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But, according to Lynn Enright, author of Vagina: A re-education, this taboo is damaging to women. It means that over half of us don’t know what’s normal when it comes to our own anatomy. Lynn tells us why it is important to overcome the stigma around vaginas, and explains what’s normal down there…
Why have vaginas been such an out of bounds topic for so long? Male genitalia is well documented – in TV, books, and in general culture. Yet female genitalia is kept much more hush-hush, sort of shrouded with mystery, leaving many women questioning what a ‘normal vagina’ actually is. Lynn is a woman on a mission to help us understand what a normal vagina timeline looks like and get us more closely acquainted with the ins and outs of our nether regions.
“Ask the average woman to draw you a vulva and she’ll more than likely struggle.” says Lynn. “Ask her to draw you a penis, and she’ll sketch you a broadly accurate, if rudimentary, representation with minutes.”
Lynn has a theory as to why this is. “We live in a society where straight, cisgender men have more privilege and are more dominant – and have been the ones running the medical profession for centuries. That has made a difference.
“Medical diagrams are quite neat and symmetrical,” Lynn said. “And then, in porn, they’re quite neat and symmetrical. I think girls can get a shock when they see their own vulva for the first time and realise it looks different to the ones they see in porn or medicine.”
Simply put, we’re not used to seeing vulvas, and when we do, we see them through the male gaze. We see the vulva equivalent of an airbrushed celebrity. Sure, some look like that in real life, but most don’t. The result? More women than ever before are dissatisfied with the appearance of their intimate areas and are turning to cosmetic surgery to alter their appearance.
“That happens because they’re not empowered with the information in the first place.” says Lynn.
So, what is a normal vagina?
What does a normal vagina look like?
The vagina actually isn’t the correct general term for our intimate area at all. Our vagina is inside our bodies. Lynn explains that the vagina is actually, “the muscular tube that leads from the vulva to the uterus.” Most people use the word vagina to describe the visible parts of female genitalia, but this area is actually called the vulva.
Why then, is vagina the most commonly used term, and not vulva?
“We’re not very comfortable with the word vulva. It’s not a word we hear very often” Lynn explained. She speculates that its lack of popular usage could relate to society’s struggle to address female sexuality, saying, “Female sexuality is just still such a taboo. We don’t like to talk about except for in relation to male sexuality… The vagina is something that a penis goes into, and a baby comes out of, so we’ve become more comfortable with that word”.
What is a vulva?
The vulva is the accurate term to use when speaking about female genitalia in general.
The vulva is all the external genitalia: the pubic mount, the inner and outer labia, the clitoris, the uretheral opening and the vaginal opening, and so on”. It’s the part we’re probably most used to seeing.
What does a normal vulva look like?
With all the secrecy surrounding vulvas, it’s no surprise that women are wondering “is my vagina normal?”, “should my labia look like that?”. We’ve not been armed with accurate information.
But reassuringly, vulvas look as different as anything else on our bodies.
“Actually there is great variation,” Lynn revealed. “The range of what vulvas look like is similar to what faces look like. Everyones looks slightly different. But we’re just not told that.”
So what should we see when we look at our vulvas?
Lynn revealed, “When you’re looking at your vulva, you’re looking at your clitoris, your inner labia, your outer labia, the vaginal opening, and the uretheral opening. The skin might not be the same colour as on the rest of your body. And of course, some people will be hairier than other people.”
“It’s perfectly normal for your vulva to look different – there is variation from woman to woman.”
In fact, a recent project has highlighted just how different normal vulvas can look. Photographer Laura Dodsworth took pictures of 100 vulvas, showing the range of ‘normal’. (Discover more about this project, and see pictures, on the BBC here).
What are labia?
Labia are the folds at either side of a vagina. There are two sets: the inner labia and the outer labia.
Over recent years a terrifying trend has emerged: Labiaplasty. This is where doctors will reduce the size of the labia minora in order for them to look more aesthetically pleasing.
But this surgery is very rarely essential – with Lynn explaining that 99% of the time, “it’s purely for cosmetic reasons.”
Lynn explains, “The NHS says that labiaplasty should not be carried out on girls before they turn 18, but in 2015-16, more than 200 girls under eighteen had labiaplasty on the NHS; more than 150 of them were under fifteen.
And that’s before you even get to what can be some scary side effects. Lynn explained, “When you bear in mind that labiaplasty carries risks – including infection, pain during sex, scarring and lack of sensation – it seems baffling that women who do not need the procedure are putting themselves through it.”
