Contains adult themes
There’s an episode of Sex and the City in which Charlotte reveals that she’s never looked at her vagina, and Samantha immediately sends her off to the toilets with a hand mirror. When I watched this episode aged 15, it made a great impression on me.
I couldn’t escape bucolic Dorset and date my way around Manhattan like Carrie and the girls, but I could get to know my vagina. Locking myself in the bathroom, I propped one leg on the loo, while holding a big mirror underneath me. I expected to revel in my womanly self. I did not expect to scream.
‘What was that?’ I remember thinking, spotting the dark hair sprouting out from my pale skin. ‘I have Einstein pubes!’ Worse than that, though, were my lips: they looked vast and baggy, puckered and purple. ‘It looks like something from an anti-smoking campaign,’ I thought.
I was frightened I’d done something wrong: had my vulva been ‘neat and tidy’ before I started masturbating? All I could think was how ugly I looked, and how rubbish I was going to be at ‘being a woman’. That’s when I started crying.
Back then, it felt like I was the only person to ever freak out about the way my body looked. I’ve since discovered that, sadly, it’s now ‘normal' for young women to be unhappy with the way their bodies look.
The consequences can be serious. In January, the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that one in three women avoid going for a smear test because they’re embarrassed about the appearance of their vulva and vagina. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35. Let’s think about this: the shame we’re conditioned to feel around our bodies could actually kill us.
The beauty industry both reflects and feeds this trend. There’s been a proliferation of vagina beauty products, from highlighting creams to glitter tablets. Medical experts say that these products aren’t even safe, let alone necessary. Dr Vanessa Mackay, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says: “It's a good idea to avoid using cosmetics, perfumed soaps, gels, and antiseptics on the vulva, as these can affect the healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels, and cause irritation."
In my view, manufacturers of such products are just exploiting our insecurities, and seeking to profit from invented problems. Rather than enhancing our physical enjoyment, the focus is entirely aesthetic, reinforcing the damaging idea that looking good for other people is more important than feeling good.
Some experts believe porn is driving these insecurities, particularly how women feel about their vaginas. Jasmin, 29, says that she put off going for a smear test because of a comment from her first boyfriend, while they were watching porn together.
“He saw a woman with asymmetrical labia and said, ‘Oh my God, her vagina is so weird; actually, it looks a bit like yours!’" she explained. "He then suggested that I save up for cosmetic surgery. I felt so ashamed and scared of what a doctor might say that I binned my smear test letter for years.
"I mentioned it to my work friend after some drinks, and she encouraged me to make an appointment. They ended up finding some abnormal cells. If my boyfriend hadn’t made that comment, I wouldn’t have thought twice about going for my smear. But I put myself in a situation where I could have died – all because I was embarrassed.”
Mainstream porn has a very specific aesthetic, in which the ‘perfect’ vulva and vagina is neat and self-contained. But, actually, the 'perfect porn vagina' is a myth even in porn itself. In many cases, the performers’ genitalia varies wildly.
Joanna Angel, a 37-year-old porn performer and director, told me: “I was incredibly insecure about my vagina, because the only 'porn' I saw growing up was in Playboy or Penthouse magazine where everything was really photoshopped. Once I got into porn and stripping, I realised, 'Oh, no one’s vagina actually looks like that! There’s much more variety!'”
Emma Soos, managing director of the Women’s Health Clinic, says this vagina shame is exacerbated by TV shows that sensationalise women’s bodies, all of them reinforcing the idea that there’s only one way to look ‘good'.
“I’ve also seen some awful memes on social media comparing women’s body parts to baguettes,” said Emma. She’s right: remember when one Twitter user compared Taylor Swift’s vagina to a ham sandwich? Although the post was denounced, the words still fed the self-consciousness of millions of women.
According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, labiaplasty is now the world’s fastest growing cosmetic procedure. In 2016, the number of surgery worldwide increased by 45%. “Women are requesting vulva surgery in the belief that their genitalia are abnormal,” said gynaecologist Dr Tania Adib. “There is a rigid standard with what is seen as the ‘ideal’ vulva, but the appearance of a woman’s vulva actually varies widely.”
Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl are sexual health educators. While researching their forthcoming book, The Wonder Down Under, they spoke to a number of women who were thinking about undergoing labiaplasty. “In our experience, women with normal, healthy genitals are considering or having intimate surgery because they think there’s something wrong with them,” said Ellen.
They believe we need to be better informed about our anatomies. “When we learn about puberty at school, we see how the penis grows and changes, but no one really educates us about how female genitals develop or change,” said Nina.
“We’ve met a lot of women who feel abnormal because they have a vulva that looks nothing like the illustrations in an anatomy book. But, unlike those illustrations, it’s normal for the inner labia of adult women to protrude way beyond their outer labia, and for the inner labia to be full of crinkles and folds.” She described it as, “like a princess dress made of tulle”. That description might not be enough to transform the way we feel about our vaginas, but it’s a brilliant start.
For me, the biggest mental shift came after a conversation with someone who had a breast augmentation. She loved the way she looked, but she regretted the surgery - because her breasts weren’t as sensitive as they used to be. A switch flipped in my head. Who had actually benefited from this surgery? It was a much-needed reminder that the way we feel is more important than how we look.
Ellen agrees. “The inner labia have a sexual function: they’re full of nerve endings and it feels good to touch them. When the labia is cut in cosmetic surgery, you’re removing a sensitive and important part of yourself."
My vagina feels good, and that’s what sex is about: feeling good. Ultimately, the world makes it hard for us women to love our bodies. Just talking about our vaginas is difficult – but they are wonderful. No two are the same, and there’s no such thing as a good one or a bad one.
Every vagina is awesome, and the more we say it out loud, the easier it is to start believing it.
Go here for further resources and advice on sexual and bodily health.