4 Women Who Were 'Vagina Shamed' On How It's Shaped Their Lives

Photographed by Ashley Armitage
There's no shortage of companies, media outlets and thoughtless individuals with something to say about what makes a "normal" or "perfect" vagina. Despite there being no such thing – vaginas and vulvas (the external female genitalia) come in all shapes and sizes, as numerous studies have shown – women have long been made to worry that theirs is the wrong size, shape, smell... the list goes on.
Girls as young as nine are asking to have their labia shortened (a.k.a. labiaplasty) despite having no medical need for it, and doctors have reported a rise in girls being depressed by the appearance of their vagina and vulva in recent years. "Their perception is that the inner lips should be invisible, almost like a Barbie, but the reality is that there is a huge variation. It's very normal for the lips to protrude," Dr Paquita de Zulueta said earlier this year.
But sound judgements from medical professionals don't always percolate into the public consciousness and people make offhand comments – we're calling it vagina shaming – about women's genitals all the time. They're comments that may seem innocuous but, actually, they can trigger bodily insecurities and even mental health problems that last for years. Four women who've been vagina shamed told Refinery29 how it's blighted their lives.
For more news and reporting on cosmetic and non-cosmetic procedures targeted at women's vaginas, visit our #YourVaginasFine microsite.
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For weeks I awkwardly tried to tuck in the little bit of my labia that was longer than my vulva

Nadia (not her real name), 29, developed a long-term insecurity about her labia after being told as a child that boys preferred "neat" vaginas.

I remember being at a friend's house for a sleepover – we can't have been older than 11 or 12 – and we were talking vaginas. Obviously, it wouldn't have been the most intelligible conversation; sex ed was all about penises and all we had to go on was each other. But one of the girls who had an older sister (I don't have one of those) announced defiantly that she knew that boys would like her vagina because her sister said it looked right when she was teaching her about shaving. It's such a minor detail but I remember thinking, "What does that mean?" From what I remember, she loosely described it as being smooth like a doll's (ew), all tucked in and "neat". She said boys don't like it when "your insides spill out" (now I know she meant labia as opposed to your internal organs). I immediately panicked and for the next few weeks I awkwardly tried to tuck in the little bit of my labia that was longer than my vulva, in the hope that it would stay there as I grew (some well-thought-out kid logic for you).

I got over it as I got older, but my initial discomfort with my vagina wasn't helped by the fact that you'd rarely see an image of a vagina that didn't look like it belonged to a Barbie doll. It took a long time for me to be comfortable with a guy going down on me – it wasn't until my university boyfriend asked why I'd always say no to it, and I explained that I didn't want him to be put off by my vagina, and he couldn't get his head around why I thought that. So that (and the improvement in our sex life) definitely helped. I remember looking up surgery when I was in my teens – and realised that training your labia by tucking it in wasn't a thing – but once I'd had a couple of boyfriends and started having sex regularly, my desire to actively change the look of it thankfully faded.

Even now, whenever someone goes down on me I tend to keep an eye on their facial expressions. Not in a sexy way but rather "Does this dude have an issue with my vag?" kind of way. I'm happy to say there have never been any complaints but that passing thought hasn't gone away yet. It also made me really aware and curious about what other people's vaginas look like. If I'm ever faced with a vagina, I can't help but compare.
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I spent a week quietly researching labiaplasty to get the ‘problem’ fixed

Olivia (not her real name), 25, was shamed into contemplating labiaplasty during a formative sexual encounter.

It’s not uncommon, aged 16, to have hang-ups about your appearance. As a six-foot-tall woman, my height blighted my teenage years – I'd stoop down to try and appear more feminine to the boys at school who'd comment on how and why "massive" women aren’t fit. Fast-forward to age 25: I’ve discovered feminism and I’ve grown out of most of my appearance-based insecurities. Now I adore the power and presence that comes with clocking in at over six foot in heels

But there's one hang-up that has stayed with me despite all rational argument: the fact that my vagina is lopsided, imperfect. It stems, unsurprisingly, from a sexual experience I had when I was 16. Misogyny was rife at my Midlands state comprehensive school – upskirting, arse slapping and various digital forms of sexual assault were abysmally policed by members of staff who had limited time and energy to deal with it. At my school, 'feminism' was still a dirty word in 2010; young men had the power to make or break a girl's reputation.

My insecurity stems from a romantic interlude with a guy named Zac – tall, fit, blonde, charming, used to getting all the girls. One November, Zac decided it was my turn for attention; we started texting and eventually ended up at a house party together. Six cans of Strongbow and a drag on a spliff later and I found myself in a random bedroom with Zac asking me for a blowjob. He turned on the lights ("It’s sexier") and I proceeded to go down on him, but suddenly the weed and the cider caught up with me and I felt sick, so I stopped.

Zac was put out – he’d been expecting me to finish – but after a brief sulk he decided to go down on me instead. I’d never experienced this before, but I was up for it. I remember feeling a bit cold and exposed under the lights and about 30 seconds in, he sneered: "Do you know one of your vag lips is bigger than the other? I’m not touching that." With that, his trousers were back on and he was downstairs dancing to Dizzee Rascal. Mortified, I sprinted home, four miles on my own, in the dark.

