Getting up close and personal with vaginal rejuvenation
The dark underside of this intimate craze
“Women have long been described as sick as a means of subjecting them to social control. What the modern Surgical Age is doing to women is an overt reenactment of what nineteenth-century medicine did to make well women sick and active women passive.” – Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth.
It’s no doubt partially because I’m still fairly young, but I am deeply averse to the culture of anti-aging technology. I flinch at every mention of youth serums and sneer at every promise of artificially placid foreheads.
I have no reservations about rejecting a predatory industry that thrives on women’s worst fears about the inverse correlation between the passage of time and their worth, their authentic femininity. But I cannot be so liberal with my disapprobation where cosmetic surgery is concerned; I am forced to concede that the cosmetic, the cultural and the physiological intersect in ways that complicate the possibility of straightforward ethical judgments.Since the early 2000s a class of surgeries and treatments, usually encompassed by the term “vaginal rejuvenation”, has been growing in popularity, spurred on by the promotional efforts of “cosmetic” or “aesthetic” gynaecologists: imagine plastic surgeons with a genital bent. Aside from the (always specious) possibility of improving orgasms, these interventions serve one of two ends: they either decrease the diameter of the vagina or they alter the outward appearance of the labia. Vaginoplasties, labiaplasties, laser wands, Botox: they tighten up or they pare down.
The challenge, in beginning to contemplate this burgeoning trend, is that although I’m instinctively bothered by it, it would be ridiculous to dismiss any of these procedures out of hand. Some are immensely useful: they have the potential to ameliorate discomfort, enhance sexual sensation and restore a sense of sexual agency to women whose bodies won’t co-operate. And even where genuine improvement is not guaranteed – which their detractors insist is the case with many of these novel augmentations – women are entitled to make choices about their bodies, irrespective of whether their motives are cosmetic or corporeal.This is the perspective from which Natalia Novikova, an aesthetic gynaecologist practising in Cape Town, operates. “The biggest misconception would be that the procedures that fall under the category of aesthetic gynaecology are purely ‘cosmetic’,” Novikova says. “The majority of aesthetic procedures I carry out treat conditions including recurrent genital infections, urinary incontinence, vaginal dryness and vaginal laxity. Where there are purely cosmetic changes, they are usually impacting mental wellbeing.”
So it was hard, initially, to identify the source of my antipathy towards something that appears to be improving people’s lives; but I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I am unsettled by the way these procedures necessarily enforce notions of bodily normalcy that I think we should be actively working to dismantle.
Novikova always reassures her self-conscious patients that “that there is no such thing as the perfect vagina”; but the fact that women are still in pursuit of shorter labia and virginal straits – a combination that generates what is facetiously called the "Barbie” vagina – suggests that the recent proliferation of these surgeries is only a symptom of a much larger, much older problem.The pathologisation of women’s bodies is practically antediluvian. Our bodies have always been defined by inferiority and lack: “For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”(1 Corinthians 11:8-9).
Women’s social subjugation is absolutely inextricable from our bodily subjugation, but since men’s judicial power over our bodies has been curbed in most of the world, we must be convinced of our inherent loathsomeness. And we are.
Women are initiated into the “rites of beauty” from the time we are cognisant enough to identify ourselves as girls. We learn by example from our adult counterparts that a failure to embody beauty is tantamount to exile from the provinces of love and belonging.
Beauty, of course, is relative and fluid. But the demand for it endures everywhere, in perpetuity, and it always demands obeisance and sameness. Beauty is, above all, adherence to an abstract ideal. And the unpleasant, unspoken reality about “vaginal rejuvenation” – what cosmetic gynaecologists strive to obfuscate – is that women often pursue it to satisfy their male partners’ sexual and aesthetic expectations.Of course, one could easily annihilate my argument on the basis that nose jobs, for instance, perpetuate exactly the same problem, and I’m not grappling with my stance on those; but this conflation wouldn’t be accurate. Because, at the same time as we learn to watch our weight and smile (emotions notwithstanding), we come to understand that everything pertaining to our sexual organs is antithetical to ideal beauty – our “private parts” are private for a reason.
Menstruation is more or less universally abhorred: it’s dirty. Vaginas are ugly: they’re fetid. Frankly, paradoxically, female genitalia are unladylike; we’re disgusted by them from the get go. Noses are incidental – but even if you’re born with the coveted Barbie vagina, it’s more likely than not that the two of you aren’t on great terms.
I’m not maligning plastic surgery: our bodies are ours to modify as we please. But it’s dishonest to pretend that “cosmetic gynaecology” has been born solely out of physical or psychological necessity. It has fostered and been fueled by a culture that demands homogeneity from its female subjects. It is a contemporary iteration of the timeless crusade to keep female bodies in check, even as it promises women newfound sexual liberation. It reinforces the idea that our anatomies are a ganglion of shame.In spite of their best intentions, cosmetic gynaecologists aren’t just selling better sex for women, or healthier bodies – they’re selling a myth of normalcy, which they’re complicit in maintaining. They’re peddling a conjugal criterion. They’re ensuring that the perfect vagina does exist, if you’re lucky enough to afford one: it’s tight, shorn, symmetrical – and young. Rejuvenation. To restore youth.