Margot Harris | Longreads | October 2019 | 16 minutes (3,346 words)
I was scrolling through my usual Instagram cache of impeccably staged dessert photos when I saw the cupcakes. Vulva cupcakes, decorated to celebrate a wide range of yonic beauty. With frosting. Buttercream, chocolate ganache, fondant, and raspberry-flavored labia of varying sizes, fresh from the oven. Edible pearl clitorises perched neatly at the apex. The self-proclaimed body-positive account featured whimsical tableaus: oranges, apples, cherries, and bananas were arranged in pairs to celebrate diversity in breast size and shape. Sliced papaya, honeydew melon, and grapefruit rivaled the blatancy of Georgia O’Keefe. And yet, as I searched the grid of suggestive snacks, I couldn’t find a fruit or baked good to match my own anatomy. Where were the less aesthetically-pleasing cupcakes, I wondered; the flaking coconut cake with chewed grape Laffy Taffy heaped unceremoniously on top? Was that shape so far from the norm that it couldn’t be included in a shrine to body diversity? I bit my tongue until I tasted salt.
* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
“It’s a cupcake,” my friend Chloe* hissed at me over room temperature white wine, “get a grip.” She was right, of course. Women across the country were reeling from the appointment of an all-but-certain rapist to the Supreme Court, hence our meeting at a dingy bar on a Thursday afternoon, and I was busy vocalizing my fears that my labia didn’t match ones made of buttercream. Vanity at this particular moment felt inappropriate, a glaring indication of my privilege, but days of tense political bickering and nights without sleep had eroded my filter. I was tired, tired of everything, so why not slur my wine-soaked truth to a college friend? Especially one I could always count on to redirect my priorities. But the theoretically inclusive vulva cakes, however stupid, were just another image to taunt me and shape that incessant internal monologue; I will never look normal. I gulped the rest of my wine so I could tell Chloe before the embarrassment took over. I was considering aesthetic surgery. Labiaplasty. Definition: plastic surgery performed to alter the appearance of the labia minora, usually in the form of trimming. Yes, there would be a scalpel involved. No, it wouldn’t be covered by health insurance. No, there would be no general anesthesia for the procedure. Yes, there would be sutures down there. I gripped the stem of my wine glass to steady my hands, leaving sweaty fingerprints at the base. Chloe’s eyes widened at the mention of scalpels and she almost looked sympathetic for a minute. But her eyes darted to the TV behind my head, and she finished her wine. “Well,” she said, examining her empty glass, “at least no one can accuse you of being a crazy feminist anymore.”
Growing up, I was educated by the standard syllabus. Venus shaving ads, glowing from the pages of Teen Vogue, informed me that my legs were worthless unless smooth to the touch — even at the hard-to-reach spots on the knees and ankles. Laguna Beach and MTV reality shows taught me that real self-improvement took the form of spray tans and weekly pedicures. America’s Next Top Model preached the value of high cheekbones, clear skin, and expressive eyes (I couldn’t make mine smile like Tyra said, despite concerted efforts in the bathroom mirror). Romantic comedies and horror movies alike demonstrated how my breasts should be perfectly round and bounce in slow motion when running, either in soccer practice or away from serial-rapist-murderers. I took notes dutifully, rubbing tanning lotion on my raw shins and sneaking away to Victoria’s Secret with friends to buy padded bras. The ones with gel inserts for natural bounce factor. Clear skin was simply out of the question, thanks to genetics, but I owed the world my best efforts: at the recommendation of a dermatologist, I singed every oil gland on my face with UV radiation once a month.
Where were the less aesthetically-pleasing cupcakes, I wondered; the flaking coconut cake with chewed grape Laffy Taffy heaped unceremoniously on top?
High school arrived with an even more specific mold that didn’t fit my body. Standards of beauty didn’t just apply to your legs, I deduced, but what was between them. The real truth, the one free of classroom and parental naiveté, could be found on the Internet. Meme culture arose with a vengeance, and it quickly became an easy platform to dictate the genital gold standard. The knots in my stomach turned to lead when I saw a photo of sandwich meat spilling out of a deli sub — an unnervingly familiar visual — with the caption “when she takes off her panties and you know you’ve made a huge mistake.” Porn, the primary educator of insecure and under-informed teens, confirmed my fears. I hid under a tent of blankets, an overheating laptop burning the tops of my thighs, and I researched. Sasha Grey and her PornHub contemporaries had something in common beyond their stamina, nonexistent gag reflexes, and incomprehensible enthusiasm: camera-worthy labia. Small, pink, smooth, and completely unrecognizable to me. Had those vulvas been honored in dessert-themed Instagram accounts, they could be represented with half a pink macaron.
