International Women's Day is an annual chance to celebrate how far women have come in the fight for gender equality, and to take stock of the lengths still to go. One of feminism’s biggest battlegrounds is our bodies. One part of our bodies – namely our vaginas (interior) and vulvas (exterior) – are a hot topic right now, being the subject of documentaries like Channel 4’s recent 100 Vaginas, books such as Lynn Enright’s Vagina: A Re-Education (published this month) and some landmark studies confirming that there is no such thing as "normal" labia, they come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Despite this, in 2019, women’s sexual and reproductive organs remain one of the biggest sources of gender oppression – from FGM and labiaplasty to menstrual banishment, period poverty and vagina shaming.
With this in mind, ahead of IWD 2019, Refinery29 asked our female readers what they think about their own vulvas and vaginas. We received 3,670 responses and the findings were worrying, at times concerning and encouraging all at once.
Half (48%) of respondents told us they had concerns about the appearance of their vulva, the external part of their genitalia (including the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora). Most commonly, they were worried about their size (64%) and shape (60%), with almost a third (30%) also worried about the colour of their vulva. These anxieties mirror the soaring prevalence of labiaplasty – there was a 45% international increase between 2014-15 – and growing trend of vaginal bleaching in recent years, so someone is clearly cashing in on our insecurities.
It’s no surprise then, given our respondents’ misgivings about their bodies, that a large chunk (36%) also claimed not to be happy with their vagina: 22% said they were unhappy, while 16% did not know how they felt about it.
From all angles – porn, sexual partners, the cosmetics industry, friends and even family – women are fed the myth that there’s a single way a vulva and vagina should look, which may explain why many respondents believe they are "abnormal". A third (32%) of women told us they had been made to feel that theirs were not "normal", and when we gave them the chance to expand on this, their accounts made for a disheartening read. Porn was cited time and again, with 72% of women who compare their vagina or vulva to others' referring to it. One woman described her labia as "larger" than she has seen depicted by the industry, another said hers "doesn’t look like what [she sees] in porn," while another summed up the problem perfectly: porn, she said, depicts "vaginas that all look basically the same".
The inside [of my vagina] is not a bright, vibrant pink that is often depicted in Caucasian porn.
Porn also feeds body-image woes indirectly via partners' viewing habits. Time and again, research has flagged its pernicious effect on heterosexual male viewers – links have been drawn between viewing porn and issues ranging from erectile dysfunction and unprotected sex to potentially even the shrinking of the male brain – and judging from our survey, women’s self-perception is a major piece of collateral damage. Men's views of the female body appear to have been severely skewed by porn, with many respondents telling us they’d been made to feel their vulva or vagina was "abnormal" by an ex-partner. "The bastard watched so much porn that he made me feel like I had something wrong with me for not matching porn standards," one recalled. Another said her ex would comment on the colour of hers because it wasn’t what he was used to seeing on screen: "I am Hispanic so the inside is not a bright, vibrant pink that is often depicted in Caucasian porn." One woman’s "older, abusive and manipulative first boyfriend" of five years "constantly criticized [her] and compared [her] to his exes and porn stars."
The booming cosmetic procedure industry is another standout factor behind women’s insecurities – vaginal rejuvenation and labiaplasty were the fastest growing procedures between 2016-17, increasing by 23% on the previous year, according to figures from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS). If procedures exist to alter the shape and size of the vagina and vulva – including operations like labiaplasty and nonsurgical procedures such as vaginal rejuvenation and fillers – it’s not too much of a leap for women to assume that there’s something worth "fixing" about their own. One woman cited "the rise of the vaginoplasty, and women trimming their labia minora" as the source of her insecurity, while another mentioned the prevalence of "advertising for surgical changes for vaginas".
My mother told both my sister and I that we weren't ‘normal’ when we were teenagers.
Insensitive – and often baseless – comments on the appearance of their vulva or vagina (vagina shaming) from friends and family, made as far back as early childhood, also had a lasting impact on many women. "My mother told both my sister and I that we weren't 'normal' when we were teenagers," one respondent told us. "She took us both to the doctor who confirmed we were fine," adding that it left her with a lasting complex. Another’s mum referred to her daughter’s labia as "beef curtains" during childhood, she continued: "Since then, I’ve felt massively self-conscious and hate my fiancé going down there unless it’s dark." Others cited friends as the trigger of their insecurity – of those who admitted comparing their vagina/vulva against others, 26% said they did so against friends. "I remember comparing vaginas with friends as a teenager and mine didn't look like the other girls'," one woman told us. "They mocked me a little and I felt like mine was ugly because it didn't look like theirs."
Given the damaging messages they’ve received about their genitals from as far back as childhood, then, it’s perhaps no surprise that more than a third (34%) of women told us they would change something about their vagina or vulva. Of the 81% of women who had heard of labiaplasty, 3% told us they were considering undergoing the procedure and 1% had already done so, while 15% said they’d consider it in later life. Of those who had heard of vaginal rejuvenation – a nonsurgical treatment designed to "tighten" or "reshape" the vagina – 18% told us they’d consider it in future.
We found much to celebrate about women’s attitudes towards their genitalia, however, suggesting that the feminist, body-positive media we referred to at the beginning of this feature, and a growing awareness of the damage caused by miseducation, are having an impact. More than half (61%) told us they were happy with their vagina, 68% said they’d never been made to feel their vagina or vulva was not "normal" and a solid half would never consider changing something about theirs. Through our #YourVaginasFine series, Refinery29 is committed to presenting a realistic, unapologetic vision of women and their bodies, and nothing is more comforting than feedback from women whose insecurities have been quelled by the increasingly female-dominated cultural landscape. "I was always ashamed of my pubic hair because people would say it's unhygienic and ugly," one woman told us, citing porn and adverts she’d seen that "never showed real women with real vaginas". But over time she’d come to realise that neither were true: "I love my vagina now."