In 2023, a range of everyday experiences for women and gender-diverse people are still unfortunately shrouded in stigma. In partnership with Libra, we're going to shine a light on these moments to break down the shame around them.
I remember when my high school friends and I first spoke about our labia. We sat in a circle on the floor of our cabins at year nine camp and described what our 'lips' or, more comedically, our 'ham flaps' looked like. As a young, sexually inexperienced teen, I giggled along with the conversation. However, it made me reel — I immediately felt that my vagina was probably 'underdeveloped' or 'not as womanly' as the other girls had described.
For most people with vaginas, this insecurity is common. With the media and beauty corporations consistently peddling the unattainable ideal of what it means to be 'perfect', there's no wonder we're all questioning whether our vaginas are 'normal' too.
According to a 2021 study, the number of labiaplasties performed worldwide in 2019 reached 164,667 — a 24.1% increase from the year prior. In 2018, The University of Melbourne reported children as young as 13 were worrying about how their vagina looked after "noticing textbook drawings looked different to their body".
So, why exactly do we feel so ashamed of the most intimate part of our bodies? And how do we even begin ridding ourselves of the insecurity?
What does a 'normal' labia look like?
Dr Mia Harris of Sunshine Sex Therapy said that patients often ask whether vaginas are 'normal' and raise concerns around types of sex where their vulvas are visible.
"There is a huge variation in the colour and shape of our labia, and they change size, colour and shape as we age. These changes can be especially apparent after childbirth," she told Refinery29 Australia.
"There are two sets of labia, the outer labia majora and the inner labia minora. The labia majora are the rounded mounds where pubic hair grows on either side of the labia minora, which are the two flaps of skin that may protrude from between the labia major. The labia that we notice the most are the labia minora, which hang down (or protrude) differently in every person! Some don't protrude, and others proudly hang down. This is all normal!"
For 29-year-old Lily, the first time she remembers questioning whether her vagina was 'normal' was while watching Big Brother Uncut.
"I was probably too young to be staying up late watching it, but I have this distinct memory of seeing women shower and realising for the first time that everyone's vaginas might look different," she said.
"As a teenager, I went to a co-ed school, and the boys were absolutely feral in how they spoke about other girls. They would talk about whether the girls they were with had an 'innie' or 'outie'. I had an outie, which felt decidedly less cute."
While no one size or shape indicates a vagina is 'normal', the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Journal found that a common request from labiaplasty patients is for the labia minora to be trimmed to the extent of invisibility — also known as 'The Barbie'.
This isn't surprising. Appearing 'doll-like' is a pressure that plagues female-identifying folks, so there's no wonder this feeling extends to our genitals.
Where does the pressure come from?
"There is a bit of research out there about the reasons people may feel insecure about the appearance of their vulvas, and it has been done since the upward trend started in the rates of elective labial and vaginal plastic surgery," says Dr Harris. For example, an Australian study stated the portrayal of, "hairless, prepubescent external genitalia in the media" has contributed to the increase in labiaplasty procedures.
She noted that inadequate sex education, societal pressures around body image, images of the vulva in the mass media and porn, and negative comments from sexual partners, are common factors that lead to a negative view of one's vagina.
"I remember as a teenager reading an article by a woman who does Brazilian waxes, and she listed/categorised the various types of vaginas she believes exist in the world. There were quite a few, so I tried to figure out what category I fell into — it was the 'Mrs Puff' category," said 25-year-old Taylor.
"I also had friends considering having surgery or discussing how 'not normal' their vaginas were."
Studies around what patients report post-surgery prove that the stress caused by vagina insecurity is very real. In a US study, 93% of the 166 women involved said that their self-esteem had improved after labiaplasty, and 71% reported their sex lives had improved. Additionally, a German study found that 90% of 812 patients reported a "reduction in their psychological distress" after surgery.
How do you overcome this insecurity?
Like all anxieties, labia insecurity won't disappear overnight — it quite literally requires unlearning deeply ingrained societal pressures. But according to Dr Harris, there are plenty of ways to start, including exploring your vulva, enjoying solo sex and noticing the beauty in other people's bodies.
"If porn is part of your life, try watching ethical porn instead of mainstream porn. You will see a wider variety of bodies, genders and sexualities in a more thoughtfully represented way."
Female-identifying and non-binary folk face enough uphill challenges daily. Unfortunately, the odds are not in our favour when it comes to many aspects of life, so eliminating something like labia insecurity is a small but empowering way to scream resistance in the face of (cough, cough) the patriarchy.
If you are, however, concerned about your labia's appearance to the point where it's impacting your life, seeking help from a GP or sex therapist is the best option.