Resident expert on genitals, consciousness and the Genital Consciousness, UltraHedonist, goes deep undercover this week. Searching for a constructed, imagined perfection, she wonders if perfection even exists and if it does, can it be created with a scalpel?
Thick labia. Crinkly labia. Labia that are not symmetrical. Labia shining softly. Labia like the ears of an elephant. Labia folded and hanging like an inverted bat from a branch. Labia in the colours of the rainbow.
That’s the ‘before’ column. Down the other side, it’s a wall of parallel fleshy folds. They’re still all different colours, though.
My appointment with the surgeon is in twenty minutes, and I am anxiously adrift in a sea of vulvae. I’ve been combing labiaplasty galleries for at least an hour, seeking lips that look something like my own. My false tale of deep genital distress - woven from tiny fragments of truth and other people’s internet confessions - is a good one, but I’m afraid that it won’t hold up when it’s time for the big reveal.
The problem is that my pussy is pretty much standard issue. If labia minora are normally distributed, mine can be found smack in the middle of the bell curve. Like the rest of me, they are slightly asymmetrical but basically inoffensive.
Eventually I find a ‘before’ vulva that looks a bit like mine. The key difference is that the patient (‘childless, 23’) has adorned her mostly-hairless mons, before and after, with a tiny heart: an outline of pale skin stenciled in a sea of orange-brown. The whole arrangement gives the impression of a girl who pops out for a pint of fat-free milk and a labia cut. I doubt I can pull off that kind of an attitude, so I’m only slightly reassured. I don’t suffer from ‘labial hypertrophy’, but I have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I’m not cut out for undercover investigations. My palms are sweating.
Fortunately, anxiety about being caught with middle-of-the-road genitals manifests in much the same way as does anxiety about revealing your World’s Biggest Labia Minora. I look scared, so when the woman at the counter sees me, she says: You haven’t done this before, have you? I giggle nervously. The woman – her name is Jenny – smiles and hands me a clipboard with a form. I wedge myself into the very corner of the couch, ticking boxes while Norah Jones sings softly, reassuringly, in the background.
Jenny leads me into the consultation room. Inured to the horror of medically unnecessary needles to the face, the surgery has decorated the office with two large glass vases filled with bamboo sticks and empty Botox® vials. We sit down at a desk with a computer, where there’s a slideshow ready to go. I adopt an insecure, crumpled kind of a posture, arms folded, legs crossed. Suddenly it occurs to me that truly outsize labia might make crossing one’s legs uncomfortable. I consider uncrossing them, but don’t.
‘Now, have they told you I’m not a doctor?’
Jenny is not a doctor. Jenny is just a very nice lady who loves to talk. Her job, she tells me, is to explain everything, and to be my ‘best friend for six weeks.’ Jenny is older, homely, nondescript. Her blonde hair hangs limply, and she is not wearing any make-up. Jenny isn’t judging me for having bulky, inconvenient labia. Her sympathy betrays no whiff of genital superiority.
‘The first thing to tell you is: you can relax! You’re not going to have to show me anything today. We’re just going to talk.’
My actual relief allows me to feign relief convincingly.
Jenny turns to the computer and clicks through to the first slide. It’s a photograph of the Great Wall of Vagina: four hundred disembodied vulvas, cast in plaster and stacked side-by-side in an homage to diversity.
‘Here’s my wall of vagina - I love it! It’s important to know that we’re all normal, all different,’ Jenny declares.
‘…but if you have a concern, you have a concern. And that’s why you’re here.’
There’s something quite graceful about the way Jenny has coopted the Great Wall of Vagina into her gentle pitch for the very procedure it opposes. It’s poetry: a dystopic kōan that reveals to the student the limitations of plaster of paris and the inevitability of capitalism’s triumph over art.
‘And we always say, you know, this is more an emotional process than a medical one. You’ve been distressed. You’ve been carrying this secret around with you for years and years... unable to talk to anyone about it, unable, maybe, to do the things you’ve wanted to do. Going to the beach with your friends, wearing that swimsuit…’
She trails off and pauses to look at me. She’s not insincere, but she is a salesperson, and she wants to know that she’s hitting the right notes. I widen my eyes, imagining them as brown pools of infinite sadness. I hold Jenny’s gaze, then break it, looking mournfully down at where my fingers twist nervously in my lap. Satisfied, she resumes.
‘And then… so… you make the decision. You decide to act. There’s ahhhhhhhh…. the relief.’
I flash a tiny, hopeful smile. I’m starting to enjoy myself.
