New study exposes the impact of porn on young women’s body image

By Our Reporter
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A new survey by Women’s Health Victoria and YouGov reveals that almost one quarter of women aged 18-24 feel anxious, embarrassed, or unhappy about their labia. This body image concern is significantly affecting their physical, mental, and sexual health.

The research highlights that many Australian women and gender diverse people are turning to female genital cosmetic surgery due to the influence of mainstream porn and online media, particularly among younger individuals.

To combat this issue, Women’s Health Victoria emphasises the need for better education for Australian GPs on labia diversity, more inclusive relationship and sexual education in schools, and faster regulation of young people’s access to online pornography. These steps are essential to reduce the shame and anxiety driving the rise in labiaplasty.

Marking the 10th anniversary of Women’s Health Victoria’s Labia Library health site, the Real Bodies: Understanding and Celebrating Labia Diversity report includes a survey of over 1,000 respondents in Australia, aged between 18 and 50. Alarmingly, one in ten respondents have considered or undergone labiaplasty, a rapidly growing cosmetic procedure among young people in Australia and globally.

Labiaplasty, the most common form of female genital cosmetic surgery, involves altering the labia, the folds of skin around the vaginal opening. The procedure carries significant risks and has not been proven to improve body image, sexual satisfaction, or self-esteem.

For Generation Z, labia shame is notably intense, with almost one in four individuals aged 18 to 24 feeling anxious or embarrassed about their labia, and more than a third associating their labia with negative terms like ‘weird’, ‘disgusting’, or ‘ugly’.

Body image anxiety, especially around genital appearance, can profoundly impact a person’s life. Over four in ten respondents who felt anxious about their labia avoided GP visits for sexual and reproductive health issues or pap smears due to this shame. Nearly six in ten said it affected their mental health, and more than six in ten delayed having sex as a result.

Dr. Melissa Kang, Labia Library ambassador and expert on adolescent sexual health, stresses the importance of recognising labia diversity. She notes that over half of all people with vulvas have visible or protruding labia minora, many of which are asymmetrical. She advocates for educating young people about the natural diversity of labia to combat unrealistic body standards.

Experts attribute the shame around labia to mainstream porn, where performers’ labia are often altered to present an idealised image, and to the increasing exposure to cosmetic surgery ads on social media. Nearly one in five Gen Zs get their information about genital appearance from porn, and almost a third from social media. Almost half of those considering labiaplasty were influenced by these sources.

To address this issue, Women’s Health Victoria has launched a new campaign as part of the Labia Library. This campaign aims to promote labia diversity and challenge unrealistic depictions in media and pornography.

Celebrating the Labia Library’s 10th anniversary, the updated website now features an expanded gallery of 104 diverse and unaltered photographs of vulvas and labia. This resource provides viewers with a safe and private way to learn about genital diversity. The site also offers up-to-date health information on anatomy, female genital cosmetic surgery, hair removal, media literacy, and advice for health practitioners, educators, and parents.

Kate Johnston-Ataata, Manager of Policy, Health Promotion and Advocacy at Women’s Health Victoria, highlights the importance of the Labia Library as a trusted resource. She believes that access to high-quality sexual and reproductive health information can positively impact health and wellbeing, promoting gender equality.

Libby Payne, a 24-year-old advocate for respectful relationships and consent, participated in the Labia Library’s 2024 advisory panel. She points out that despite progress in body positivity discussions, many young people still have misconceptions about labia, often influenced by porn and social media. She stresses the need for comprehensive sex and relationships education that includes the true diversity of human bodies.

The survey also found that a third of respondents feel happy and confident about their labia, associating them with positive terms like ‘pleasure’, ‘healthy’, and ‘protection’. Additionally, more than a fifth of those considering labiaplasty cited pain or discomfort as a reason, and three in ten who had given birth vaginally reported a positive impact on their perception of their vulva and labia.

Women’s Health Victoria calls for better education among GPs about labia diversity, the integration of this education into school curriculums, faster regulation of young people’s access to online pornography, and public health campaigns that include realistic depictions of vulvas and labia.

See the Real Bodies report here


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