Whether you’ve heard them referred to as a 'wizard's sleeve', 'beef curtains' or 'fanny flaps', labia have long occupied a unique space when it comes to sex slang. You can’t ignore the fact that these humble folds of skin around your vaginal opening are often referred to in some of the grimmest terms you have ever heard.
Jokes about genitals date back to the ancient world. Penis jokes were big in ancient Greece and can also be found on Roman mosaics. Women’s genitals were not excluded. According to mythology, the ancient vagina goddess Baubo was hilarious. One of her powers was making people laugh with her bawdy jokes.
It’s all fun and games until the jokes turn mean which, let’s face it, they often do. Labia in particular are much maligned. Many women worry about how they look: too big, too small, too dark, too light.
Vulva – or as we commonly mis-refer to them, vaginas – come in all shapes and sizes and make a lot of their owners feel shame or embarrassment about how they look. In a 2019 survey conducted by Refinery29 UK, 48% of respondents stated they "had concerns about the appearance of their vulva, the external part of their genitalia (including the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora)".
Reports of negativity towards our external genitalia are, sadly, not confined to that survey. Labiaplasty – plastic surgery that alters the size of the labia minora – was reported to be the third most sought out surgery for British women in 2013 and statistics show that the procedure’s popularity has only grown in the time since. The aesthetic ideal produced by this surgery is that of an ‘innie’, where the labia minora (inner lips) are hidden by the labia majora (outer lips). The opposite – an ‘outie’ – is cast as imperfect or undesirable in comparison.
These statistics paint a grim picture. Hating on our genitals has been normalised, perhaps by porn where you tend to see more innies. On major sites like Pornhub there are hundreds of videos tagged 'innie pussy', 'perfect innie pussy' and 'innie vagina'.
Twenty-five-year-old Jess has felt insecure about her protruding inner labia "every waking moment of her life" but, thanks to TikTok, she’s found solidarity online with others who have outies too. "I like talking with others who have similar labia to mine, I simply cannot relate to girls with slim vulvas," she tells me.
Using humour to deflect and even heal body insecurities is a coping strategy for many. I often find myself joking about my 'beard hair' as a way to cope with hirsutism, a side effect of my polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). And there are numerous TikToks roasting plus-size clothing brands for their limited options – because if you don’t laugh, you cry. By making light of these issues, it is easier to handle the ways in which some of our bodies are discriminated against daily, and to open up conversations about that discrimination.
There is even a trend on TikTok for listing your perfectly 'average' attributes before throwing in a shocking fact about yourself to startle your viewers, soundtracked by a song from a Backyardigans episode, which I personally find hilarious. "Normal girl, 5'4", blue eyes, brown hair," lists one of Gaby Scaringe’s TikTok videos. Her big reveal? A "meaty outie".
This TikTok isn’t a one-off for Scaringe, who has made a platform for herself on the app with a series of videos making light of having large labia. This was a purposeful decision for the former Playboy Bunny.
Speaking to me over email, Gaby explains: "Hearing someone talk about a sensitive topic like genitals in a humorous and non-judgmental way (almost like a bestie or big sis) can be a game changer for people’s confidence."
"Speaking about labia online is important because it’s simply not talked about in an open way anywhere else. Googling can open up a can of worms for all sorts of inaccurate information and a standard health class isn’t going to cover body insecurities in a way that young vulva owners can relate to," she continues.
The online discourse about outies has inspired Gaby not only to make relatable content about her experience with her external labia but also to produce an underwear line that accommodates them, called Cherri.
"[Women with outies] can walk into a lingerie store and see a thong with a one inch-wide gusset, try it on and get so discouraged when it doesn’t fit," she laments. "We think, There’s something wrong with me because this underwear can barely fit one half of my labia."
"But the problem isn’t with our vulva. I think there’s an idea that male genitalia should hang out and female genitalia should be tucked in."
So what needs to change to make underwear more inclusive? Gaby tells me that Cherri tackles the situation on three fronts: a wider and longer gusset to cover all kinds of labia; soft, organic cotton which is less likely to irritate exposed vulva; and organic dyes, which prevent further irritation.
The importance of Gaby’s work is twofold: making the conversation about outies easier and providing a product that makes having larger labia easier, too.
"Having different images like these pages on my feed make me feel normal and better about my labia and I worry about it way less nowadays," she enthuses.
Gaby agrees wholeheartedly, adding her own list of TikTok creators who speak about vulvas and deserve celebrating: "@whoisthisannabyrne is an artist who creates cute vulva jewellery, @mrtennisballs is one of my favourites who frequently talks about her pubic hair, @jessgreenashh is the queen of talking about discharge, and @periodnirvana is a great resource for all menstruation questions."
All four of these accounts, combined with accounts like Gaby's, provide a sexual education on our private parts, which are simply not discussed in enough detail elsewhere, online or off.
There are so many different variations of how labia look. All of them are normal. No labia should ever have been deemed undesirable in the first place. Thankfully, these accounts are here to rehabilitate the outie and remind women and people with vaginas everywhere that they’re fine just as they are.