Published in the Fall 2005 issue • Features
Making the Cut
Forget boob jobs and Botox. These days, the pressure to be perfect is hitting many women below the belt
Like many women in their mid-20s, Linda was unhappy about a certain part of her body. It wasn’t small breasts, saggy thighs or acne-covered skin — the usual things women are made to worry about — rather, she was bothered by something most folks don’t see: her labia. Linda’s labia minora (the small flaps of skin on either side of the vaginal opening, inside the labia majora, the outside lips with hair on them) had always bothered her. “It was physically uncomfortable, and I didn’t find it very aesthetically pleasing,” she says.
Her labia minora were long and protruded out of her labia majora. They rubbed against her clothing and made bike riding uncomfortable. But mostly, she didn’t like the way they looked. So Linda did what more and more women with long labia minora are doing: she went to a plastic surgeon and had them trimmed with lasers and scalpels for $4,500.
Many plastic surgeons around the world will perform labiaplasty (surgery on the labia minora) to create what some call a designer vagina. This is just one of a number of cosmetic surgeries women can get between our legs. Options include having electrolysis to remove pubic hair (for that hairless, prepubescent look), having the vagina tightened (after childbirth), having the hymen “repaired,” and now, if inside lips stick out of outside lips (which is common), labia can be “beautified” by making the lips smaller.
Toronto plastic surgeon Robert Stubbs, who performed Linda’s labiaplasty, has done more than 205 labia minora shortenings, on women aged 14 to 60. His signature procedure — trimming the hood of the clitoris as well as the lips — has been nicknamed the “Toronto trim.” Very few of these trims have been done on women who experienced pain from their labia. “The majority are cosmetic,” Stubbs says. “Women don’t want to compete with men with something large between their legs; they want something small, neat and tidy and tucked up out of the way.”
There are many reasons why a woman might consider having genital surgery. Gynecologists have started using techniques borrowed from plastic surgery to perform sex-change operations, repair ripped and torn vaginas after childbirth and rape, and improve the sexual and physical health of many women. Ultimately, it’s the individual woman’s decision to make.
What’s worrying is that most women who have labiaplasties do so for purely aesthetic reasons. While exact numbers are unavailable, it’s estimated that thousands of women have paid thousands of dollars and risked painful side effects to have the most sensitive part of their bodies cut up.
Many women who have publicly spoken about their labiaplasties use the same language as Stubbs. Take Patricia, a 32-year-old mother of two from New York City who had her labia shortened: “It was all hanging so he fixed all that, and it’s nice and it’s neat now.”
Bernard Stern, the Florida doctor who performed Patricia’s labiaplasty, says he’s operated on all kinds of women, including “Las Vegas showgirls, exotic dancers, a Playmate of the Year from Playboy, tons of doctors, nurses, midwives, attorneys, an attorney general for one of the municipalities here in Florida ... professional athletes ... triathletes, marathoners, junior Olympians, equestrians, Pilates instructors and personal trainers.” The oldest woman he’s operated on was 82, the youngest 16. He once did a 19-year-old and then her 40-year-old mother six months later. He argues that although only a minority of his patients experienced physical discomfort from their labia, some experience emotional stress: “Quite honestly, most of the people that come in here have stuff that’s just unbelievable, there’s no doubt, I mean [the labia are] totally uneven, one side’s huge, the other’s not ... for some of them, this is a life-changing procedure.”
Of course, his opinion may have something to do with the big money involved. A labiaplasty surgeon can easily gross up to $250,000 U.S. a month. Ask people with nothing to gain from the procedure — health professionals and sex experts, for example — and you get a different story. With surgery comes risk: labiaplasty can have side effects such as nerve damage, scarring, vaginal soreness and hemorrhaging. One gynecologist reports women losing sensitivity after surgery and experiencing pain during sex. The nerve networks of the female genitalia haven’t yet been accurately mapped. Cutting the lips could remove important and pleasurable nerve endings and replace them with numb scar tissue.
And doctors don’t agree on what degree of surgery is appropriate. Stubbs has removed the hoods from many women’s clitorises to make it easier for a penis to rub the clitoris during intercourse. But that hood exists to protect the sensitive clitoris when a woman isn’t having sex and Stern is against removing it: “The outcomes of clitoral surgery are so variable, much more painful because of all the nerve endings around it, and I’ve seen horrible scarring from other people’s [unhooding] surgery.”