Leave Our Labia Alone

Today on the TV show The Doctors, the topic was “private parts” and Dr. Jennifer Berman (REQUIRED READING: this LA times article about controversies related to her and her sister, Dr. Laura Berman’s, approach to sexuality issues). I didn’t watch the entire show but a clip floating around the Internet shows that age- and birth-related changes to women’s labia were topics of conversation.

While it’s true that labia may show some age-related changes, let’s face it: all of our body parts age. If you live long enough, your toes will wrinkle. Your hands will wrinkle and get more spotty. Your chin will likely sag and, yes, your genitals (whether you’re a man or a woman) will sag as well.

Dr. Jennifer Berman notes that such labia-related changes “never crossed (her) mind” until, shockingly enough, she spoke with a plastic surgeon (you may recall that just last night I wrote about a new study that suggests that male physicians and plastic surgeons – compared to women and ob/gyns or general practitioners – are more likely to recommend labiaplasty to women who have perfectly normal sized labia).

Dr. Berman went on to say to the women in the audience that they would never really notice these features of their labia changing while in a typical position, such as lying down. She said that she really had to bend over and get in a certain position to notice that she had very “subtle” changes to her labia (at least that seems to be what she’s suggesting as she’s very vague – I guess she didn’t want to suggest that her labia were anything other than slightly aged). The way the show is edited, and what she says, makes it sound as though Dr. Berman then had fillers injected into her labia as part of a “labia puff” procedure although she doesn’t really quite come out and ever say that (at least not on the clip I watched).  So who’s to know whether she did or didn’t?

Now, total disclaimer here: I have been on The Doctors TV show. I actually really, really liked the hosts of The Doctors show when I met them and I had a lot of fun as their guest. They were kind to me and they seemed to provide sound information on the episode that I was on and they didn’t recommend anything to women that, to my knowledge anyway, would have posed a danger. And, like I said, I didn’t watch today’s episode so they may have gone on to say that most women don’t need a “labia puff” or a “labiaplasty” or other surgical or non-surgical treatments to change their labia. Hopefully they went on to say that most women’s labia are beautiful and healthy in their natural state and that all procedures, surgical or non-surgical, carry risks. I know they at least made the point that our entire bodies experience age-related changes, thus perhaps normalizing the aging process for many women. Did they say anything like this? If you caught the show, let me know.

I guess I just want more people to leave our labia alone. I get that vajazzling, vatooing, labiaplasty and vaginal rejuvenation and all sorts of other vulvar and vaginal procedures get a lot of press and pageviews for people. But there’s also something very serious at stake here and that is women’s sexual health, self-esteem and well-being.

Not all women have the tools to understand that their labia are quite normal and healthy as they are. Not everyone had an open, reassuring mom who educated them about their genitals or passed on a book like Our Bodies, Ourselves or Femalia. Some women have significant body image issues, or pain related to their labia, and I believe they deserve for medical help to be available to them if they so desire it. However, it really bothers me when people talk about women’s bodies in ways that purposely suggest they should feel worse or insecure about them, and when they don’t give them enough context that might help them feel better about their bodies. I feel this way about labia and I also feel this way about breasts, body size, height, weight, hair color, you name it. And I think Dr. Jennifer Berman did a disservice to many women on today’s show.

I know that TV shows are a rushed experience, having been on a number of them myself. However, they can be really wonderful opportunities to educate the masses and to help people feel better about their bodies. The few times I was on the Tyra show, I felt like the producers and Tyra herself were attentive to these issues and cared about women’s responses. And when I was on The Doctors, the producer I worked with was also attentive to helping women learn about their bodies and feel positively about them too (and I got the feeling that the hosts were as well). Which makes me wonder how they feel about today’s show, and if I missed something later in the episode where they put labia issues into a greater, more reassuring and medically helpful context for women who might be sitting at home and wondering if yet another body part of theirs just doesn’t measure up.

For more information about vaginal and vulvar sex, pleasure, health, art, and culture, check out my forthcoming book “Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva“, co-authored with my friend and colleague Dr. Vanessa Schick.

Watch a video clip from today’s episode on Jezebel.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor.

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • Heather

    Thanks for this, Debby.  I agree with absolutely everything you’ve written here and in the previous “These Doctors…” post as well. How can you call something natural “un-natural?!” and what is up with Dr. Berman? ”Some women have significant body image issues, or pain related to their labia, and I believe they deserve for medical help to be available to them if they so desire it.” I love my labia minora.  They’re an awful lot like the fourth image in your previous post and I like the way they look; the way they feel between my fingers and in my partner’s mouth. However, I don’t like they way they feel when they’re being pinched in my jeans or in the lace of my underwear.  This is extremely painful and can cause bruising. Imagine trying to free pinched skin from your labia or scrotum when you’re in the middle of a business meeting or giving a presentation.  Imagine doing it anywhere and having it not be awkward!

    I will probably never have labiaplasty because of the risks of any surgery and I’m wary of altering anything on my body as I’ve been known to suffer from buyer’s remorse after buying cushions.  I can understand why someone would, though; I’ve certainly thought about it.

    Thanks for touching on this in your articles this week.  I agree with your point about being made to feel badly about our bodies and I think it’s unfortunate that sometimes women are made to feel badly about wanting to make a change, too.  All too often, legitimate concerns and issues are chalked up to vanity.