Once aware of my deviant labia, I took precautions. While my friends shimmied carelessly into tiny bikinis in open locker rooms, I fumbled into oversize one-pieces from the bathroom stall, carefully arranging myself so everything would stay in place. When my boyfriend tugged at the waistband of my jeans during our make-out sessions on the L-shaped couch in his basement, I immediately shut off the overhead light exposing us. He bit my lower lip and moaned into my neck, grinding into my hip bones until he came. I watched the ceiling fan circle relentlessly, feeling nothing but overexposed and dry, praying he wouldn’t reach for the light. At least I could be small and pink — worthy of his sexual enthusiasm — in the dark.
In college, I began a long pattern of using my academic work to sort through my issues with inadequacy. I sat doe-eyed in freshman year sociology classes, devouring professors’ condemnation of social constructs and snapping along with my classmates at the mention of toxic masculinity. I pored gleefully over the textbook chapter defining the sexual double standard. I gasped along with my Introduction to Gender Studies class when we learned of a radical feminist theory that heterosexual sex could not truly be consensual under the current patriarchal structure of society. I felt vindicated by my selective interpretation of the texts before me — determining that my physical shortcomings weren’t my fault, but a reflection of a deeply flawed system. Most importantly, I felt, academia promised me that we could unlearn carefully cultivated notions of beauty.
But the warped photocopies of Andrea Dworkin essays and peer-reviewed studies about the role of attractiveness in the economy hardly mattered when I looked into the lighted magnification mirror that taunted me from my dresser. There were the craters marring my forehead from years of pimple-popping. Then those deepening stretch marks creeping up my hips from 2 AM stress pizza (I never dabbed the oil off with a napkin like my roommate from the softball team). And there was the constant, lurking anxiety of knowing I wasn’t “normal.” In fact, I was grotesque — grotesque enough for a sexual partner to view fucking me as a mistake. Academia — or, more accurately, the projection of my insecurities onto my assigned readings — assured me that these features were not inherently unattractive. Distaste for them was the product of a larger system with a social, political, and economic agenda in mind. But I lay awake on my twin extra-long mattress wondering when knowing this might translate to hating my body less.
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In an effort to avoid the disconnect, I dragged my male friends to gender studies seminars until they acknowledged the brilliance of Catharine MacKinnon. I encouraged unsuspecting students tanning on the Green to take part in the university’s nude yoga class — all about body positivity! — and huddled in the back of the studio taking attendance while a sea of sweaty, body-glittered legs spread and intertwined in front of me. I hoped they couldn’t see my fraudulence from my hideout in the corner. I wore my “feminist killjoy” tank top well into the winter months. Despite the desperation to live in perfect coherence with my newfound values, my reverence for the bodies of others never coincided with forgiveness for my own. I tutored friends in introductory gender studies and used my earnings to laser the hair off my underarms.
The performative feminism as a deflection from my confusion continued after college. I donned sloppily-made pussy hats to march on Washington and passively tweeted my outrage. I donated a small percentage of my paycheck every month to Planned Parenthood. I bickered valiantly with my parents over Thanksgiving dinner about body shaming. And I believed what I said. But I demanded empowerment and resistance from everyone but myself. I researched aesthetic surgeons every night before falling asleep.
It took two years of investigating genital surgery before I made the decision. I would survey my empty apartment, nervous that invisible critics might catch me in the act, before scouring the Internet for before and after photos of trimmed and re-shaped labia. According to the photographic evidence, labia that looked like mine — protruding, asymmetrical, and discolored — could be rejuvenated to more closely resemble the fruit and candy interpretations on Instagram than the heinous deli meat memes. I imagined the sex. Wet and sticky, completely exposed with the lights on. I pictured my legs splayed apart — shamelessly, carelessly — while a nondescript face with a square jaw kissed my inner thighs and moved upward to a silky pink crevice, recognizable from any porn industry fantasy. I pictured orgasms, intense as the ones I gave myself in my empty bedroom, when I felt my heartbeat between my legs and kicked the fitted sheet off the corner of the mattress. Isn’t that what my feminist predecessors would have wanted? Well, at least the ones who believed consensual sex could exist at all.
