by Anisha Tailor, Press Office Assistant at the British Science Festival 2013
Women talk about a lot. But have I ever had an in-depth conversation about what my lady parts look like with a pal? Not a chance. And an impromptu survey of my nearest and dearest revealed they hadn’t either. Me, asking “Do you ever talk about what your labia look like?” was as about as in-depth as it got.
I had never really thought to worry about it, but a surprising concern of many women seems to be “Do I have a funny looking vagina?” or more specifically “Are my labia too long?” This was the subject of the British Science Festival event “Designer Vaginas: The Ethics of Labia Surgery” last Tuesday.
Women, and men, gathered at the Tyneside cinema for an evening session on the question, “Are labiaplasties anti-female pornification or an empowering choice?”
For those of you are unfamiliar with the term labiaplasty, it is a surgical procedure where the inner set of lips surrounding the vagina are snipped or trimmed to reduce their size, or to give better symmetry. Who doesn’t want better symmetry? The word is often thrown around when talking about the aesthetic appeal of faces, but now it seems to have extended to the genital area too. As if keeping my eyebrows even wasn’t enough of a worry.
The topic was introduced through director Ellie Land’s award winning animation Centrefold  and its associated film What the experts say. The animation retold the personal accounts of three women who have had labiaplasty, while the second film delved into the medical and psychological viewpoints towards the procedure. The films were then followed by a panel discussion and audience debate on all things labia. Short, long, wonky, shaven, unshaven, it was all there.
The beautifully crafted animation provided a window into the minds of women who have these surgeries, the desperation, in some cases, that they felt, the sleep they lost worrying over its appearance, the comments and images that caused them to doubt how ‘normal’ they were. These women did not put themselves under the knife just because they thought their bits looked a bit funny, they did it because their thoughts caused them anxiety, and unhappiness. In a society where the bands of ‘normal’ have been narrowed to photoshopped or airbrushed images of what the media portrays as beautiful, it is no wonder that such uncertainties develop. One size does not fit all, but it is difficult to find all the other shapes.
The films provided a thought-provoking basis for the frank discussion which followed. The panel included director Ellie Land, Dr Lih Mei Liao, a consultant clinical psychologist in women’s health, and Dr Diana Mansouri who on a daily basis is faced with women’s ladies bits. The panel told of how girls as young as 12 have been to see them about their labia, and how many women who think that their labia are a little too long, are actually perfectly within the realms of average.
Ultimately the discussion came down to the fact that normal is not what we are bombarded with on the internet, in magazines or on our screens, and that there is a clear worry for younger generations as they are exposed to these images of the so called ‘perfect female form’ at a far earlier age than any time before.
I found the session incredibly informative, the films tackled the subject in a sensitive and non-judgemental manner and I will most definitely be sharing the films with others. I am distressed by the fact that women seemed to have found yet another unattainable ideal that they are measuring themselves up against. For anyone who is feeling concerned, the films are sure to make you see that you are not alone, and that ‘normal’ is a pretty broad category.