Did you ever hear your mother tell you “People are like snowflakes…no two are exactly alike”? Well the same goes for vulvas. When it comes to female genitalia, there is no single size, length, color, shape, taste, or texture that every woman will resemble. For as many different women as there are in the world, there is a unique vulva to match.
Unfortunately, media images and descriptions of women’s genitals – including pornography as well advertising campaigns to sell cleansers and cosmetic products – give a different impression. Lots of women are left worrying that there’s something wrong with our vulvas because they don’t look like the photoshopped, waxed or dyed genitals in the pictures we see. And some medical professionals who hear women talk about those insecurities and doubts see dollar signs. These doctors are joining and building the growing industry of female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) involving amputation or restructuring parts of the vulva to “enhance” or “beautify” them. (Some of you may remember reading an article about this new trend in The Women’s Health Activist a few years ago when it was first getting started.)
In addition to being medically unnecessary, FGCS can cause real harm. These surgeries can create chronic vaginal and sexual pain, as well as result in bleeding and tearing during childbirth. And many surgeons who perform FGCS use misleading marketing to try to bring in patients. They publish glossy brochures asserting that FGCS improves sexual satisfaction, self esteem and confidence, though there’s no research to support those claims. They use before and after surgery photographs that misinform women in other ways as well. Most of the “after” images show vulvas that have more in common with Barbie dolls and the genitalia of pre-adolescent girls than with adult women. These photos further distort women’s knowledge and understanding of genital diversity, perpetuating the idea that all vulvas should look alike and suggesting that there is something wrong with full labia.
While FGCS is not yet common and women’s distress over the appearance of their vulvas is not new, FGCS promotion is far more prevalent and visible in the media than it was even a few years ago. But you can do something to challenge this alarming trend and raise public awareness of the dangers of FGCS!
- First, you can sign a petition to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecology and the Federal Trade Commission Division of Consumer Affairs calling for ongoing oversight, research and monitoring of FGCS. I urge anyone who feels medical professionals promoting ideas of a “perfect vulva” is dangerous to sexual health and women’s well-being to sign the petition today – as well as send it to your friends, family and colleagues.
- Second, you can take part in an international day of flash activism, being organized by our colleagues at the New View Campaign. On Saturday, November 19, 2011, activists all over the US and Canada will converge on the offices of surgeons who perform FGCS, especially those who post the misleading and appalling “before and after” photographs on their website. At the offices, the protestors will take (and then upload to the New View website) photos of themselves holding signs that show our support for genital diversity. Check out the example below. If you are inspired to take action, and we hope that you are, you can get more information about how to participate, provider locations, options for signs and instructions for Flash Activism Day by emailing email@example.com.
Please take action today, on Saturday – or both! And please share this message with anyone you know who would want to take a stand for sexual health.
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