Ben and I didn’t make eye contact when I told him. We sat shoulder to shoulder on the red couch in his living room, staring at the cookie tin my grandmother gave him that he’d converted to a coffee table ashtray. We’d been dating for five months, but we didn’t trust each other. I combed through his text messages while he slept, wondering who Sarah was and if she had a flat stomach and high cheekbones. She probably liked his favorite brand of sour beer that tasted like dead Sour Patch Kids. Maybe she was someone he used to, or still did, sleep with. I wondered if he devoured every inch of her body, leaving no patch of skin unbitten, no crevice unattended to. Was he astounded by how symmetrical her breasts were or how she always looked powerful and elegant, even bent over his bed, sweat dripping down her neck? Maybe, when they were finished, he even grinned at her and told her how perfect her body was. He never said anything about mine. After sex, he’d roll over and peruse the fantasy baseball app on his phone, grinding his teeth in frustration over batting averages and shoulder injuries. I stared at the ceiling and counted the cracks in the paint so I wouldn’t slip up and ask if he’d enjoyed himself. If there was something wrong with me.
The tips of his ears glowed red at the word “labia” and his jaw clenched when I added the part about the surgery’s six-week recovery time, which meant no sex. I sensed him adding another tally to my invisible scoresheet, marking me down for another deviation from the confident, low-maintenance girlfriend image I’d so carefully curated on the Bumble profile he swiped. The girl in the photos had subtle purple streaks in her hair, boasted a nipple piercing, and never got jealous. She liked sex and spontaneity and wouldn’t ask how she was in bed. That’s what he was promised. How many more tallies before that girl was gone — and Ben with her?
“Do you want to say anything?” I asked after a few minutes of icy silence.
“You should spend that money on therapy instead,” he said.
The Internet offered me little validation. Reddit revealed a disappointing alliance between Incels and intersectional feminists. Granted, the two groups had markedly different concerns. Incels feared my deceiving ways — my stealthy attempt to revive the ravaged remnants of promiscuity. The self-proclaimed feminists decreed the procedure of “designer vaginas” a response to brainwashing and deeply internalized misogyny. I remembered the photocopies collecting dust in my old college folders and pictured Andrea Dworkin seizing in her grave.
I would survey my empty apartment, nervous that invisible critics might catch me in the act, before scouring the Internet for before and after photos of trimmed and re-shaped labia.
More disturbing than the ranting of vulva purists were the articles from the experts. Gynecologists referred to labiaplasty — the world’s fastest-growing cosmetic surgery, according to one devastating headline — as a deeply disturbing trend, with procedures up 45% in 2016 alone. Some made the case that long-term effects of labia reduction surgery are “criminally under-researched” and the procedure’s existence is nothing more than a lack of consideration for the vulva as anything beyond a visual stimulant to men. One pediatrician described being “heartbroken” by the puberty-aged girls showing up to her door wanting to sever their labia. I could rationalize away misogynistic Reddit criticisms of my deception, but I didn’t enjoy the weight of responsibility for underage girls wanting to remove their organs.
More specific googling yielded women’s magazines reminding plastic surgery skeptics that feminism is all about making your own choices now! But I perused them half-heartedly, focusing on their typos and unforgivable use of the passive voice. Hardly credible sources, I determined. I returned to my critics’ articles constantly, keeping their searing headlines open in separate tabs on my computer. Despite stumbling on an occasional article to the contrary, I deduced a general consensus among the medical and progressive communities: getting this surgery wasn’t really okay. But I wondered how many critics had the good fortune to look like the cupcakes. Or to come home to partners who could look them in the eyes after sex. Or to sit through a class or meeting without constantly visualizing the Internet-condemned roast beef spilling out between their legs.
The day of my procedure, I repeated my rationale to the mirror in the bathroom of the plastic surgeon’s office. First, the half-true elevator pitch, given to the surgeon: I get uncomfortable riding a bike! I don’t want to live in physical discomfort anymore. Second, the defense: Who cares if it’s aesthetic surgery, anyway? No one else gets to have an opinion. I am in control of my body. This is what agency looks like. Third, the half-hearted reassurance: This procedure will turn out well—I picked the best surgeon in the country! No one will have to know I did it, anyway. Unless I tell them.