Once again, it all circles back to the taboo surrounding our vulvas. “I think that happened because we’ve created this slightly secret culture around female genitalia.” Lynn said.
“A lot of it comes back to education and the fact that we’re not educating people properly about their bodies. We don’t try and fill in the gaps for them.”
What if you have large labia? Or long labia?
In her book Lynn reveals that “it is normal for the inner labia to be longer, or bigger than the outer labia”. It’s also normal for the outer labia to be longer or bigger than the inner labia.
So it’s important to remember that whether you have a large labia, a long labia – or that however different it may look to you – it’s more than likely normal. Real anatomy doesn’t look like medical drawings or porn. That doesn’t mean it’s not normal.
It’s also normal for labia to change as we age. “Some girls and women will also notice how their labia change over time – the inner labia…might appear different after vaginal childbirth.”
Clitoris size – what is normal?
Clitoris size is another area where women have learnt to be self-concious. But really, whether yours is large or small, everything is more than likely, totally natural and totally normal.
Lynn said, “The sizes of the visible clitoris will vary from person to person. It looks different for different people. And that’s fine again. You can assume that you’re normal.”
And another surprising fact is that actually, the clitoris we can see from outside our bodies is only a small part of it.
“I was really surprised to learn that the clitoris extends inside the body,” Lynn shared. “It goes on for inches inside the bodies. The visible head you can see inside on the vulva, but then it goes inside, and there are legs that stretch inside the body, reaching two clitoral bulbs.
“And those become engorged with blood when a person is aroused, in the same way that a penis does. I think loads of people don’t realise that. And this information has been around for decades. But again, women just aren’t told about it.”
What does a hymen look like?
It is a myth that the hymen is a flat surface that “breaks” when a woman loses her virginity. The hymen looks more like a fringe of tissue near the vaginal opening. It may be a variety of shapes. For some women it may still be visible after sex and childbirth, and for others it may not – like all areas of the body, a wide variety of appearance is common.
How does menopause effect our vulvas?
While our bodies can experience dozens of symptoms during menopause – which typically occurs at the age of 51 – you’ll notice some changes in your vulva too.
That’s because oestrogen production dips during menopause.
“Oestrogen is quite essential for our skin and the tissues over our body” Lynn explains. You make less oestrogen when you’re older. And that means that your skin becomes dryer all over. And the skin over the vulva becomes drier too, and thinner”.
“It can mean that sex can become very painful. It can also mean that urinary stress incontinence can happen, because the skin around the urethra has become thinner. We have to realise again that our vulva is just another part of our body. Like the rest of our body, the skin around the vulva ages.”
Popular menopause treatments can help relieve the situation. Lynn suggested, “If you take HRT, you will have more oestrogen, so that can really help you out. And if you do pelvic floor exercises, that can also really help you out.”
And of course, there are the more visible differences to vulvas during menopause too. “Hair might go white, and there might be less hair there the older we get,” Lynn told us. “It’s a completely natural part of ageing.”
When is a vulva not normal?
All vulvas are different, but there are some red flags to be aware of.
While a smell from your vagina is perfectly normal, there are some instances where you should seek the advice of a medical professional.
“If it’s a bad smell, or if you’re in pain, you should go and see your doctor. If you’re having painful sex, or pain when you exercise, go and see your doctor.”
It’s become de rigeur to feel shame or embarrassment around your vulva, but that’s certainly not a consequence of our own making. “The medical profession hasn’t been great in looking after women and their genitals.” Lynn said.
As such, it’s also important to be aware of signs of serious conditions that can affect your vulva. Vulva cancer, for example, can produce symptoms such as a persistent itch, raised and thickened patches of different coloured skin, a lump, an open sore, or a mole on the area that changes shape or colour. If you notice any of these, book an appointment with your GP as soon as you can.
Talk about your vulva!
As with all aspects surrounding our vaginas and vulvas, the main way to tackle the stigma is to talk about them. This way we can make sure that younger generations understand what is normal.
Lynn said, “Talk about it with whoever you can feel comfortable talking about it with. It might be a medical professional, it might be a friend, it might be a feminist group. Educating ourselves and eradicating shame are two ways we can tackle the lack of information, or the misinformation that has surrounded the vulva.”
Lynn Enright is a journalist and the author of the book, Vagina: A re-education, which is out now.
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