The Pursuit Of Perfect Petals

Other than random viewings of porn and the occasional Penthouse, before last year I had not seen that many vaginas. I, therefore, assumed we are all pretty much on equal footing in that department, looks-wise. Apparently I was wrong.

I discovered this last year, when a friend and I viewed, on a vaginoplasty website, more female genitalia in one lunch hour than I’d seen in my entire life up until then. Vaginoplasty, I discovered, is any surgical procedure done either to treat structural defects, tighten the vagina (for example, after childbirth), or to make cosmetic changes to the external appearance. And just when I thought anal bleaching was the “bottom” of the iceberg.

Our gynecological photo-fest was sparked by one of my friend’s platonic guy pals, who had told her that he didn’t like the way his last girlfriend’s vagina looked. Our convo went something like this:

“He said it’s ‘messy’.”

“Like, as in a waxing situation?”

“No, it’s too ‘loose’.”

“Meaning not tight enough?”

“No, he meant the outside, how it looks. Things hang too long.”

“Whaaat?! Great. One more part for us to worry about.”

We’d never heard of such a thing, so we did what anyone in our situation would—we Googled. That’s how we came upon this particular site, which was lousy with before and after photos of a specific type of vaginoplasty called labiaplasty, which is a reduction in size or removal of pigmentation of the inner and/or outer labia. While this procedure is sometimes performed to improve function or comfort, I got the impression that most of these procedures were done strictly for appearance sake. Basically, these women didn’t dig the countenance of their lady parts.

As we passed the laptop back and forth at an undisclosed location away from co-workers, we gasped, we giggled, we played an association game like the one kids play with clouds—oh, this one looks like a butterfly, that one reminds me of a seashell, here’s one that’s a dead ringer for an old man yawning—you get the idea. But then as we moved through the seemingly endless stream of pics that gave new meaning to “Ready for your close-up?” we started to make mental notes as to how we matched up, and that’s when things got disheartening.

All of the after pictures looked basically the same—disturbingly so, as if off of a coochie-cutter assembly line. The inner labia had been trimmed so that it was flush with the surrounding skin. Everything was neat and even, kind of like the seam of a closed purse. But what struck us even more were the befores. A few of them were clearly outside the norm of what any woman should be expected to deal with: Some patient testimonials talked about labia minora that were so long, wearing underwear or tight-fitting pants was extremely uncomfortable, and a bathing suit unthinkable due to “spillage” and “show-through.” Fair enough. If I ever find myself practically playing soccer with any portion of my vulva, I’m seeking medical help. I can only imagine how awful it would be to be in constant physical discomfort and unable to wear anything other than caftans.

However, the vast majority of before photos didn’t look “abnormal” at all; certainly not far enough outside the norm to warrant surgery. We began to wonder, were we alone in failing to get the memo that all these post-surgery labia were “normal” and “pretty” and that everything else wasn’t? Or was my friend’s guy friend just super picky, petty and ridiculous? And how, we wondered, did these women come to the conclusion that their happy region needed surgical intervention? Did they watch too much porn, or did one partner, just one time, make a derogatory comment that scarred them for life? Exactly how many vulvas did they compare their own to before deciding they had a hopelessly unattractive downstairs situation?

Perhaps they fell victim to the myth of “the perfect vagina,” which also happens to be a documentary. This anti-vaginoplasty film argues that we all should stop comparing ourselves to porn stars and “love our lady bits rather than cut them up.” If porn is the main source material, it stands to reason that most women have no clue just how “normal” their parts really are. Rather, they assume the worst without having all the facts. This would seem to be the case judging by all the posts online asking some variation of the question, “Help! I have long labia, am I a freak!?” 

Physician and author Lissa Rankin, M.D., says she gets that question more often than any other on her book tours. She reassures us on her website “Owning Pink” that our “petals” can vary widely by size and shape, and that most women actually have one side longer than the other. For those demanding statistical proof, she cites a study in which a plethora of petals—those of nearly 3,000 women—were measured. The study found that more than 87% were between zero and three quarters of an inch; 5% were exactly three quarters of an inch; and the rest were longer than one inch. The longest maxed out at 2.33 inches long. As I read through the numbers, I wondered if we’re now going to become like some men, obsessively measuring our “junk” to see how we rank, but with the goal to be as short as possible.


But Dr. Rankin offers further hope and reassurance. Her site includes a poster with close-up photos of a wide variety of un-surgically-enhanced petals, all sizes, shapes and lengths. The poster, along with a documentary and fine art photography book, is part of the  “I Love My Petals” project, the brainchild of two San Diego sexologists. The bottom of the poster reads, “Each as beautiful and unique as a snowflake.” After I stopped rolling my eyes, the cynic in me wanted to snicker at this (snowflake??) but, in a culture where seemingly every body part we have is ripe for insecurity and body dysmorphism, it can’t hurt to help bolster our self-image down there. 

Maybe what we need is a good spokesperson. Steinem? Marlo Thomas? Nah. I’m thinking more along the lines of Ryan Gosling, Mr. T (“I pity the fool who hates on cherry pie!”) or Alec Baldwin. After all, why should someone be treated differently because of labia size any more than electronic device usage on planes? If more men stepped up to declare their love of all vulva varieties, perhaps more women would get the message to leave well enough alone, and realize that any cretin low enough to critique the area is undeserving of the privilege of being anywhere near it.

Yes, it’s a free country (except, it would seem, for Mr. Baldwin). And the pursuit of happiness for some includes the pursuit of surgical enhancement. But true freedom of choice is impossible without knowledge. So before we start stressing because our vajayjays are more hound dog than rosebud, we need to make sure our research extends far beyond the X-rated film community.

Michelle Rabil is a freelance writer, public relations consultant, traveler off the beaten path and avid amateur photographer living in Manhattan. When she isn’t writing for Fortune 500 clients and some of the largest public relations firms in the country, she prefers to be in, on or under the Caribbean Sea. She has also written for Reuters, Psychology Today, Huffington Post and Salon.

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