At a young age, we are unduly influenced to modify our genitalia so they fit the cultural idea of how a sexually desirable woman ought to look like.
This essay discusses genital mutilation in an explicit manner.
By Joyline Maenzanise
Over the years, we have been having more chats on the bodily autonomy of cis women and other genders assigned female at birth, whose bodies have long been regarded as a mere object for cis men’s gratification. Whether it’s making informed decisions regarding abortion, being attuned to and valuing one’s sexual needs, or Black people embracing their natural hair, more and more seem to be unashamedly reclaiming or asserting their power over their bodies or sexuality. This conversation on bodily autonomy brought to mind an important issue which doesn’t receive much airplay for various reasons: labia elongation.
Labia elongation, also known as labia stretching or pulling, is a practice whereby one manually stretches their labia. This practice is classified under Type Four of the different types of “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM) listed by World Health Organization (WHO). According to WHO, FGM includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the genitals for non-medical reasons.
Editor’s Note: Although this practice is referred to as “Female Genital Mutilation” by WHO and others, and is indeed a form of gendered violence against girls and those assumed to be girls, it is imperative to remember that it also affects people of other genders who were assigned female at birth.
Research has shown that labia elongation has formed part of the cultures of folks living in some parts of East and Southern Africa. Countries, where folks with vaginas have been taught about this practice, include Zambia, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Usually, grandmothers or other older women in the family would instruct young girls to start elongating their labia before the onset of menstruation (menarche). Some girls are instructed to begin the practice after they have begun menstruating. Many were of the belief that pulling the labia over this period was easier as the folds would be softer. Those who were instructed to begin the practice before menstruation were told they could stop after menarche. Some were simply told to stop after the labia had reached a certain length.
I was already studying at one of Zimbabwe’s high schools when my mother told my sister and me that we ought to stretch our labia. This was not my first time hearing about this practice. During primary school, I had been chatting with a group of friends when one of them made us giggle with amusement after she told us her mother had instructed her to fiddle with those flaps. She didn’t fully understand why she had to do this.
Even as we grew up, every now and then, the conversation around pulling labia would pop up among the girls. So, when my mother finally told us about it, I wasn’t as surprised by the practice as I was about her even mentioning it to us. This was the same woman who, after finding out that I had gotten my period at the age of 13, hadn’t explained the biological process which I had managed to keep to myself for a year. I was shy and it didn’t help that we never had open discussions about sex or puberty. While I wonder why telling us to modify our body parts was more important that explaining puberty to me, I’m sure my mother had to have mustered a lot of courage to finally do so.
The reasons for the practice are often unclear. Some believe elongated labia boost the man’s and woman’s pleasure. Others were told that men enjoyed playing with the enlarged folds and this led to an increase in their sexual gratification. By the time my mother had the conversation with us, I already knew that the enlarged folds were meant to please one’s future husband. Ropa* was told by their older cousins that the labia would hold the penis in place during sexual intercourse. She was also told that tucking the folds into the vagina would make it tighter.
As young as we were, we never fully understood the implications of being instructed to modify our genitalia. We were simply told to do it because it was an expectation. I found the whole experience quite intriguing and because I wanted to conform to the norm, I gullibly obliged.
Much like many other youngsters, Cheryl* was informed that labia elongation was a cultural ideal of femininity, a necessary part of raising a girl, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. “Apparently, one wouldn’t be considered a true woman without engaging in the practice which could be carried out during adolescence and preferably during menstruation when it was easier to pull the labia. I remember it being referred to as poto isina mubato (a pot without a handle) and a woman could be sent back to her home if she had not undergone the process as some in-laws or husbands expected that of their new brides,” Cheryl* adds.
Most research conducted over the years explains that labia elongation involves stretching the inner folds of the vulva (labia minora). Contrary to this, I—and several other folks, I’m sure—pulled the outer folds of the vulva (labia majora). Exactly what to stretch had never really come up during the chats with other girls and my obviously discomfited mother hadn’t delved this deep into the subject. This lack of transparency and clear guidelines about the practice also meant while some of us pulled the different labia, folks like Ropa* ended up stretching their clitoris.
Different folks use different methods to stretch their labia. Some use hands only. Others were instructed to use specific herbs or oils. These botanicals were believed to make the process more effective. Also, they were believed to ease the process which can be painful if the labia gets a bit dry as its moisture is rubbed off by dry hands.
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My mother told us of a certain twig believed to have medicinal properties which helped the labia to grow. I knew about this twig; a girl, who was around six years younger than me had been instructed by her mum to use it. This twig was readily available at flea markets where vendors not only sold clothes but herbs for sexual purposes. We had to slice it open but only halfway. Then, we would carefully clip the labia before pulling the twig along with the labia.
Farai* used the oil from burnt castor beans or seeds to pull the labia. While some of us were taught to means believed to ease or quicken the process, some employed means which sounded painful. There are instances where some used clothes’ pegs. Thando* first found out about the practice from a girl at her boarding school who used salt to stretch her labia.
