I used to call it my second tongue. My left inner labia protruded approximately four centimeters from my body. I don’t remember it being any other way.
I didn’t begin to recognize that my genitals were particularly special until I watched TV shows that featured women in bathing suits. Their bikini bottoms appeared small, compact, neat. I rarely wore bikinis, and when I did, I made sure that my legs were slammed shut, or else one of my inner labia might make a surprise appearance. As I watched these actresses, who were often running on a beach, I thought, They don’t have to worry about their inner lips slipping out the sides? They aren't in pain with all that friction?
I didn’t think of these women as more beautiful than me, but I envied them for perhaps not having to deal with pain from their vulvas.
Vaginas are often compared to flowers because of their many creases and folds—opening, expanding, undulating. They’re soft and intricate. But for me, sitting down in front of a mirror with my legs spread, I did not see anything that resembled a flower. If I could compare my former vulva to anything, it would be a labyrinth. I had to strategize and maneuver, pushing excess flesh around, to see all that I contained. My left labia minora was so large that I was more astounded by it than anything else. It was wondrous, but I felt ill-equipped to handle it.
I stopped wearing shorts back in high school because of my “extra appendage,” and when I wore jeans, the fabric would chafe my whole vagina. Sometimes during conversations I’d have to reposition myself in my seat because I could feel my inner labia jammed into my underwear. I’d rush home and grit my teeth while pulling my labia apart, then sit with my legs spread, massaging my vulva with Shea butter to relieve the soreness. I tried, on many occasions, to tuck in my left labia, but it always found a way to roll back out—wrinkled, loose, and dangling. My vulva weighed my entire body down.
I had heard about labiaplasty, a plastic surgery in which the labia are reduced, being performed on women who had had children or those whose advanced age made them loose down there. But when I researched the procedure, most of the information I found came from feminist sites whose writers largely disapproved. When performed on women in their early twenties like me, labiaplasty has been compared to genital mutilation—the result of a patriarchal society that relentlessly tells women their only value lies in their looks and their sex appeal.
Research suggests that the average width of a woman's labia minora is around two centimeters, but they can range from roughly .3 to seven centimeters—the longer ones are more likely to cause discomfort. And over the past few years, an increasing number of women have sought out labiaplasties. In 2013, more than 5,000 labiaplasties were performed in United States, a 44% increase from the previous year. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 32% of women chose to undergo the surgery purely because of functional impairment, and 31% for a combination of functional impairment and aesthetics.
For me, while I often considered how having a smaller labia minora would influence my desirability, beauty was not a gargantuan concern. I wanted comfort and an absence of pain, and I was confident that those pleasantries would make me feel more comfortable in my body. And perhaps this confidence would flourish outward and make me more alluring. Until that point, my romantic relationships had remained mostly emotional, not physical, and I wasn’t considering surgery for anyone but me.
In the fall of 2014, a few months out of college, I booked a consultation with a plastic surgeon in Long Island, New York—then spent a year trying to figure out if I was making the right decision. I repeatedly psychoanalyzed myself, wondering if I was equating body modification with perfection, if I could reconcile the surgery with my feminist beliefs.
In the days leading up to the big event, something peculiar happened. My inner left labia tucked inside my vagina on several occasions, and I didn’t have to complete my elaborate pulling process. It was as if my labia knew what was about to happen, as if she were saying to me, I’ll be good, I promise. You don’t have to reduce me. But I didn’t trust her. I’d been in a painful relationship with my labia minora for years, and it was time for me to seek solace.
I scheduled my labiaplasty for September 25, 2015. My mother would accompany me, and I’d spend the weekend back at her home in South Jersey. Before the procedure, I had to get blood work done, acquire prescriptions for Diflucan and hydrocortisone cream, and sign a series of papers about my consent.
My doctor walked me through what to expect for the days leading up to and after the surgery. Most of it sounded okay, but two pages of informational materials stood out—the risks and the psychological healing process. Infection. Nerve Damage. Changes to sensitivity. Sexual dysfunction. Temporary or permanent numbness. Death. Was it worth it? My doctor assured me that everything would be fine, and I chose to believe him.
The morning of the surgery, I had to take off everything from the waist down so my doctor could take pictures of me while a nurse stood watch by the door. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. I stared at the ceiling as the doctor pulled my inner left lip down to document its true length. I blinked with each camera snap.
After that, I was given one Vicodin and one Percocet, which put me into a haze. I recognized that local anesthesia was being injected into my labia, then I saw the doctor grab surgical scissors and cut away, bloody tissue wedged between his gloved right thumb and pointer finger, then stitch me back together again. But I wasn’t in the room. I was both lying on the operating table and hovering over it, simultaneously in the operating room and back in my own bed watching Netflix.
The next few days were a blur of sleeping, bleeding, and blabbering. I hid myself in the comfort of my mother’s king-sized bed, curled into a ball. I felt like the middle portion of my body had dissolved, and I made sure to keep it that way by religiously taking my pain medication. My mother begged for me to take a week off of work, but I refused. I had just started a job as an editorial assistant at a new publishing venture in the swanky Flatiron district of Manhattan, a position I had fought for and dreamed about, and the labiaplasty was an elective procedure, after all. I sought out the surgery, and I wasn’t going to let it hold me back.
Five days later after the surgery I went back to work and embarked on the most psychologically draining week of my life. I kept a diary of my anxieties and fears about losing sensitivity forever. I was unable to perform simple tasks such as wiping or washing myself, forced to pat myself dry or let soapy water stream down my body. I wasn’t able to laugh without feeling my stitches. At times I felt like I no longer had a vulva, but rather a bunch of disassembled parts held together by thread that, I feared, could come undone at any moment. Some nights I had feverish dreams of being assaulted.
Before the surgery, I had started dating a man who was incredibly supportive of my decision. He would tell me that I had the agency to do what I felt was right when it came to my body. Afterward, he would ask before planting a kiss on my lips, understanding that I was trying to re-familiarize myself with myself. Each affectionate gesture propelled us forward.
But I quickly learned that I needed to first become intimate with my own body before I could be intimate with another person. When we separated, I began to fully explore my new self, grabbing moments in front of the mirror and nights under blankets, delicately circumscribing my fingers around my new vulva. It was often rigid, sometimes jagged, maybe smooth, but all mine. My identity was not lost on the operating table.
My labiaplasty helped me understand how important my vagina is to my body. Before the surgery, my femininity, my sexuality, were centralized in a piece of extra tissue. But I realize now that I made a mistake in believing that being a woman meant being in constant pain. The surgery helped introduce me to the totality of my vagina—as a site for life, transformation, pain, and pleasure.
Now, when I peer down at my vulva, I see her as a part of me, not some abandoned flap of tissue looking for an owner. She's changed, but she's still me. Some days, I tell myself—I could’ve kept it. But then I remember the pulling, and I wince. I accept that my body will be a site of continual experimentation and reconfiguration. My body deserves to feel free.
Morgan Jerkins is a writer and editorial assistant at Catapult. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed Ideas, The Atlantic, and other publications.