Photo by James Christopher
Among some communities in Africa, for as a long as there has been history, women have manually tugged on their inner labia until they dangle invitingly for several centimeters between their thighs.
The Rwandan phrase gukuna imishino
translates as “to make long labia”. According to the limited information on the tradition, when you, as a young lady, hit about ten years old, an aunt or female friend takes you to one side and teaches you how to stretch your labia with the help of local medicinal flora to soften the skin. It’s a passage into womanhood, like a training bra, only more about warping your pussy. Women do it among each other, comparing progress and technique, and continuing this genital yanking as they please throughout their life until they achieve the desired results.
Apparently, bigger lips increase the surface area for friction against the penis, heightening sexual sensation. They also help stimulate vaginal secretions, making female ejaculation a happy everyday reality for most Rwandan ladies. Social scientists Marian Koster and Lisa Price of Wageningen University in the Netherlands studied this, concluding, “The Rwandan women and men we interviewed were clear in their opinion that all Rwandan women are able to ejaculate, the ejaculation being different from the mere squirting of urine. Elongated labia are seen as crucial in this respect.” Vaginal masochists one, every other culture nil.
This tradition is thought to be prehistoric, as anthropologists have found depictions of elongated labia in cave paintings. When explorers began bringing back tales of lapping lips from Africa, everyone in Europe got weirded out. In 1771, Captain James Cook stopped in Cape Town to investigate what he called “the great question among natural historians: Whether the women of this country have that fleshy flap or apron.” He wrote about a local physician, who declared he had examined many women and never seen one without “two fleshy, or rather skinny appendages, proceeding from the upper part of the labia... in some not more than half an inch, in others three or four”. It was cutely dubbed the "Hottentot Apron."
In 1810, a 20-year-old South African, Sarah Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus, was exhibited in London. She was displayed in a cage in Piccadilly Circus and forced to gyrate in front of curious onlookers who paid a couple of shillings for the fun. While no one actually saw her huge labia, there were rumors of it. When she died in 1815, rabid audiences finally got their wish to see her bits. A public dissection was performed, and zoologist Georges Cuvier later presented the “genital organs of this woman prepared in a way so as to allow one to see the nature of the labia.” He wrote, “We did not at all perceive the more remarkable particularity of her organization [genitals], she held her apron carefully hidden between her thighs. It was not until after her death that we knew she had it.” Until 2002, you could see her pickled privates in Paris's Musee de l’Homme, after which they were returned with the rest of her remains to Cape Town.
These days labia stretching--as it is called outside Rwanda--is a type of body modification practiced around the world, with entire websites dedicated to the art form. While some women are getting their fleshy lips snipped to give them the neat little snatch of a Venus flytrap, others are dreaming of the day they will flap like a turkey wattle. Frankly, my labium and I are just fine as we are.