The last question on the intake forms asked for an emergency contact. I left it blank. “If I die on the table, just don’t tell anyone,” I begged the nurse who returned the incomplete paperwork.
“Make me pretty,” I slurred to Dr. Hunter as the painkillers took hold and I fumbled with the tie on my hospital gown. In my Percocet-induced clarity, I knew: I wanted to be pretty. Neat. Dainty. Worthy. Yes, I chose one side of the conflicting messages I’d been bombarded with — taunted by — my entire life. What did I have to defend? But lying on the icy, sanitized operating table, the Ativan slowing my pulse and loosening my jaw, I heard myself whisper, “Sorry.” Thanks to a shot of local anesthetic, I felt nothing during the procedure but an eerie pressure somewhere between my legs.
The contours of the pain became much clearer on the fifty-block cab ride home, the numbing medications wearing off with each excruciating jolt of a speed bump or crunch of gravel under the tires. I tried to remember the terms I’d heard doctors use to categorize pain: burning, radiating, sharp. What words did they use for the pain of being gutted by a butcher knife, genitals first? “If you’re going to throw up, get out,” the driver warned.
But I wondered how many critics had the good fortune to look like the cupcakes. Or to come home to partners who could look them in the eyes after sex.
Against the doctor’s advice, I peeked under the carefully-arranged bandage as soon as I arrived home. I winced at the sight of the dried blood collecting on the stitching, but amidst the carnage and swelling, I could see it. A glimpse of worthiness.
I decided my penance for the surgery would have to go beyond the three-month payment plan and the tearful weekend in bed with a bag of frozen peas clamped between my thighs and a bottle of Percocet adhered to my palm. The price for my fraudulent labia, my rejection of ideology and general medical advice in pursuit of twisted perfection, would be my humiliation. I told everyone. I mentioned it offhand to classmates over Chinese food. To the pharmacist prescribing painkillers. To a Tinder date who looked like he wanted to disappear into his untouched wine.
“You know, you’re not required to tell everybody,” one friend told me between stale beers at his apartment when I blurted it out. “They probably don’t want to know, anyway.” But I relished the pounding in my chest, the flush in their cheeks, the darting glances to anywhere but my eyes. The palpable discomfort. This was my punishment: the distress of sitting with public culpability.
“I didn’t know that was something you could do,” my mom said, her tone only tinged with disapproval — no more so than when I told her I would be graduating a semester late. But her mouth pinched shut the way it did when she was afraid she might blurt out an honest opinion, wrinkles collecting on her upper lip. I knew how she felt about image-conscious women. Beauty is skin deep, she’d clucked at me since the first time she caught me hovering by the flavored lip gloss in Sullivan’s Toy Store. What a waste of money and brain cells, we’d muttered with eye rolls in response to the mothers of my high school classmates who often appeared at school events with tighter faces and unassuming noses. Watching her silence, I felt it. The rush of humiliation; the heat in my face, the numbness in my toes, the quickening of my pulse. Embarrassment for talking about my vulva. Shame for being one of those women who wasn’t serious. Wasting money and brain cells. This was the shame I deserved.
I even showed Chloe the eight sutures before they dissolved into discrete oblivion. My repentance could only be completed with total exposure. “That’s crazy,” she whispered, inspecting the stitching.
Throughout my six-week healing period, as the sutures dissolved and my own silky pink macaron anatomy took shape, I brought up the surgery constantly. Compulsively. Paying close attention to my own retelling of the story — searching for clues, but still unable to identify what embarrassed me most: that I’d been so ‘unattractive’ in the first place, that I’d gone through with the surgery, or that I was pleased with the results.
I had plans for the grand unveiling of my downstairs renovations. Ben was gone — after ten months of staring at our phones instead of each other, we returned college sweatshirts and shared a final beer sitting cross-legged on the floor of my apartment. I was excited for sex with someone who might approve of, or even be excited by, me. And if anyone had something to say about my body, I had a rehearsed response at my disposal: “Yeah, it’s new.” Perhaps it was the final acceptance of what I’d done, one last embarrassing step toward ownership. Toward something. And when it happened — a vague, crude observation from a graduate student who tasted like popcorn and didn’t own a bedframe — my mouth felt dry. No defiant joke or witty response. So, like many times before, I said nothing and stared at the bone-white ceiling, counting backward from one hundred.
Margot Harris is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.
Editor: Carolyn Wells