Opaya - Vulva Shame amongst Women
Updated: Mar 4
Published for Opaya
If I asked you to take off your knickers, part your legs and look at your vulva in the mirror, how would you feel?
Perhaps you’re already a seasoned vulva gazer and this doesn’t feel confronting at all. You could show me the landscape of your female anatomy with delight, pointing out your asymmetrical labia, your clitoral hood, your urethra…
Or, like so many of us, maybe a self-examination in the mirror seems really alien and intimidating, and…Wait. What’s the difference between the vulva and the vagina again?
If you’re in the last camp, you’re certainly not alone! YouGov’s study in 2019 found that half of the women surveyed couldn’t identify or describe the function of their urethra, labia or vagina. These are hardly surprising results. After all, our sex education is lousy, it’s culturally acceptable to routinely misuse the word vagina, we only discovered the clitoris in 1998 and everyone is still confused about the G spot.
Set against this miserable backdrop of female sexual misinformation and sorely under-funded research is a bedazzling, thriving sexualised landscape of all-you-can-watch pornography and all-you-can-buy consumerist titillation that parades the female body in our faces. This gap between our overtly sexualised popular culture and our lacklustre sex education, mixed with our reluctance to have open and honest conversations about sex, does cause pause for thought.
Let’s take the steep increase of labiaplasty among women in the past decade: a cosmetic procedure that surgically alters the length of the labia. According to the 2017 statistics from the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, demand for labiaplasty increased by 217.2% from 2012 to 2017. Pornography has been largely blamed for these figures, criticised for promoting a very specific and largely unrealistic genital aesthetic that has been positioned as ‘the norm’. Indeed, unwaxed, asymmetrical vulvas in all their natural glory - of all shapes, sizes and colours - are hard to find on popular pornography sites.
Whilst the pressure to adhere to skewed vulva beauty standards has undoubtedly been perpetuated by pornography, we must also acknowledge another fact. That our inability to talk openly about sex has created a vacuum, which the language and graphics of porn has subsequently rushed to fill.
Entertainment has inadvertently become a main source of education, and therein lies the rub. Without free-flowing conversations in our wider society that honour our anatomy and celebrate our sexuality, it’s so easy for shame, stigma and misleading information to fester.
So, how can we remedy the misinformation, unease and disconnect from our vulvas? I have a few suggestions:
There are some fabulous, celebratory and accessible resources available to us that help normalise the diverse shapes, sizes and colours of all our vulvas. Check out platforms like The Vulva Gallery, The Great Wall of Vagina and Laura Dodsworth’s photography book Womanhood: The Bare Reality. Exploring the broad aesthetic range of the female anatomy can be life-changing for young and older women alike.
Take a sex positive workshop that incorporates ‘vulva art’ in it. It’s an opportunity to be in a safe space with other women, discussing female sexuality whilst exercising your artistic skills. Painting, sketching and sculpting vulvas have gained popularity in recent years, and it’s a fun way of relating to our anatomy.
Invest in a ‘sacred pussy’ course and learn about ancient, eastern teachings that believe that the female anatomy is a source of sexual energy and feminine power. Shifting our mindset to find sacredness in our sexuality and power in our vulvas might seem radical or left-field to some, but it’s been practiced for thousands of years across many different cultures. For many, it can be a potent way to cultivate a reverence and connection with our anatomy, whilst unpacking layers of patriarchal messages about sex.
And remember, our vulvas are healthy and fabulous in its natural form, so there’s absolutely no need to be spritzing, washing, detoxing, tightening or refreshing our lady parts with bogus women’s hygiene products on the market. Rather, let’s show her some curiosity, a lot of love and collectively embody a ‘Viva la Vulva’ spirit!