Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
Women have a bad habit of comparing themselves to other women. Whether it’s Heidi Klum’s long legs or that co-worker’s toned butt, there’s always an asset we’d rather have than our own. But, recently, women have gotten increasingly concerned with one body part that’s not so easy to compare: the vulva, or the visible part of the vagina. “When I first went into practice in the '90s, I can’t think of anyone who came in and said, 'I’m concerned about my labia,'” says Dr. Lauren Streicher, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s medical school. “But, now, a week doesn’t go by that a woman doesn’t ask me if she looks normal.”
So, how can a worried woman tell if her vulva measures up? After all, pornography hardly presents a varied demographic, and staring at other women’s crotches in the locker room is frowned upon at most gyms. But, according to the experts, if all the necessary parts are there — labia majora (outer labia), labia minora (inner labia), clitoris, introitis (vaginal opening) — you’re probably more normal than you think. “There are certain anatomical landmarks that characterize normal genitalia, but there is no definition of what a normal appearance is,” says Dr. Leah Millheiser, assistant clinical professor at Stanford University Medical Center and director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program. “The vulva can come in a variety of colors or hair patterns and labia of different sizes. I’m only concerned if there’s new development of moles or discoloration, which could be an indicator of skin cancer. Beyond that, women generally have nothing to worry about.”
Even with a gynecologist’s assurance, women have a lot of complaints about the looks of their lady parts — from chubby labia majora to a prominent clitoral hood to a large vaginal opening — all of which are typical variances. The most frequent concern is that the labia minora are too long, which often leads to the most common of vaginal plastic surgeries: the labiaplasty. But, if your labia minora poke out of your vagina, you shouldn’t necessarily rush to the operating table to get them shortened. “In terms of size of the labia minora, there’s a wide range in what’s normal,” Streicher says. “But, what’s average is four centimeters or less from base to tip. And, just as a lot of women have one breast that’s bigger than the other, there will often be one labia that’s a little longer.”
Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
Many women worry that their partner will be turned off by long labia, but, truthfully, that’s probably the last thing on his or her mind. In fact, in preparation for Streicher’s sexual health book, Love Sex Again, to be published in 2014, she’s running a survey for men and women about all things sex. “I ask men, 'Do you wish your partner’s labia were shorter?' And, only about 2% have said yes,” Streicher says. “That’s compared to about 30% of women who say they think their labia are too long. While women are obsessing about this, men are completely oblivious.”
So, those going under the knife for purely cosmetic reasons may want to re-evaluate. “For the most part, women really shouldn’t be messing with this area,” Millheiser says. “There are a lot of blood vessels down there, so when you have plastic surgery in that region, you risk having significant bleeding. There are issues with infection, and you can end up with scarring, which can actually make it look worse.”
Some women with elongated labia minora, however, may have a slew of related problems. And, this could be a legitimate reason to consider having work done. Everything from tight jeans to bike riding can be irritating, and sex can be very painful, since the labia may be pushed up into the vagina. Also, many women with extra-long labia experience urinary spraying, which means exactly what you think it does. If a woman has tried more conservative measures — moisturizer for irritated labia or holding her labia apart — to no avail, it may be time to take more drastic measures. Otherwise, don’t sweat it, and realize that vulvas are as unique as the women they’re a part of.
At the very least, feel better knowing you’re not alone. Modern women everywhere are self-conscious about the way they look down there, and Streicher has an idea why: “It all has to do with the trend of getting rid of most or all of our pubic hair,” she says. “It would be like if shaved heads suddenly went into style. Every woman would be very concerned with the shape of her skull.”