Our vaginas! Our voices!
What does a 'normal' vagina look like?
This might be a startling question for you, but when you really think about it, it is quite valid.
Unlike men who know about average inches and centimetres for their appendages, we women don't really know much about our sexual organs.
This question came to me over the weekend when I had the opportunity to attend a sexual and reproductive health rights conference fittingly entitled 'Sexpression', organised by medical students at the Liverpool University School of Tropical Medicine.
In one session, a speaker addressed the issue of female genital mutilation - an act that is still rife in Africa and which predisposes many young women to gender based violence and intrusion.
I therefore believed that the speaker would discuss the topic from this perspective and was completely taken by surprise when he instead began to speak about vaginoplasty and other forms of vaginal 'mutilation' that women in the UK are subjecting themselves to.
In short, vaginoplasty refers to any kind of plastic surgery carried out on the vagina - whether to improve its elasticity after childbirth, to change one's sex (for male to female transsexuals for example) or simply for the aesthetic benefits that such surgery may yield. This is commonly referred to as the 'designer vagina'.
It is this last type of vaginoplasty that we discussed in detail.
I learnt of cases of women - some as young as 17 - who go and visit plastic surgeons with pictures of the vaginas of porn stars and say that they want to have vaginas just like theirs because they feel that theirs are inadequate.
And so they have their labia (or vaginal lips) reduced or some or other surgery to 'improve' the organ's appearance.
The question that therefore came up from this discussion was SO WHAT EXACTLY DOES A GOOD VAGINA LOOK LIKE?!
We women rarely look at our own vaginas, let alone anyone else's - so how should we know?! Unlike men who have to interact with their penises each time they urinate or change their underwear, we women hardly ever pay attention to our vaginas. Besides, it's not like it's easy to get them in full view anyway. Mirrors and strange positions are required and this just adds to the awkwardness of trying to become knowledgebale about your own body.
And sadly, the only time many young women become aware about the appearance of the vagina is when they are forced to alter it from its own natural state. In many parts of Africa, the tradition is that young girls pull on their labia from an early age so that the lips become very long and prominent. The reasoning behind such practices is that the elongation of the lips will provide more pleasure for the man during sex.
And the other extreme situation that must be pointed out is female genital mutilation which entails the cutting off a woman's clitoris - her most valuable source of sexual pleasure - and the stitching up of her vaginal opening so that she can not be penetrated sexually.
These are both still common controversial acts but I must also add that society plays a great role in re-inforcing the idea that the vagina is an ugly dirty thing that we should not celebrate. Just think of how people refer, rather vulgarly, to someone they do not like or feel is a nuisance as a 'cunt' - a derogatory term that refers to the vagina.
The meaning within that is that a vagina can be equated to something that is a nuisance and shameful. It is after all where menstrual blood and all other types of fluids that society gets squeamish about flow from.
And it is very sad that we women accept these stereotypes about ourselves. The vagina is a source of life and pleasure but we too believe that is an ugly thing we can't discuss among ourselves.
Isn't that really why we feel so inadequate when we see an air-brushed porn star romping about with a perfectly symmetrical vagina?
We need to stop being squeamish and open up. Well, we might not be ready to open up our pants, but we can open up our mouths and discuss these things.
Most of the surgery that these women are having is unecessary and born from feelings of inadequacy that are founded on misleading beliefs.
And the saddest type of mutilation is the one which we willingly inflict upon ourselves.