Written by Kelsey Duchesne
photos from LADY BITS by Rachel Rolseth
What does “vaginal rejuvenation” sound like to you? When I first heard the term, I immediately associated it with a spa treatment, perhaps conducted somewhere fancy, like Palm Springs. I imagined a fresh, clean process that treated your vagina with tender, loving care. What I did not expect was that vaginal rejuvenation, is, in fact, a procedure wherein your vagina is not rejuvenated, but reconstructed.
There are two different types of vaginal surgeries: reconstructive, and cosmetic (i.e., a labiaplasty). The reconstructive procedure was created for, and has been common amongst, women that have previously given birth, but now, teenagers have been asking for the cosmetic type to change the physical appearance of their vulvas-- you know, like a nose job... BUT IT'S YOUR VAGINA.
I remember going through puberty and being terrified of my pubic hair-- do I shave it? Do I let it grow? Why are there red bumps? What is a “landing strip?” The surface level decisions, both literally and figuratively, seemed like enough to worry about. I was concerned of what my future partners might think of my hair-- I didn’t know if I was grooming myself “the right way.” It took me many years to learn there isn’t a right way- there is a safe way and a caring way and a way that is best for your body, but there isn’t necessarily a “how-to” that fits the entire female population. And to think, all of this self-doubt and insecurity was just about my pubes. I remember reading the advice column in Girls Life magazine and reviewing The Care & Keeping Of You, digging for answers. Eventually, I grew older, and my vagina continued to function the way I needed it to. I stopped thinking about it, and worrying about it, and now It looks like mine.
The New York Times has reported that doctors have been shocked by how many young women have requested this surgery for cosmetic reasons. Reconstructive vaginal surgery is not generally recommended until the body has finished growing and is out of adolescence, and The American Society of Plastic Surgery (ASPS) does not recommend getting cosmetic vaginal surgery at all, as they believe it needs more scientific study. According to my favorite website, Web MD, cosmetic surgery has not been proven to be a safe procedure, we do not know its long term health effects, and it does not have any benefits outside of a sense of physical "improvement" (WebMD uses the term “Designer Vagina”, which is the most glorious term I’ve seen on their site. It makes me picture my vagina with a miniature Birkin). Meanwhile, the site states that reconstructive surgery can be beneficial after childbirth and has been successful in reducing or fixing functional problems.
When I spoke to Rachel Rolseth, who created the zine LADY BITS: The Zine for Vagina Havers, she told me that her favorite page in the zine was her illustration of all different types of vaginas, with the phrase “Every Body is Beautiful” across the image. She said her friends were shocked when they saw the photo, and were surprised by all the different types of vaginas, but one of the women, a waxer, said that she had seen them all before. Rachel reminded me that often, the vaginas that women are seeing are the ones shown in porn, and how that is not the best representation of vaginas as a whole. Dr. Veronica Gomez-Lobo, the director of Pediatric and Adolescent Ob/Gyn at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, told the New York Times she recommends that women “look at look at unretouched photographs of vulvas, like those in the book 'Petals' by Nick Karras.”
The New York Times also reported that girls 18 and younger make up less than 2% of all cosmetic operations, but almost 5% of all labiaplasties. This statistic poses a question I’d like to offer up for discussion- do we make cosmetic vaginal procedures off limits to women under 18 years old? Or is a signature by a parent okay, like when you get your ears pierced at Claire's? (Do these questions I pose make me a vagina-centric Carrie Bradshaw? Or perhaps a pensive Samantha? Either way, I’m sitting next to a window in NYC so my dreams have been fulfilled.)