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Love Thy Labia!

bare female legs in bed

The relationship status most women have with their private parts is ‘complicated’ to say the least.

Unlike our male counterparts whose parts dangle in the open breeze, our genitalia is a hidden mysterious world. Discoverable only after some serious limbering up, a few yoga poses and a hand mirror, you could say it requires some commitment! 

University studies have shown that only around 40% of women roll up their sleeves to take a closer look at their precious undercarriage. Meanwhile most women have more than glimpsed other women’s bits via porn sites. And some of them may have been left with the disconcerting thought, ‘Hang on a minute, mine doesn’t look like that..’

Labiaplasty – the surgical trimming and tucking of the inner labia –  is one of the fastest growing cosmetic procedures being requested in plastic surgery. In particular there has been an increase of young women presenting to their doctors with the idea that something is wrong or mis-shaped about their labia.

Before we go any further, let’s clarify the terms. Many of us have grown up using ‘vagina’ to cover everything ‘down there’, or a myriad of other euphemisms and pet names for our nether regions. Using anatomically correct terminology helps us to understand the nuances and capabilities of our genitals. Experts in sexual health believe that using accurate words for our anatomy promotes confidence and a positive body image, especially in young people, leading to better boundaries and communication with partners about sexual pleasure. To take it an extra step, American feminist and psychologist Harriet Lerner believes neglecting the right terms for our genitals (usually our vulva) is like a “psychic genital mutilation. What is not named does not exist.” And we wouldn’t want that would we! 

So as a quick refresher, the term ‘vagina’ specifically refers to the muscular canal that connects the uterus to the vulva, through which babies and menstruation travel to the outside world 🙂 The ‘vulva’ is a package term referring to the external parts of the female genitals (which for a lot of women is the pleasure centre) and proud home to the visible part of the clitoris. We now know that that around 90 percent of the clitoris lives beyond the surface, made up of erectile tissue and a complex network of nerves that form a wishbone shape encircling the vagina before it extends its arms 5 inches into the pelvic area! But if you were sending directions to the pea size nub that most of us have come to know as the clitoris, its at the meeting point of the inner lips – the labia minora. The more delicate skin of the labia minora frames the vaginal opening, while the fleshy outer lips of the vulva are known as the labia majora. 

More often than not, the inner lips are asymmetrical and stick out from the outer lips to varying degrees. We all know women’s bodies tend to be objectified by the media, and the poor labia is no exception. Like the barbie doll myth there is the misconception that labias should be hidden or tucked in, and porn imagery often reinforces this. But when it comes to the hidden world of labias, we need to know that diversity is normal. Like flowers or ear lobes they come in all different shapes and sizes, coloration and symmetry. 

Studies that measured the lips of hundreds of different women found there to be up to 150 percent difference in length from one woman to another. While labiaplasty, like any other plastic surgery is the choice of every individual, it’s important to look at the growing trend through cultural lenses, especially when it poses a risk of scarring and a loss of sexual sensation.

Sexual health experts suggest that the lack of sex education for young adults about pleasure is partly responsible. Many look to porn to fill the gaps in knowledge. While sex education will typically cover penis in vagina sex and a woman’s anatomy in relation to reproduction, there is rarely mention of the potential for pleasure that resides in a woman’s vulva. As a result young girls learn to view their genitals in an objectified way, in relation to a male’s anatomy and in terms of how they might look to others rather than their capacity for pleasure and connection.

In a quest to help girls and women feel more comfortable in their own skin, Women’s Health Victoria have created the Labia Library, a non profit organisation that teaches what healthy bodies look like. Their photo gallery sports a large collection of images of real women’s labias, so that those seeking genital cosmetic surgery can be properly informed.

You can follow the link to the labia library here: http://www.labialibrary.org.au 

If you’d like to explore more about sexual health communication and pleasure, WHWS have counsellors with a background in sexology: https://www.whws.org.au/sextherapy 

You can also access our Hidden World Of You Series which is soon to release an online course on Sexuality and Self Esteem: https://hiddenworldofyou.com.au/

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