“designer vaginas” rant

page updated: 26-Mar-2007

On labia angst and ideal vulvas

Hi everyone. I’m Sarah Mundy, and I run a website called All About My Vagina. I’ve spent almost seven years researching and discussing and writing about women’s sexual anatomy, reviewing products, inventing craft projects, and generally having a lot conversations about vaginas and vulvas.

This film, Petals, that we’re going to watch, touches on a good sample of the kinds of conversations that tend to come up.

The first time I saw the movie, I thought it was almost scattered— it covers so many different subjects— but I think that’s just what happens when you start talking about vulvas. Immediately you get caught up in discussions about pornography, spirituality, motherhood, body image, orgasms, feminism, biology, morals, history. I don’t even know where the end of “on topic” is, when it comes to sex organs.

I get email every day, about this vast continuum of vagina-related topics, and more than half of it is from women who think there is something wrong with their genitals.

Now, I know that’s not a representative sample. If you’ve ever looked for health or body information on the internet, you’ll have noticed right away that it’s heavily skewed towards panic and doom and confusion.

So I’m sure there are lots of women who think their genitals look and feel great, and lots of women who’ve never given it a thought, but I mostly hear from the women who think their labia are too big, too wrinkly, too lopsided, too dark, too hairy, whatever. Too warm, one woman even said. She was embarrassed that her boyfriend could feel a hot spot through her clothes when they were making out.

Everything these women are worrying about is completely within the scope of normal, common vulva style. In six and a half years, I’ve had a few women tell me about uncommon physical conditions like a divided or dual vagina or vaginismus, but I’ve never had anyone contact me about anything approaching an actual, undiagnosed deformity.

But this kind of worrying— I call it vulva angst or labia angst— can be really intense and painful.

I’ve heard from lots of women who avoided sex, or avoided oral sex, because they thought their partners would think they were ugly, or because they thought sex was stretching out their labia. I’ve heard from several women over the years who considered trying to trim their labia with scissors, so thinking about mutilating their bodies. I actually thought about that myself when I was a teenager, but I chickened out because I didn’t want to get an infected wound.

The mysterious thing about vulva angst is it can usually be cleared up in under five minutes, with hardly any effort. Sometimes just hearing some reassurance is enough to satisfy a woman that her body is fine. When that isn’t enough, looking at a few photos of real vulvas usually does the trick, especially if someone spots a photo that looks like her body.

This is a bit shocking to me— that this shame can be so intense that women change their behaviour over it, and yet it’s so easy to drop. That’s the one thing that concerns me about the growing popularity of labiaplasties, “designer vaginas” and genital plastic surgery trends that keep making the news. If looking at photos can satisfy women who are willing to cut their bodies with scissors, I’m sure there are some women considering expensive surgical procedures who might get the same effect from just flipping through the Petals book, or other images.

So how do women end up convinced their normal, healthy vulvas are ugly? What are they comparing themselves to? What’s this ideal vulva they think they haven’t got?

The first thing to get blamed is usually porn. People say porn is too idealized, and only shows one kind of vulva. I personally don’t think this issue is porn’s fault, for a couple of reasons.

First, a lot of the young women who write to me have never looked at porn. They’re young, they have no idea what porn’s ideal vulva might be, but they’re pretty sure theirs is weird. They get that idea before they are exposed to porn.

Second, I know that lots of women have actually been healed by porn. Part of what motivated me to start my website was seeing labia that looked like mine in an old Penthouse centerfold; Betty Dodson, who talks about this in the film, famously realized that her vulva wasn’t deformed after looking at porn magazines with her boyfriend.

So then, where do women pick up this shame? I can only think of two things they might be comparing themselves to. One is those medical diagrams you get in high school sex education classes. They’re very standardized and simplified— not for any effort at fashion, but just to make the diagrams easy to draw and label. They’re almost universally symmetrical, because then you only have to draw half the illustration and mirror it. Including a few different diagrams or healthy photos would be really informative for kids.

But lately, I’ve been thinking that what women might mostly be comparing their vulvas to are their own vulvas!

The “ideal” vulva that people worry about is supposed to be smooth, simple, symmetrical, small, an “innie”— meaning everything is tucked inside the outer labia— and not especially flushed or colourful. Some grown women have vulvas that look like that, but more strikingly, that’s what almost every little girl’s vulva looks like. Before the big hormones hit at puberty, vulvas are all quite similar to each other. Sort of like how all kids have similar nipples, or even noses, but then after puberty, there are lots of possibilities.

So I think it’s easy for a teenager to just lose touch with what her vulva is up to. It is growing and changing really fast. It’s hidden by hair instead of out in the open. And nobody seems to mention that vulvas are supposed change shape and size during puberty. Like, hands up if you’ve ever thought about that before. [Nobody put a hand up!] If you think about it, that’s the main thing you’d expect a woman’s body to do during puberty— for her sex organs to mature. But for many people the vulva kind of disappears once it gets covered in hair.

I think that’s part of the reason that vulva angst is so easy to override. If women are only comparing themselves to one vague, half-remembered image, it doesn’t take many new images to gain a majority vote. Even one photo of a real, adult vulva can win against the vague, instinctual images. So a book like Petals can really blow the circuits on that front. I know for a lot of people, women especially, that’s the first reaction to the book. “There are so many vulvas! And one of them looks familiar!”

So that’s quite a lot of emotional associations around vulva photos, and I’ve only talked about stuff that women create in private. The film follows a lot of other conversations and controversies that Nick ran into as he was making and publishing these photographs, but I’m going to leave those for the film to cover.

Thanks everybody!

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I gave this talk on Oct 5, 2006, to introduce a screening of the documentary film Petals: Journey Into Self Discovery at the 2006 Victoria Arts Symposium, in Victoria, BC, Canada.

I updated this for the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference in Vancouver, June 7-9, 2007.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

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