In November 2018, I visited Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) to see Greg Taylor’s artwork Cunts … and Other Conversations. I had just published my book, Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery: Deviance, Desire and the Pursuit of Perfection, which looks at the medical history of labiaplasty (the surgical reduction of the labia minora). The book argues that the drive for genital perfection is rooted in an array of historical practices and knowledges that have served to define ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ female sex and sexuality. As I was in Hobart to give a lecture on the process of writing this history, I took the opportunity to see the infamous wall of porcelain vulvas that I had been told about by everyone who knew about my research project. I went with my friend and fellow historian Penny Edmonds. Upon our arrival, I asked a woman at the front desk, ‘Where are the vulvas?’ She looked at me with incomprehension. I changed my question.
‘Where are the vaginas?’
‘Level B2,’ she replied almost immediately.
The MONA guide’s response to the word ‘vulva’ was not new to me; this linguistic confusion captured something of the problem I discuss in my book. As I discovered throughout the course of my research, anatomical naming of the female genitals has historically been imprecise, vague and confused. For example, what the ancient Greeks termed the ‘nymphe’ (for the clitoris) would later be applied to the labia minora by the anatomist Vesalius, who thought that the clitoris was a biological abnormality and not a part of the vulva. This linguistic – and anatomical – inarticulacy is not restricted to the sciences, but influences our ordinary, everyday speech too, in the conflation of vagina and vulva. ‘Vulva’ was certainly not a word I would have used myself, had I not been writing a book about it. Yet to understand what’s medically ‘normal’, we need to have precise names for the body parts in question.
When Penny and I found the exquisitely detailed white casts of vulvas that adorned the black walls, we took note of people’s responses to them. Quite a few people – particularly men – walked on the far side of a corridor of vulvas, turning their head for a flicker of a moment, before walking on with a determined look of uninterest, veiling embarrassment. Others treated them as a work of art to be pondered in silence, while couples and groups quietly exclaimed to each other about the diversity in vulval appearance. In fact, when Penny and I eavesdropped or pulled visitors aside to ask them about their thoughts, the defining theme was surprise.
‘Who knew there were so many?’ a visitor enthused. ‘It’s so cool!’ One woman remarked, ‘I didn’t realise they come in all different shapes and sizes,’ while another reflected, ‘I didn’t know there were so many types. It’s really in your face, isn’t it?’ A man said, ‘Just goes to show how diverse they are. That’s a lot of women.’
The problem in the sciences – which is also mirrored in public consciousness – is that there is a shocking dearth of gynaecological research on what medically normal female genital diversity (meaning the range of shape, size and colour of undiseased vulvas) looks like. This is because there is a long history of medical enquiry that has sought to cultivate bodily norms – where the ‘norm’ represents a desirable type – in the human female population. In my book, I show that when the normal becomes mixed up with the desirable, we get a cultural fantasy of the female body, which presents a singular image of what a female body ought to look like, regardless of the very real and endlessly varied female bodies that actually exist in the world. In this sense, labiaplasty is the symptom of an idea of female genital normality. Cosmetic surgery on the genitals reduces diversity to a single visual type: the ‘clean slit’ ideal or the ‘Barbie’ look, in which the labia minora are either entirely hidden by or sit flush with the lips of the labia majora.
The notion that small, neat and tidy labia minora align with this phantasm called ‘normal femininity’ needs to be called into question because what we are finding to be verifiably true, through the efforts of feminist science research, is that there is a very wide natural variety of labial shapes, sizes and colours that is only just beginning to be documented. I refer here to the article by Jillian Lloyd, Naomi Crouch, Catherine Minto, Lih-Mei Liao and Sarah Creighton titled ‘Female Genital Appearance: “Normality” Unfolds’. In this study, Lloyd et al. measured the labia minora of fifty asymptomatic premenopausal women aged between 18 and 50, and found great variation in size, with the upper limit being 50 mm in width. The study was conducted because the researchers realised that there was no concept of normal in the clinical literature. The anatomical boundaries of normality needed to be investigated, they argued, because ‘implicit in a woman’s desire to alter her genital appearance may be the belief that her genitals are not normal, that there is such a thing as normal female genital appearance, that the operating surgeon will know what this is, that he or she will be able to achieve this for her and that this would somehow improve her wellbeing or relationships with others’. What is considered ‘normal’ by plastic surgeons is what they perceive to be aesthetically pleasing, rather than what actually exists. In this way, the plastic surgery literature constructs a biological norm on the basis of subjective aesthetic values evident in the pejorative descriptions of protuberant labia minora as ‘grossly enlarged’, looking like ‘spaniels’ ears’ and ‘deformed’.
In Cunts … and Other Conversations, visitors are given the opportunity to see the vulval casts of 151 women. The exhibition invites women spectators to see ourselves as connected to one another in our shared biology and infinite diversity. One woman asserted, ‘all the girls have it. It’s nothing to be shy of’, while another affirmed, ‘you can see yourself in here.’ To give due consideration to biological diversity is to revise our concept of ‘normal’. It is, as Creighton and Liao do in their new book Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery: Solution to What Problem?, to recognise that there is nothing medically abnormal about labia minora that are visible beyond the outer lips. To pay tribute to diversity is to see ourselves differently, in our difference. To see your own embodiment in any number of the vulvas on display is self-affirming and a necessary counterpoint to the cultural narratives that tell us we are never good enough, and that to become perfect we need to erase ourselves in order to become desirable, both to ourselves and others. The women who participated in Cunts … and Other Conversations are both courageous and generous in sharing themselves with us so that we might contemplate the beauty in being ordinary.
Image: Cunts … and Other Conversations. From the MONA collection.