There’s no one “right” way for a vulva to look — but society has many of us thinking otherwise. Almost half of all women are concerned about the appearance of theirs, according to a 2019 survey by Refinery29 UK, and of those, about a third were specifically worried about the color.
Some experts blame this insecurity and the rise of genital cosmetic surgery on porn, which they say promotes an ideal of a small, pink, “tucked-in” labia (that’s the inner and outer “lips” of the vagina). Both labiaplasty (cosmetic surgery to shorten the labia) and labia lightening procedures (involving laser treatments or bleaching creams) are on the rise. However, experts say these treatments are unnecessary and, in fact, can be dangerous.
"We would strongly discourage the use of treatments to lighten the sensitive area around the vagina," Vanessa Mackay, MD, consultant gynecologist and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, previously told Refinery29 UK. "This could damage the delicate skin of the vulva, and disturb the fragile balance of good bacteria inside the vagina. This natural flora helps to protect the vagina and disrupting it could lead to irritation, inflammation, and infections, such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush." In some cases, it can even result in scarring, burning, or an allergic reaction.
Dr. Mackay added, "It’s important to remember that vulva are as individual as women themselves, and vary in color, size and shape. Women should know that every one is unique, and that variation in appearance is normal in the vast majority of cases."
Research confirms this. As one study put it, “Wide variability exists in the appearance of female external genitalia. Sexual function does not appear to be associated with genital dimensions.”
It’s normal for both your inner and outer lips to be darker than the surrounding skin, and it’s also normal for your labia to gradually get darker with the hormonal changes that come with puberty, pregnancy, or aging. Women of color generally have naturally darker labia than white women, who make up the majority of popular porn performers and thus the majority of vulvas that we see in media.
Basically, the vulvas we see in porn and other media aren't reflective of the wide variety of ones that exist in the real world. As Planned Parenthood explains, “Labia can be short or long, wrinkled or smooth. Often one lip is longer than the other. They also vary in color from pink to brownish black."
All that said, if you notice a sudden change in color, head to your ob/gyn; it could be a symptom of a skin condition such as eczema, or another health condition, such as diabetes. “The important thing is to be aware of what's normal for you. A change in color is important and should be reported," Leila Frodsham, MD, consultant gynecologist and spokesperson for the Institute of Psychosexual Medicine, previously told Refinery29.
Digital galleries such as the Labia Library and the Great Wall Of Vagina collect collecting crowdsourced images in order to challenge the idea of what an “ideal” vulva looks like. A quick glance through should show you that there are plenty of other vulvas that look like yours. They're all normal, and they're all good.