What We Do In The Name Of Self-Esteem


We’ve been talking an awful lot about labia lately. Particularly about the huge increase in the surgical reduction of the inner labia by cosmetic surgeons in this country. Germaine Greer and others have compared the practice to female genital mutilation and most of the commentary has been in agreement. But what’s grabbed us so hard about this? What’s behind our fascination with the designer vulva?

Have ladygardens ever been so newsworthy? I think not. In the mid 1980s, when I was Women’s Studies major, before it became Gender Studies and we were all forced to share unisex toilets with the annoyingly earnest men in our classes, talking about c*nts was not something that happened in the mainstream press.

This was of course back in the dark ages when we still had pubic hair and prospective lovers felt privileged to catch sight of labia of any description, rather than considering themselves to be connoisseurs of the perfect inner lip. Plastic surgery was for patsies with lots of cash and the worst things happening to our genitalia were perpetrated by other people.

Many feminists at the time were aware that seeing vulvas in the wild was the only real way to get a sense of the amazing variety of lady parts in the world and the only way to counteract the engendered sense of shame of having a c*nt at all in this culture. So like our sisters years before us, we sat in lounge rooms with speculums and mirrors and goblets of wine and were astonished by each other’s bodies. I’ll never forget a Caribbean Canadian friend of mine, weeping beside me, "I didn’t know I was pink inside; I’ve never looked before".

This is the reasoning behind The Large Labia project (NSFW), a collection of images and stories of women’s vulvas whose aim is to promote wellness amongst women. It’s being published at a time when record numbers of women are de-enhancing their labia minora in an attempt to look more beautiful, normal, porn star or clean.

A great deal of the current discussion around labial reduction surgery makes a link between these operations and the practices of excision, infibulation and other forms of genital mutilation performed in many cultures around the world. This makes sense on one level. They are both cultural practices that involve a violent refashioning of women’s genitalia that carry great risk and interfere with pleasure. But I think to get clear on what is happening in the office of the labio-plastic surgeon and why it’s attracted our attention in this culture, we need to look more closely at our practices of self-harm.

Last week I sat in a supervision session with a therapist whose client had come to see her because of problems in her relationship with her boyfriend. He had told her, amongst other things, that he was having trouble having sex with her because her inner vulval lips were too big and ugly. She was considering surgery. You hear a lot of terrible stuff in my line of work, but for some reason this story made both of us cry.

I think one of the reasons we’ve become so focused on this issue is because unlike female genital mutilation, genital surgery is self-inflicted and part of a continuum of self-harming practices that have been normalised as our cultural body dysmorphia has become generalised and entrenched. So entrenched that we are now mutilating our own bodies in the name of enhanced self-esteem.

Jessica Rowe wrote a piece last week to tell us she was a feminist who used Botox. Like many women who have "confessed" to using some form of surgical enhancement, she speaks about doing it only for herself and about it making her feel better.

This is not such a far cry from the reasons women give for self-harming: for cutting, burning, picking, starving or over-exercising. These are the things we do to our bodies externally in order to manage unbearable internal feelings. Self-harm is related to overwhelming feelings as a result of trauma, and a lack of ability to regulate the emotions stemming from those experiences. Hurting yourself then actually focuses the experience of the pain, contains it in the body and temporarily calms the terrible feelings. You could say you do it to make yourself feel better.

We need to ask ourselves: why this increase in female self harm and why now? I think that’s what we’re turning over and over here in our attempts to describe and make sense of what we’re doing to our vulvas in record numbers. And if we use the idea of self-harm as a kind of compass, then the other side of the dial can only point to trauma. We must be hurting more because we’re hurting ourselves more.

As the playing field of the normal female body gets smaller and smaller, younger and younger, thinner and thinner, ever more hairless and manga-fied, we’ve become traumatised. And it’s more than possible that we’re hurting ourselves to try to ease the pain.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.