While this practice may not pose extreme health risks, having enlarged labia does bring certain challenges. The enlarged labia form a noticeable bulge, especially when wearing tight clothing which also raises the temperature in the nether region. This can be uncomfortable and I have learned to be wary of wearing tight-fitting clothes and opt more for loose clothes that prevent friction. Besides the pain (which I can also experience when sitting on a hard surface), the friction between tight underwear or any clothing often leaves my genitalia with a frustrating itch.
The large labia also tend to get sweaty quite easily. One has to try and keep the genitalia dry but not too dry. It also means being conscious of the type of underwear one wears as some fabrics don’t allow free circulation of air. Also, one has to wary of their hygiene practices as this might pose some health risks if the labia ends up with an overgrowth of bad bacteria which may cause infections such as bacterial vaginosis. This is why Mel* says she has also learned to properly clean her genitalia since failure to do this will also result in the labia trapping offensive odors.
Even though some folks were taught that enlarged labia would enhance even the sexual pleasure of the one with the labia, I have not experienced this. In fact, clitoral stimulation works better at boosting my pleasure than having my folds rubbed in any way. Also, most folks with vaginas experience more pleasure from having their clitoris stimulated than any other part of their genitalia. Though some were told that elongated labia boosted both the men’s and women’s sexual pleasure, it remains to be proven that those with elongated vaginas actually derive pleasure from it. It is possible that the one with the elongated labia might experience increased pleasure but this is often a by-product of men’s gratification.
While I never felt uncomfortable with being naked around sexual partners or other girls at my boarding school, some folks found that their enlarged labia made them a bit conscious of their bodies.
Sharly* used to be embarrassed of her large labia and felt uncomfortable with her body, especially when she was in a relationship with someone who wasn’t aware of this practice. Like Sharly*, Ropa* learned to embrace her enlarged labia as she got older. In her early twenties, sexual partners often wondered why Ropa had “abnormally” large labia and clitoris. Unsurprisingly, this made her conscious of her genitalia and she even stopped having sex for a while.
Even as some of us may have not experienced any benefits from this, Sinnie* derived a unique benefit from having enlarged labia. The Zambian-born transman hated his labia which he was forced to pull when he was younger but they helped him with his bottom surgery. Having wanted to undergo labiaplasty, it was during an appointment for this bottom surgery that his Dr informed him that the labia would be used to create his testicles.
Being someone who tends to get bored easily, it was only a matter of time before I got tired of stretching my labia and quit. Looking back, I am glad I did since it became clearer that this practice was a mere reaction to female sexualisation and the main beneficiaries of my modified genitalia were cismen whose sexual needs have long been placed on a pedestal. Charity* also had the same realization after a while and stopped the practice when she was 19.
Golide* also quit after a while; she had given the practice a go but later found out from her cousins that she had been pulling the wrong part of her genitalia. Even though her cousins showed her the right way to pull the labia, Golide* got demotivated since none of the older women in her family talked about it or encouraged it. Cathy* stopped when she started boarding school where there was no privacy as eight girls would be sharing a room. She also didn’t want to continue enduring the pain of stretching her labia and she wasn’t going to subject herself to the discomfort even after past boyfriends would demand that she enlarge her labia. “My sex life is perfectly fine without the elongated labia and I don’t wish to pull them for whatever reason,” Cathy* emphasizes.
Some folks have argued that labia elongation isn’t harmful and should be respected as a part of our diverse cultures. According to Cheryl*, if the practice serves its intended purpose then people ought to be allowed to practice it. She adds that there needs to be more transparency around the practice to avoid any potentially harmful misinformation.
While I agree that those who wish to partake in this practice should have the freedom to do so, I’m against instructing—or even forcing—young children to alter their body parts. At a young age, we are unduly influenced to modify our genitalia so they fit the cultural idea of how a sexually desirable woman ought to look like. Some folks, like Gigi* who spent some years in Uganda and was forced to pull her labia, refused to follow the instruction for various reasons. Most of us simply obliged even when the instructions weren’t clear.
Our consent came from a place of lack of proper knowledge or ownership of our bodies. What’s more, consenting to a practice we have no full understanding of is a violation of our right to make informed decisions about our bodies.
People should be allowed to grow up and develop an understanding of the accurate reasons for the practice, how and when it’s carried out. Again, that consent isn’t completely informed if women aren’t also made to understand that our vulvas come in different shapes and there’s no ideal shape which purportedly enhances one’s sexual pleasure. Only then can one can the empowered decision to alter their genitalia.
Joyline is a queer weirdo who’s been a freelance writer since 2017 and a member of the Southern African Freelancers Association since 2018. Her work has been published by The Tempest, HelloGiggles, Gay and Lesbian Review, Pink News and several other publications. Joyline is a sucker for comedic series and when she isn’t watching her favourite Netflix shows, she loves swooning over the cute dogs of Instagram. Check out her Contently profile for her work. Also, follow and interact with her on her Twitter profile.
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