When editor Amelia McDonell-Parry of TheFrisky.com posted a personal essay titled, “Girl Talk: I Have Long Labia,” she bravely opened up publicly about her most private part. In the piece, McDonell-Parry discussed how her ex-boyfriend had joked about the size of her vulva, leaving her feeling insecure about it. In a few short weeks, her article received nearly 17,000 page views, revealing she is not the only woman to look down and wonder, “Am I normal?”
Like most teenagers, Melissa*, 28, struggled with self-esteem—but of a very specific kind. Since puberty, she had been comparing herself to the picture perfect vulvas in her father’s Penthouse magazines. When one of her first boyfriends made a joke about her ample inner labia, Melissa admitted she couldn’t help but think, What is wrong with me? She carried that painful thought well into adulthood.
Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of She Comes First: A Thinking Man’s Guide To Pleasuring A Woman, says there’s been a rise in women evaluating the appearance of their vulvas over the past decade or so. “Our mother’s generation didn’t think much about genital self-esteem,” says Kerner. “They didn’t think about whether or not they needed to shave or trim or wax their pubic hair.”
What Waxing Has Revealed
Was ignorance bliss? Quite possibly. Kerner feels that women’s self-consciousness about the appearance of their vulvas can primarily be traced back to bare-down-there professional porn stars. “With the rise and proliferation of pornography, especially through the Internet, the fashion of pornography trickles down and becomes mainstream,” Kerner reasons.
Many women jumped on the Brazilian wax bandwagon as they would any other fashionable trend because either that’s what they saw other women doing—well, their fellow females flashing their vulvas on camera—or because their girlfriends saw it and were buzzing about it. “After all, women don’t usually have other women to compare themselves to,” notes Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., author of What Your Mother Never Told You About S-e-x and a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University. “ ‘Show and tell’ is not something that we usually do with our girlfriends!”
When McDonell-Parry got her first Brazilian wax, she was caught completely off guard when the aesthetician put a mirror between her legs so she could inspect her work. “I was kind of shocked because I realized I was actually seeing my vagina, without anything in the way, for the first time,” she shares. “Instead of finding it childlike, I actually felt more womanly in a way, seeing my business just out there.”
Adds Rudy*, 48, who confesses that her labia are “meatier than most”: “I’m glad I was older when this whole Brazilian nonsense started because I had sex with enough men who were happy to do me, meaty lips, pubic hair and all.”
McDonell-Parry’s waxing experience made her aware of exactly how her womanhood looked, and eventually gave her all the ammunition she needed to analyze how it stacked up. The comparison was finally clear, or rather, bare. McDonell-Parry wrote in her “Girl Talk” article:
“Most of the [labia] I’ve seen have been in porn, and let me tell you, they are compact. If porn star vagina is like a fresh, unopened rose bud, my junk looks like the blossom that’s been sitting in a vase on your kitchen table for a week, where a slight draft sends the petals scattering.”
In other words, the take-home after comparing yourself to a professional female porn star isn’t just that bald is beautiful, but that for the most part, there is this cookie cutter image of the ideal vulva. That consistency has forged an expectation of what lady flower beauty should be: short, symmetrical, light and hairless.
If your vulva doesn’t measure up to the “porn ideal,” that can leave you feeling self-conscious, especially when it comes to letting anyone get up close and personal down south. Although the cliché is that men don’t want to go down on a woman with an unkempt or less-than-perfect-looking vulva, Kerner has found that more often, it’s women who feel awkward about granting guys access to downtown. He stresses the importance of wisely picking loving sexual partners because they’ll appreciate your entire body—not critique every flap and fold of your labia with a magnifying glass. “Know that if a guy is attracted to you, he is more than likely going to be attracted to your vulva,” Kerner says.
But Kerner has found in some cases that a woman’s concern over the attractiveness of her vulva can run deep enough to be akin to body dysmorphia. “Some women see their noses as ugly or their breasts as ugly or their butts as ugly—it’s really just about getting fixated on an area,” he notes. And these fixations can lead some women to seek out plastic surgery to “fix” the situation. Several plastic surgeons who alter noses, breasts and butts now offer surgical options for vulvas and vaginas, including labial reduction. “So many plastic surgeons these days are performing labiaplasty, vaginal rejuvenation, O-Shots and G-Spot shots,” says Kerner. “The co-opting of a woman’s vulva by the plastic surgery industry has also played a role [in the rise of genital self-esteem issues].”
Case in point: In a YouBeauty poll, 24% of women would consider having vaginal rejuvenation surgery to make their vaginas tighter, while nearly 10% said they’ve thought about going under the knife to improve how their vaginas look.
Adds Dr. Hutcherson, “Most women have at least one thing they question in regard to their genitals. Women worry about whether they look normal. They worry about scent. They worry about taste, to be quite frank. The greatest fear is that they don’t look ‘normal.’ ”
Reevaluating What’s Normal
So what exactly is a “normal” vulva? There isn’t one. As it turns out, vulvas have a lot in common with snowflakes—each one is unique. “There is no ‘normal,’ ” explains Hutcherson. “Every woman is different. Labia come in different colors, from pink to black, and all different sizes. They are usually not the same on both sides of our body. They may be smooth or wrinkled, thin or fluffy, straight or wavy and everything in between. They can be very tiny or long enough to extend beyond the outer labia.”
Got that? So stop reaching for so-called porn-worthy perfection and embrace your unique below-the-belt shape—and know that it’s all perfectly normal. Viva la difference!
* Names have been changed