Labiaplasty laid bare

I am 31 years old and I have a designer vagina. That is the bare, naked truth of it.

I asked a woman with a certificate on her wall to scalpel and stitch the most sacred and sensitive part of my gross anatomy and then paid her R10 000 for the physical displeasure.

And this is after a Cape Town plastic surgeon described my labia minora—the tongue part that supposedly lives inside your body—as “well endowed” and “meaty”.

But by the time she told me that she could have likened it to a piece of tenderised steak, I still would have allowed her to take scalpel in hand, without taking her tactless descriptions to heart.

I still would have willingly suffered the weeks of pain and swelling and knowingly welcomed the agony I endured when that last stitch was plucked from the deepest, softest fold of my being.

That is how ready I was to put my 15-year-long battle to bed.

No one knows how deep the real scars go. Labiaplasty is nothing—try feeling like a freak for most of your young adult life.

I did not always think that. But then puberty hit and, with it, the constant need to compare oneself to one’s peers to discover what is “normal”. In the world of teenagers there is a definite sliding scale. “Normal” is if you blend in with the popular girl; “different” is if you have a few variations that can be attributed to genetics (too tall, fat, flat-chested); and “freak of nature”—the words of my teenage generation, not mine—is when there is no rhyme or reason to looking the way you do.

Teenagers may pretend they want to stand out but we all remember how much effort it took trying to fit in. I was no different.

Fortunately, my not-so-little secret could be hidden in my regulation school bloomers so I could easily appear normal, even if the changing rooms could easily reveal otherwise. I did what any confident, self-adjusted teenager would do. I buried my problem so deep that you would need surgical stirrups or a psychology degree just to locate it. Problem solved, but still unresolved.

The thing about physical “abnormalities” (let us use the word of my adult generation) is that they are a lot harder to bury than purely psychological ones. It does not matter whether you are built like Giselle Bündchen: you will never wear an eensy-weensy Brazilian bikini, or even do its waxing equivalent. In fact, any situation that would put you in loose, transparent or disposable underwear is definitely something you will plan to avoid. So, yes, as much as your spontaneous spirit might yearn for that midnight skinny dip with the girls, you will never be too drunk or stupid to entertain the idea.

‘Feeling like a freak’
I would not say that my abnormally large minora dictated my choices in life, but it certainly governed more decisions than it should have. On the positive side, I did not jump into bed with men as easily. I got to know them better and to trust them first. Perhaps I would have done that anyway. It is hard to tell where morals end and psychological issues begin.

I was also lucky that my first boyfriend with whom I had a sexual encounter was both patient and caring and never made me feel like a “freak”, even if deep down that is what I believed I was. I tried to make light of the situation by giving “it” funny nicknames but the jokes were superficial and the pain was not. Even with men I trusted, I often felt that they were only “­tolerating the peas and carrots to get to the dessert”. On many occasions, I would experience physical pain during intercourse, only to question later whether it was merely psychological.

I would never even conceive visiting a male gynaecologist. I put off finding a female gynae in Cape Town for so long that by the time I did get into the stirrups I was 25 years old and equipped with enough facts, figures and forum jargon about labial reductions to feel more like a peer than a patient.

On that note, it really is worth spending time online beforehand so you get to know the advantages and disadvantages of different procedures and read first-hand accounts of what the six-week recovery process is really like. Painful, but short-lived, if all goes well. It also makes you choose your surgeon carefully.

I almost scheduled the procedure with my gynae, but her lack of experience outside the birthing canal did little to reassure me. It was about then that I started researching plastic surgeons in Cape Town, particularly ones who were actively contributing to the public debate about vaginal surgery. It was the perfect way to gain insight into their personal views as much as their professional techniques. A few names and clinics stood out, so I tried one and, before I knew it, I was reading Visi in the waiting room of one of those swanky aesthetic clinics in central Cape Town, waiting to be approved or get approval from the city’s version of Dr 90210.

I always thought I would go the gynaecological route, possibly to reaffirm the idea that this was a medical condition I was treating and not an aesthetic procedure. But in the end I chose a plastic surgeon because she had more experience with the delicate procedure and because I knew it would heal, er, beautifully, I guess. Oddly enough, the plastic surgeon—and I went with one of the best—also turned out to be cheaper, thanks to fewer administration costs and processes attached to her private practice.

A year later and I sometimes wonder why it took me so long, but mostly I am glad it did. I needed to get to the point where I could make this decision from a place of personal power, at a time in my life when I felt completely comfortable with who I was. I guess the real test for me was my first post-operative sexual encounter. Besides its unnaturally good looks, it did not hurt physically and I did not have to spend all my energy trying to keep my partner focusing on the upper part of my body. I could finally engage on every level. So, yes, time really does heal all wounds.

The strange thing is that, after my operation, I was finally able to talk to my closest girlfriends about my life-long journey. And the conversation ended in a surprising revelation—most of us thirtysomethings had no idea what a “normal” vagina looked like. For that we had to Google through many porn sites and openly grimace at “before” photos on plastic surgery websites. Some were confused about which part of the anatomy we were actually discussing; others started questioning whether they should have a nip-tuck.

For all the Oprah we watch and the vagina monologues we listen to, it seems our vulvae remain as dark and mysterious as the days before Joani Blank’s revolutionary book Femalia. Perhaps it is time we started some open vagina dialogues.

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