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Labia minora are the thin lips or folds of skin that exist on either side of the vaginal orifice. They show a wide variation in size from woman to woman, so there is no ‘normal’ labial length to be viewed as sexually or cosmetically desirable for women.
The average range of labial dimensions extends from about 4.0 to 6.4 cm in length, and about 2 cm wide. It is important to note that the actual range is much wider, with normal variants being anywhere from 1.2 to 10 cm in length and 0.7 to 5 cm in width. Interestingly, the two labia of the same woman are very often of different lengths. This shows that significant variations in labial size from one side to the other, as well as between different women, are perfectly normal and not signs of labial hypertrophy or abnormal in any way.
Many cultures value larger rather than smaller labia in women, in sharp contrast to the modern trend of desiring small pre-pubescent-appearing labia in women who are sexually mature, who may even undergo surgery to achieve such an appearance.
However, exactly the opposite has been observed to occur in many African cultures. One such is the Baganda practice of teaching labial elongation as a tribal female initiation rite, always taught to young girls who are near their puberty, between 9 and 16 years, and always completed by menarche. It is taught by a related elder female of the father’s family, is kept a female secret as to its performance and details, and is expected to be performed by all females of the tribe to be eligible for marriage within the tribe. Almost 90% of women in such areas have elongated their labia and maintain this desirable size by regular stretching. The final size of the labia is at least one to one and a half inches in length.
Elder women usually teach this practice, and girls may then practice it alone or in groups to help one another, as a type of tribal initiation practice.
In many cases, they are taught to use various botanicals such as Solanum aculeastrum Dunal and Bidens pilosa L, which are demonstrated herbal medications beneficial to the female body. These soften the labia and make stretching easier, less painful, and more rapidly effective.
The goal of this practice seems to be complex, but may be simply described as meant to increase the pleasure associated with sexual intercourse for both males and females. Both males and females seem to have a favorable attitude towards continuing this practice, which does not fit the technical or traditional definition of female genital mutilation (FGM) because it is not associated with excision or incision of the female external genitalia, and is aimed at increasing their size rather than lessening it.
Most importantly, the aim of labial stretching is to increase female sexual pleasure rather than restrict it. It is because of such findings that some researchers have pertinently suggested the term ‘female genital modification’ be applied to this practice instead.
Men in such cultures also prefer that their wives have elongated labia as this supposedly provides a better area for foreplay to achieve female sexual arousal, and helps to facilitate smoother intercourse, as well as adding to the element of enticement before actual penetration into the vagina. Whether conditioned by their culture to value this female appearance or not, these men appear to appreciate elongated labia, though they do not take any direct part in ensuring that their females perform labial stretching.
The risks of labial stretching would appear to be minimal, being mostly limited to itching and mild pain at the time of initial stretching.
Some researchers have reported contradictory findings such as significant swelling, mild bleeding from the minor cuts and sores that occur during the initial sessions, and occasional reports of neurosensitivity as a result of hypertrophic labia. There is no increased chance of transmitting sexual infections, especially as the process is complete before the girl becomes sexually active.
The primary risk would appear to be that females who choose not to undergo the process are stigmatized and less likely to find eligible partners among their tribe. For this purpose, they may be intimidated by various psychological pressure techniques into accepting it.
In some parts of Mozambique, labial elongation is associated with vaginal tightening using various mildly astringent substances present in herbs of the region. Up to 65% of women in these regions practice this on a regular basis.
It is noteworthy that this practice seems to be slowly dying out as the socioeconomic profile of the region changes, whether or not this is in response to the introduction of Western ideas of female sexuality or not.