfection.”
A couple of times a month, Lisa Sowder performs a labiaplasty in her Seattle plastic surgery clinic. Women come for a consultation, and Sowder does her best to manage their expectations. “I can’t take someone else’s genitalia and put it on them,” she says. After the operation, the patients return for check-ups over the ensuing weeks and months. When they return a year later, 90 per cent of them are satisfied, the doctor says.
Women’s motivations for approaching her vary. Many of them complain about irritation because their labia minora protrude and get pinched under tight clothing and on bike seats. Others feel embarrassed during sex “because of the way their labia looks” or they “don’t like walking around the dressing room in the gym with their labia hanging down,” Sowder says. And most are receiving their impressions of what constitutes typical labia from mass media — pornography, typically, which Sowder says presents a pre-pubescent version of women’s beauty.
“There have certainly been no demographic studies or epidemiological studies of labia,” she says. “I mean, no one has lined up a thousand women and measured and photographed their labia. So what is normal?”
The crux of Robertson’s book, as with other critiques of labiaplasty, begins with the conceit that there simply are not enough realistic representations of women’s parts in the media. When it comes to bodies, even “normal” doesn’t inoculate people from criticism — especially women who expose themselves for a living. One dancer Robertson knows was told by a brusque client that he wouldn’t countenance an “outie pussy.” Another was told she’d be worth a bigger tip if not for her too-evident labia.
With that sort of customer feedback, it’s little wonder that dancers turn to surgery. Robertson even included her own portrait among those in her book, under a pseudonym, like many of the subjects.
Among her champions is Thea Cacchioni, a women’s studies professor at the University of Victoria who met Robertson when she invited her to present at a conference at Simon Fraser University on the medicalization of sex.
Labiaplasty conforms to two enduring trends in medical history, Cacchioni says, in that it pathologizes women’s bodies and that it allows doctors to treat physically conditions that originate in the psyche. In this case, that includes low self-esteem when a woman perceives her genitals to be undesirable.
“In media and certainly in pornography, you see like-bodies,” Cacchioni says. “A body seen as protruding, overweight or fat is really stigmatized. We’ve idealized a symmetrical, streamlined and very white body in our representations.
“Wrenna didn’t try to counter this trend of a flowery image of, ‘Here’s a book of women’s genitals and aren’t they beautiful?’” she continues. “They’re very real pictures.”
Wrenna Robertson offers public talks around her work on women’s health, body issues and commercial culture. This excerpt is of a presentation she gave at the Pacific Centre Family Services Association in Victoria, British Columbia, in March of 2012. — filmed and edited by Kate Adach and Sam Eifling
Diana Pelova says she heard about the book project “through the queer feminist grapevine.” Her partner had responded to Robertson’s public overtures and to posters around Vancouver’s Commercial Drive that called for subjects. She went to the photo shoot merely to tag along, but Robertson’s mission and respectful approach swayed her to join in.
Photographer Katie Huisman’s studio was a serene space, Pelova says. She remained nervous throughout but took the experience as an opportunity to face her fears. She stepped into the washroom for a quick bit of grooming before emerging pantless to take her place behind a partition. Placing her socked feet on the floor marks, she called in the photographer. She remembers Huisman being professional and staying at a comfortable distance — using the zoom to get a close shot. “There was just a sense of awe about the whole experience,” Pelova says.
In the short essay to accompany that very personal portrait in I’ll Show You Mine, she wrote, “I’m not sure exactly when, or how, or from whom I picked up the fear and shame I developed surrounding my vagina, but by the time I was 6 or 7 I wished it didn’t exist. By the time I was 10, I’d almost succeeded in putting it completely out of sight and out of mind.” Now, more than a year later, she sees her participation in the project as a step toward self-acceptance and about leading a public discussion.
“Lack of representation creates circumstances in which women can be shamed to the point where they’ll cut off parts of their body,” Pelova says. “I’m just happy that the word is being spread and that people are seeing the stuff.”
In the U.K., viewers of Channel 4 saw uncensored images of women in The Perfect Vagina, both in repose and on the surgeon’s table, having their skin snipped and removed. Finding women willing to engage the topic wasn’t hard, Leach says. It was finding women willing to expose themselves on a national broadcast that proved more daunting.
“It’s not the easiest of subjects, but considering, there were lots of people who felt there was a need to do this documentary,” she says. “People that wanted to talk about it were brave.”
That film helped to inspire Kirsten Drysdale to co-produce an Australian report from the now-defunct show Hungry Beast that connected the country’s rise in labiaplasty to its print censorship standards. Soft-core porn magazines in Australia are required to show minimal genital detail, prompting publishers to digitally remove the labia minora from photos.
To gather photos of real women to show the censors, Drysdale set up a rogue version of Robertson’s photo studio. Drysdale and her co-producer set up a booth at a lesbian nightclub and recruited voyeurs on the spot. “Basically going up to perfect strangers,” she recalls, “and saying, ‘Would you mind shaving off your pubes, if you have any, and letting us take photos of your pussy?’” The result in the report was a scene in which a standards board member, confronted with images of presumably normal women, has to admit that most of them wouldn’t be fit to print — their labia minora were too large.
Drysdale got the response to her report that she had hoped for. Girls wrote in to say they had been self-conscious but would no longer consider surgery. “People know that pictures are airbrushed,” Drysdale says. “You know that blemishes are blotched out, or they make the women look skinnier. But when they Photoshop out visible labia minora, that’s like removing the septum from a nose and showing people with one nostril. It’s removing part of the body.”
I’ll Show You Mine is the furthest thing from Photoshopped. The portraits are each a straight-ahead tight shot of mons pubis and inner thighs, and they’re beset by all the unruly folds, dangling flesh and sideways hairs that undergarments usually conceal. Pearls and rings peek out. Skin hues vary. Stubble abounds.
In these uniformly framed shots, Robertson makes her point that bodies are just as diverse as faces and personalities.
“Normal’ isn’t a cookie-cutter body type,” she says. “If women had the opportunity to view other women’s labia, other women’s vulvas, they would know that’s complete bullshit.”