If you think about it, there really aren’t too many times in your life when you would see vulvas. I can think of many people who, when they saw one for the first time, saw it in porn (either filmed or still images). Porn is known for editing and photo-shopping, so sometimes the bodies depicted are accentuated by makeup, surgery or photo editing. Even medical diagrams and some older educational resources are guilty of this – illustrations showing a vulva that is just a line, or hole – devoid of labia, or clitoris, or anything making it look like a real vulva. That’s really the only time I might ever get my knickers in a twist about ‘how vulvas should look’.
Back in 2016, an Australian doco about body diversity called Embrace was released – the film hoped to break down the ideas about how bodies should look. But the Australian Classification Board gave it an MA15 rating due to ‘protruding labia’. What does that even mean? This just goes to show how difficult it can be for people growing up to know how genitals look, especially if people deem them offensive. Literally everyone has genitals – how is something so familiar viewed as so vulgar? Luckily the makers of the film were able to appeal the case, so the rating was changed to just M. Still, it goes to show how difficult it can be to get correct information on basic anatomy.
The lack of honest information about correct vulva anatomy means that most of the time people use the incorrect words for it! Usually female genitals are referred to as a vagina. But what we see on the outside is actually the vulva – the vagina is only one part of these organs, and is internal. Technically, we can only ever see the opening to the vagina. Instead, the word vulva refers to everything on the outside! What we can see are the outer labia (also called the labia majora) which are fleshy lips usually covered with hair. In-between these are the inner labia (or labia minora). The inner labia are not covered in hair, and are more delicate than the outer labia. Their appearance – size, length and colour – vary greatly from person to person, and no two labias look the same! I don’t really use the words labia minora and labia majora, because they make it sound like the minora is smaller and the majora is bigger – when this isn’t really always the case for everyone.
The labia might be long and thin, short and thin, pink, red, purple, peachy, brown or almost black. They can also be different sizes, and often one will be longer than the other. The labia isn’t always smooth, can have a bumpy texture, and can also change colour throughout your life – not like a mood ring, but as you go through puberty and aging they can change in appearance. The labia can be a different colour on the edges too. There are so many potential combinations of how they could look, and not one combination of how they should look.
For some people, the inner labia are larger than the outer labia, and vice versa. The inner labia serve an important role – they keep bacteria away from the urethra and vagina, and have nerve endings which add to sexual pleasure. A very small amount of people may have labia that prevent them from enjoying daily life – discomfort in sitting down or playing sport, or frequent infections. It’s in these rare circumstances that people may want to see a doctor or gynaecologist for reassurance or advice.
Normally when people are confronted with airbrushed models in the media, we can simply look to see other people around us, and understand what is normal. We know that shampoo ads with gravity-defying hair, makeup ads with poreless skin and mascara ads with thick eyelashes, are all lies. But how can we hope to challenge misconceptions about vulvas? We hardly see them flapping about on the daily. Let’s not pretend that openness and explicitness is the same thing – I’m not advocating that people accost unwilling people with photos of vulvas.
Instead, you might have seen Janelle Monae’s new video for her song ‘Pynk’, with her labia pants (the entire album is perfection, might I add). Or maybe you’ve heard of The Great Wall of Vagina, an art installation with 400 moulds of vulvas, showing how much variety there is. In Australia, there is also the labialibrary, an online resource with images of real labias and vulvas, as well as information. If illustrations are more your thing, there is @the.vulva.gallery, a brilliant gallery of illustrated vulvas. Media that strives to remind us that vulvas are meant to look different can help to dismantle harmful ideas about bodies. It can also help to create discussions about what is ‘normal’, and how diverse that is. By continuing these discussions, we can stop people from feeling that their bodies are incorrect or abnormal.
For nearly everyone, your labia are ‘normal’. Everyone deserves to feel good about their bodies – this comes from education, acceptance and self-confidence, and spending time with trusted people that treat you with respect and care. It’s a waste to let yourself stress about your body, and this sort of anxiety will only negatively impact a healthy sexuality and body image. Treat your body well, and it will repay you in kind.
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