"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is a childhood mantra. But like much of what we're told as kids, it's a total lie. As anyone who's ever been bullied or even picked on will attest, it's actually the "harmless" personal comments and scathing putdowns that stick with us.
When it comes to nasty – or even well meaning but misguided – comments about our bodies, the impact can be particularly damaging. An offhand remark about someone's weight, for instance, could spiral into lifelong insecurities and even mental health issues.
The impact of careless comments about women's intimate parts – their vulvas and vaginas – can be similarly scarring, and affect everything from their self-esteem to confidence in bed and closeness to their partners, as Refinery29 found in our survey of 3,670 women about their vulvas and vaginas.
I have larger lips on my vagina that my mum referred to as 'beef curtains'.
We asked respondents if they were happy with theirs, and whether or not they considered theirs to be "normal" (there's no such thing, of course), and the results were dispiriting, with 36% claiming not to be happy and a third (32%) saying they had been made to feel that theirs were abnormal.
When given the chance to expand on why they believed their vulva/vagina was "not normal", a disheartening number of women (63 or 5% of respondents) cited the impact of being shamed when they were younger – mainly by teenage boys, but also by their mothers and peers – as the source of their current insecurity. Vagina shaming, it seems, starts in girlhood.
My mother told both my sister and I that we weren't 'normal'.
Some of the most unpleasant comments, we discovered, were attributed to mothers. "I have larger lips on my vagina that my mum referred to as 'beef curtains' when I was younger and since then, I’ve felt massively self conscious and hate my fiancé going down there unless it’s dark," one respondent told us.
"My mother told both my sister and I that we weren't 'normal' when we were teenagers," another respondent told us. "She took us both to the doctor, who confirmed we were fine. It left a last[ing] complex, however." A third respondent told us that her mother, along with porn and the media, had made her feel "bad" about her "big" labia minora (inner lips).
Others revealed their school peers had provoked their insecurity. One woman cited an incident "in high school [when] girls ganged up and asked me what was down there in my pants. I was 11 and they started asking [if it was] stretchy or crusty." Another recalled an instance "many years ago, back in school, when we all talked about the different sizes/lengths of our labia".
It is "very common" for children to be shamed for their genitals during childhood, according to psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Beverley Hills, who acknowledges how harmful it can be long term. "Being mocked or told 'down there' is dirty or rude can lead to great childhood insecurities such as shame and confusion. As children we believe everything adults tell us, we have to in order to survive, and the damage that's done lives in our subconscious, sometimes for life, if we don't address these feelings."
Hills believes that "parents often parent historically, the way they were [parented themselves]," and so they "tend to make similar mistakes unless they are self-aware enough to change the pattern of behaviour," for instance through counselling.
The long-term impact on women on the receiving end of these mistakes, Hills says, "could be the inability to have a satisfactory sex life for fear of ridicule or rejection. Some women are fearful of being intimate with the light on, for instance, in case their partner sees their genitals and is repulsed, an echo of previous shaming." Her example bears a stark resemblance to our survey respondent whose mum taunted her about her "beef curtains".
When it comes to sex, a woman's anxiety about her body "can impair the blood flow to the pelvic area, so once they try to have sex they might not get genitally aroused," says consultant clinical psychologist Janice Hiller, resulting in either painful sex or an inability to have it at all.
Feeling anxious about swimming and other sports is also common among women who have been vagina shamed as children, Dr Leila Frodsham, consultant gynaecologist and lead for psychosexual services at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital, tells Refinery29. Even more worryingly, given their lifesaving potential, women may feel unable to attend cervical screenings. "In extreme cases, women request surgery."
There are mothers who present with their adolescent girls requesting labiaplasty, as their daughters 'look abnormal'.
Dr Leila Frodsham, consultant gynaecologist
"There are mothers who present with their adolescent girls requesting labiaplasty, as their daughters 'look abnormal'," Dr Frodsham says. "This is often in families where girls are already removing their pubic hair and may indicate an unhappiness about the mother's anatomy that she is projecting." However, she believes the impact of porn on women's self-perception is more insidious.
If you are one of the many women with deep-rooted insecurities about her vulva or vagina, Dr Frodsham and Beverley Hills both recommend looking at a wide array of natural vulvas. "Jamie McCartney's Great Wall of Vagina can really help, and so will the [upcoming] Vagina Museum," says Dr Frodsham. The Labia Library was also name checked by the experts we spoke to. Counselling can also help.
"If it prevents you from having a relationship or from having sex, if you have a wound that will not heal, even if you know in your head that you're fine, getting professional help from a therapist/sexologist can help," suggests psychologist and psychotherapist, Leonor de Escoriaza, who says she has seen cases of bulimia, depression, anorexia and suicidal thoughts related to body shaming.
As for parents, it may sound obvious, but the psychologists and therapists we spoke to recommend avoiding needlessly cruel remarks. "Parents should always make positive and loving comments about their children’s bodies," Hiller advises. "There is no need at all to be disparaging or undermining. If they think there is an abnormality they should get the child medically checked without making a fuss."