The day after, I spent hours in the bathroom with a ruler and a magnifying glass, trying to work out the exact difference in size of my labia in millimetres. My right labia was about half a centimetre longer than the other and in my shamed state, I assumed I was a freak of nature. At school on Monday I was met with jeers from Zac’s mates in the canteen, which persisted for the rest of the school year: "Didn’t know you had a wizard’s sleeve" and "What’s with the baggy lab?"

I was traumatised and spent the next week quietly researching labiaplasty to get the "problem" fixed. I can’t remember the details, but I remember working out that it would cost thousands of pounds, so I approached my mum to put forward a case for financial support with my cosmetic endeavour. Sensibly, she marched me straight to the GP, who confirmed forcefully that my labia were completely normal – and that I should consider talking to the school about Zac and his friends’ behaviour, which my mum duly did, to little avail.

Looking back, I can clearly see what influenced Zac’s act of shaming my vagina: a mixture of vexation at my not giving him a blowjob, our school’s toxic culture of slut shaming and misogyny, and probably an exposure to too much porn at a young age, which warped his perceptions of normal. But it’s taken me years to get over it – I still won’t let my boyfriend go down on me with the lights on and covers off. It makes me sad that this experience has stayed with me. Rationally, I know my vagina is fabulous, but I’m still waiting for my subconscious to shake off a sense that my vagina isn’t quite right.
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I spent so much time and money on over-the-counter medication that I didn’t need

Eloise (not her real name), 19, was made to believe she had an infection or disease after comments from her first (now ex) boyfriend.

The first time I was made to feel insecure about my vagina was when I was 17, in my last year of high school. My then-boyfriend and I were doing long distance as he was at university in a different country. He was my first everything: first kiss, first time, first love, the whole shebang – and I was already feeling super insecure about myself and the relationship. He had been pushing for an open relationship in order to have the "university experience" (points for honesty, I guess?).

One evening we were on Skype and I don’t quite remember how we got onto the topic but he said I should get checked for a yeast infection because he thought it was a little gross down there and didn’t want it to affect his health when I visited him. Voicing his concern for my health is fine, but his choice of words really hurt. I went to a gynaecologist to get it checked out – I was totally fine and healthy.

During another Skype conversation a few weeks later, we got on to the topic of sex. This time around, he told me he didn't like going down on me because he thought it was gross – at this point we were still discussing the prospect of an open relationship, something I didn't want, and he'd been telling me about other girls who were interested in him. My understanding was that he specifically didn't like it with me and that he'd like it with other girls instead, rather than that he didn't like it in general, which is what I now think he was actually saying.

Unsurprisingly, it's not great for your self-confidence to hear that your first love thinks your vagina is gross. For a really long time I was embarrassed by my vagina and worried that other partners would also think it was gross or wouldn't like going down on me. I'd try to stop them when I felt like they were getting a bit too low, and if I didn’t I wouldn't enjoy it, because I'd spend the whole time wondering if they were grossed out or turned off or whatever. I've yet to receive any complaints though.

Even though my gynaecologist told me I was fine, I was convinced I had various infections or diseases that would make it seem "gross", even though yeast infections are perfectly normal and people get them all the time. I spent so much time and money on over-the-counter medication that did nothing for me because I didn’t need it. It was six months before I let someone go down on me again, and then another five months to feel more relaxed and comfortable. I'm not as embarrassed these days and have learned to relax but I still get random bursts of anxiety about my vagina.
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Even now I can’t wear leggings or tight jeans without an extra pair of knickers on

Jacqueline, 25, developed a long-term fear of camel toe after an offhand comment from an ex-boyfriend.

When I was 22 I'd been seeing a really great guy for a while. One morning after I’d stayed around his place, I was getting dressed to go home. I turned around in my underwear and all I really remember is him pointing at my bits and laughing. I asked him what was so funny and he said, "You have major camel toe." I didn’t have a clue what it was and shrugged it off, but on the train home I googled it and was absolutely mortified. It’s when your underwear fits pretty snug around your vulva and draws attention to the shape of it. In other words, it’s not smooth. I hadn’t noticed it before but when I got home, I put a pair of leggings on to go to the gym and all I could see was the outline of my vulva and I felt so embarrassed, like I was naked.

Even now I can’t wear leggings or tight jeans without an extra pair of knickers on, or even a pantyliner, to smooth the shape. I feel like people are staring otherwise and I feel starkers. Things didn’t work out with the guy but now, if I sleep with someone new I hope they won’t comment on the appearance of my bits, which is absurd, because the way they look has nothing to do with them. No one ever has, but it's still an insecurity.

Also, swimsuits and bikini bottoms are getting higher and higher, which is great for my short legs, but I’m scared of malfunctions. I’m always adjusting. My mum actually threw my shorts at me once because you could ever so faintly see the outline when I was sunbathing on the beach. Thinking about it, it’s obvious that other people have the problem, not me. My vagina is what it is.

I did google labiaplasty after the camel toe incident, but the thought of not being able to sit down or wee scared the hell out of me. I also read horror stories about women having their labia trimmed back and literally pissing everywhere when they went to the loo. No idea if they’re true, but no thank you.

My friend is obsessed with the way her vagina looks and it makes me feel a bit insecure about mine. She’s always like, "Oh, men say mine is so perfect, like Barbie's. It’s so pretty." Once, we were on holiday and she literally whipped off her knickers to show me. I sat there thinking, 'Okay cool, it’s great that you like your bits, but there’s no such thing as perfect private parts. And I’m not going to compare mine with yours.'

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