As part of Channel 4's 'G-Spot' season on modern "women's issues", Lisa Rogers investigates The Perfect Vagina. Increasing numbers of British women are selecting to have labiplastys, a less invasive form of vaginoplasty in the hope it will give a more uniform appearance. What Lisa wants to know is who are these women doing it for? Is it themselves?
The documentary starts with a visit to Professor Linda Cardozo, who tells us demand for labiplastys on the NHS has doubled in recent years. As the vagina is now another marker of fashion, women generally want to look like other women. Unfortunately the hegemonic look is that of a small child's. As the BMJ notes, "patients who sought genitoplasty "uniformly" wanted their vulvas to be flat and with no protrusion, similar to the prepubescent look of girls in Western fashion ads". So when did this fashion begin? Lisa nips down the salon for her first Brazilian in a couple of years to find out. The beautician says the fashion for pubic styling/hair removal became voguish in the late 1990s, especially after a Sex and the City episode on that theme was screened.
However, hair removal is one thing. Surgery quite another. Lisa meets with 21 year old Rosie who is booked in for a private labiplasty. Rosie's story is one of body confidence. From a young age her sister has continually made fun of her labia and has made it known to all her friends about her "hanging ham". She has also used it to ward off potential boyfriends. It was difficult not to feel her humiliation when she talked about standing in a club with a group of male "friends" who were "jokingly" laying into her about them. It's a pity there are no surgical solutions to boorish insensitivity and sexist bullying.
It is to The Perfect Vagina's credit it did not skimp on the uncomfortable surgery scenes. We are shown Rosie's fear and pain as her labia are anaesthetised in turn and unceremoniously sliced off. Even though I don't own a pair, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who couldn't suppress a wince. But if this wasn't bad enough, the wounds can take up to three months to heal. Surely seeing Rosie sat on a loo with a handful of tissue pressed between her legs in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding is enough to put anyone off this procedure. I hope so.
Lisa then meets 31 year old Kelly. She was brought up by her grandparents, which meant anything to do with the body was strictly off limits. When she started her period her grandmother told Kelly it would be "their secret". This set the tone for a problematic relationship with her vagina. As a red head she would take mascara to her pubic hair in an effort to look like everyone else in the changing room. She also talked about watching porn with her husband and how it was predisposing her toward labiplasty and liposuction so her vagina could compare with porn star genitalia. Her reasoning was if hers were perfect then maybe her husband wouldn't feel the need to watch.
To try and dissuade her from surgery, Lisa took her along to have a cast of her bits done. Jamie McCartney, a Brighton-based sculptor, is building a wall of vagina casts. Several women who'd already been done thought the experience was quite encouraging because it showed them what they had was not freakish or unpleasant. Kelly was similarly positive when she'd been done too. She went from describing it as a hot dog bap with a "beak" to seeing it as it really was - genitalia well within variation. Happily it made her think again about the surgery.
Lisa then goes to see Eric Shulton, a plastic surgeon specialising in vaginoplasty procedures. She asks wouldn't it be better to encourage women to accept their bodies instead of slicing bits of it off? His reply - as you'd expect - is that the women who come to him have tried to and failed, so what solution is left? Lisa then decides to submit herself to an examination to see if, according to his opinion, whether she qualifies for surgery. His conclusion is that she's normal, but has operated on at least one very similar vagina because the patient thought her clitoral hood was a little too large.
It was inevitable Lisa would come across hymen reconstruction surgery at some stage. For a minority of Muslim women (though, it should be said, not exclusively so), bleeding after sex on the wedding night is taken as proof of her virginity. Lisa meets with one 19 year old woman desperate for a reconstruction. If anyone found out she wasn't a virgin she and her parents would feel compelled to kill themselves for the shame it would bring upon them. She made it clear this was a punishment she had to undergo to save them all - she couldn't care less about the man arranged to be her groom.
In her closing, Lisa finished with a plea to women to "love your flaps", which summed up the body positive image The Perfect Vagina laboured to get across. It centred on personal and educational means of overcoming women's alienation from their bodies. Kelly benefited, as did Raegan, who attended a holistic sex therapy session with Lisa where they were encouraged to talk about the memories associated with their vaginas. Lisa also pledged to bring her two daughters up in a body positive atmosphere to head them hang ups off at the past. But is this enough?
As far as I'm concerned, anyone should be entitled to change their bodies how they wish. But when large groups of women feel compelled by a variety of pressures to go under the knife, something is seriously wrong. With regard to designer vaginas, there are two interrelated and mutually constitutive factors the programme identified but did not go into enough depth.
The first of these are men. Lisa asked her partner, a group of her male friends and Jamie McCartney whether they "noticed" vaginas - had they ever been put off by a foo? The answer was no. But it appeared on the basis of the evidence presented in the show to be an age and class thing. Rosie's young male "friends" certainly cared. Kelly thought her husband cared. Part of Raegan's insecurities stemmed from her ex who used to make disparaging comments about her after she'd had a baby. And the two work men Lisa hired for painting work certainly had very fixed and detailed opinions on how a vagina should look. Rosie's group were young and presumably affluent like her. The remainder were working class.
As far as I know, there's no data on porn use by men by class location. Nor am I about to assume middle class men like Lisa's friends are any less likely to view it. Whatever these specifics are, it's not a great leap of the imagination to suggest a relationship between porn, pubic fashions, vaginal anxiety and men. As Lisa noted earlier on, waxing has a lot to answer for. But this is one property of a new ubiquity of genitalia. The continuing spread of the internet and the vast quantities of it devoted to porn means sexual imagery of one kind or another has never been so accessible. Most women who work in porn conform to conventional body stereotypes. But also their vaginas, which tend to be shaved or waxed, are seen by many more men ... and women, than the Razzles and Escorts of old. This has a knock on effect in hegemonic constructions of femininity. The disappearance/minimisation of pubic hair and the ideal vagina of the porn star translates into a mainstream aesthetics of the pubis. This aesthetics is sustained through magazines, marketing, peer pressure, and the perceived expectation that potential sexual partners prefer the porn star look. Small wonder some women turn to vaginoplasty in an effort to conform.
Unfortunately, this culture seems to be getting stronger all the time. The gaze, the libidinal economy of patriarchal sexuality that greases the wheels of the multi-billion pound sex industry has never been so powerful and pervasive. Literally every inch of women's bodies are commodified and pronounced upon. This culture, which distorts sexuality by casting women in an inferior position is a big obstacle to building the humanistic, fulfilling and liberating socialist society our species deserves. How do we halt the juggernaut?