Cosmetic surgery on the inner lips changes appearance, but few like the results. Pity the poor inner vaginal lips (labia minora). If they’re at all asymmetrical, fluted, wrinkly, folded, protruding, or different in color from surrounding skin, few people of any gender consider them attractive —women, men, or non-binary. That’s why every year some 10,000 U.S. women undergo labiaplasty, cosmetic surgery that minimizes or hides the inner lips to make them appear more “normal” or “ideal.” But according to a recent study by Canadian researchers, after labiaplasty, people of all genders say the inner lips look only slightly better—and still unattractive. Which raises a question: Is labiaplasty worth it?
“Overall Perceptions of The Labia Were Quite Negative”
Psychologists at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia used Facebook, Reddit, and other web sites to recruit 4,513 people, age 16 to 85. Somewhat more than half (56 percent) were women. Four of 10 (42 percent) were men. And 3 percent were other/nonbinary/queer. Participants viewed close-up photographs of eight white women’s shaved vulvas before and after labiaplasty, 16 images total. The researchers asked three questions:
• How normal does this vulva look?
• How well does this vulva represent the societal ideal?
• How well does this vulva represent your personal ideal?
After labiaplasty, viewers of all genders rated the vulvas slightly more attractive, and slightly closer to cultural and personal ideals. However, the researchers observed, “Overall perceptions of the labia—regardless of participant gender or labiaplasty—were quite negative.”
Barbie’s Inner Lips: Minimal, Hidden
Why do so many people consider vulvas unattractive?
• History. In many cultures going back centuries, slang terms for the vulva call the area dirty, ugly, and shameful. Historically, protruding inner lips have been deemed deviant, deformed, a marker for promiscuity, and in non-whites, evidence of racial inferiority.
• Symmetry. A robust research literature shows that people of all races, genders, and cultures consider faces most attractive when they appear left-right symmetrical. Evidently, the same is true for vulvas. When the inner lips are asymmetrical or when one side is larger or looks different, people judge those vulvas less attractive.
• Barbie dolls. Since its launch in 1959, more than a billion Barbies have been sold worldwide. The 12-inch statuette has had a major impact on how women view their bodies. Barbie stands the equivalent of five feet nine inches with an anatomically impossible 36-inch chest, 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips. Barbie is so thin that she would lack sufficient body fat to menstruate. Barbie’s vulva is equally unrealistic. Her inner labia look like an infant’s—tiny and tucked inside her outer lips, virtually invisible.
• Pubic grooming. Before 1990, few women altered their pubic hair. They had “full bushes.” But since then, pubic hair removal (“grooming”) has become increasingly popular. Today, 85 percent of women trim their pubic hair, or shave away some or all of it. Pubic grooming makes the vulva more visible—and highlights perceived imperfections, among them, large, asymmetrical, and/or protruding inner lips.
• The medical profession. Some women visit plastic surgeons bearing screen shots of Internet porn pages, saying, “I want to look like that.” Others whose inner lips protrude or look asymmetrical tell plastic surgeons they feel abnormal or deformed. Unfortunately, many plastic surgeons are quick to agree, diagnosing “enlarged” inner labia. They’ve even coined a term for it, “labial hypertrophy.” When women hear that, many are convinced their labia are abnormal and weird. These days, plastic surgeons perform 10,000 labiaplasties annually. That’s far fewer than nose jobs (215,000), and breast augmentations (300,000). However, labiaplasty ranks among the fastest growing cosmetic surgical procedures.
Feminists have railed against the many ways our culture has pathologized women’s bodies. Their activism has had an impact. Since 2014, Barbie doll sales have plummeted. In addition, several photographers and artists have created works celebrating the natural diversity of vulvas. Works include the photo books Femalia by Joni Blank and Petals by Nick Karras. Illustrator Hilde Atalanta has collected hundreds of drawings in her work, “The Vulva Gallery.” And “The Great Wall of Vaginas” by artist Jamie McCartney has displayed plaster casts of 400 vulvas at many galleries and museums.
But despite all efforts to normalize women’s natural genital diversity, many women continue to contact plastic surgeons, complaining that their “abnormal” inner lips have contributed to low self-esteem, reluctance to visit gynecologists appropriately, and loss of sexual desire, pleasure, and satisfaction.
Labia and Labiaplasty: What You Need to Know
Many women are in the dark about the appearance of the inner labia.
• There is no “normal” or “ideal” look. Every woman’s labia are uniquely her own. Some tuck under the outer vaginal lips and are hardly visible. Others protrude slightly or a good deal—up to several inches. Almost all inner lips presentations are normal.
• Inner lips vary considerably in color from lighter than surrounding tissue to much darker. That’s normal.
• Some inner lips appear smooth like babies’ skinLabi. Others appear folded, fluted, or wrinkly. All normal.
• Labiaplasty typically costs $4,000 to $6,000. Unless it’s prescribed for reconstruction after cancer surgery, health insurers don’t cover it.
• As the new study shows, after labiaplasty, you—and others—are unlikely to see much benefit.
• After labiaplasty, it takes around two weeks to return to preoperative levels of energy and activities, and six to eight weeks to return to comfortable sexual play involving the vulva or vagina.
• Labiaplasty’s most common side effect is increased vaginal dryness, which may become chronic. Lubricants usually resolve this, but not always. Loss of vulvar erotic sensitivity is rare but possible.
We need a new labial esthetic. The inner lips are like snowflakes—all unique, all beautiful. Think long and hard before opting for labiaplasty.