It’s a couple of weeks since my discussion with Jenny. As relieved as I had been to keep my pants on, my curiosity had not been sated. How does a surgeon react to an unremarkable vulva? I have to know, so I’m on another cream couch in another clinic, flipping through Nip Tuck magazine. I’m on my lunch break, and my appointment was meant to start forty minutes ago.
This place feels altogether different to the last one. The woman at reception is young. Her foundation is a different colour to her skin, and she seems to be laughing silently at my enormous, uncontrolled vaginal lips. The photocopied patient form she hands me is the faded descendent of a long-forgotten original. I do not think she will be my best friend for six weeks.
The clinic itself has swapped soothing music for ambient traffic noise. Absent white space or artwork, each surface is covered with make-up samples and advertisements. ‘Let’s look at your upper face,’ suggests a poster, next to a second and a third dedicated to the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ face. An overflowing rack of brochures alerts patients to ever-more specific issues: fine lines; veins in the leg; excessive underarm sweating. The surroundings suggest a hope that the particularly troublesome problem of bodily decay and death might be solved if only we could break it down into its smallest component parts.
A full fifty minutes passes before Dr Wu emerges from his office and calls my name. I have read his CV, given to me in a plastic display folder when I arrived. Dr Wu is not a genital fiend, but a specialist in ‘Asian aesthetic surgery.’ Well-versed in both Western and Eastern ideals of beauty, he knows just how to stuff silicone into a modest chest cavity, or install creases in eyelids where once were none.
He leads me into his office and I plonk myself down in a low chair. In front of me is a coffee table, and on it rests a bowl containing breast implants of varied colours, shapes and sizes. On the other side, some metres distant, Dr Wu is perched defensively at his desk, which is messy and covered in papers. He glances at my patient form and swivels in his swivel chair to face me.
‘So. So, you’re here for… ahhh?’
Plastic surgeons, I have come to think, should have systems in place that minimise the number of times the patient must say ‘labiaplasty’ aloud, so I let the incomplete sentence hang awkwardly in the air.
‘Labiaplasty,’ I finally offer. Dr Wu looks unsettled, alarmed even. He continues in imperfect English.
‘And so what symptoms you experience? Are they… are they cause you discomfort?”
I’m too hungry and too irritable for theatre.
‘Hey listen, can we rush through this? I have to get back to work.’ He nods.
‘I don’t have any symptoms, I-’ Dr Wu interrupts me very deliberately.
‘Because if you experience symptoms you can get Medicare.’
‘There’s no medical problem. I know I’m normal, you know? I just don’t like the way it looks. They’re kind of uneven. I only want one side done.’
He looks unconvinced, like perhaps I just need therapy or a lie down. I am not trying hard enough.
‘I mean I really hate it, you know? I first noticed when I was a child. It, uh… it really bothers me.’
And then, finally, the moment I’ve been waiting for. Dr Wu seems intensely uncomfortable, but suggests that we ‘have a look.’ He asks three times whether I would like a nurse to be present in the room, his eyes begging me to say yes. ‘The fewer people the better!’ I joke, too cheerfully. I am getting perverse pleasure from the good doctor’s discomfort.
Dr Wu busies himself rustling papers in the corner of the room while I remove my underpants and climb onto the patient bed, hitching my dress up and covering my pelvis with a small towel. It is a curious habit of both brazilian waxers and genital surgeons to want to give a girl a little privacy right before spreading her legs and staring directly at her lady flower.
He snaps on latex gloves and approaches me cautiously.
‘Now bend knees up.’
He makes a spreading motion with his forearms. I open my legs. Dr Wu leans in to peer at my crotch, grasping a single labia minora between rubbery thumb and finger. He squeezes it; tugs on it; turns it this way and that. The latex feels dry and foreign against my skin.
‘Hrmm,’ he says, and moves to the other side, repeating the procedure.
‘Ok…’ he says, ‘Ok. Yes. Right one is bit long and left one is bit thick. We do both sides. We make it nicer.’
The day I let Dr Wu poke around in my drawers was also, coincidentally, the day I found myself at the launch of a coffee table book about the female genitalia. One hundred and one photographs of vulvas. One hundred and one personal stories about those vulvas.
Peering over someone’s shoulder at yet another wall of genitals, straining to make out a passage of text containing the word ‘yoni’, a deep weariness overcame me. I didn’t care. Not about these vulvas, not about my own. Not about those of Jenny’s other best friends, not about Dr Wu’s patients’. I was a person who thought vulvas were like elbows or esophagi: useful, but unremarkable. I stopped squinting and turned away from the wall of vulvas. I turned and I walked past the table laden with books, past the photographer with her vaginal cut-out photo board, through labial doors, and into cool, clear night.