Learning to love your vulva
Labiaplasty has become the fastest-growing cosmetic trend due to pre-teen concern with their vulvas. But where does this shame and anxiety around our genitals stem from — and does the “perfect vagina” really exist?

At age 14, I (finally) hit puberty and, like all teenagers, was curious about my changing body — especially my genitals. So I jumped onto Google to see what a “normal” vagina looked like. There I found articles like “The 5 Different Types of Labia”, which suggested getting a hand-held mirror, squatting down and getting to know what kind of labia I had. Of course, I immediately grabbed a compact mirror from the bathroom and locked the door. Squatting down with my undies around my ankles, mirror in hand, I studied myself briefly, then swallowed shame and disgust as I shoved the mirror back into the drawer.

I’d never watched porn so I’d never really seen another vagina, but I knew enough to know that my genitals weren’t “perfect”. The boys in my year would make jokes about girls with “outie” labia. This toxic mindset, both from our peers and from the media, is problematic on so many levels. Not least because of the pressure it puts on young women.

Labiaplasties are the world’s fastest-growing cosmetic surgery trend, according to a 2017 study by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. A labiaplasty is the reduction or reshaping of the labia minora, or inner lips of the vulva. Many experts point out that while some women do opt for the surgery because it affects their everyday lives, many have perfectly healthy labia.

In a 2016 Australian study, almost three-quarters of the women surveyed reported their labia’s appearance as their main reason for wanting a labiaplasty. They wanted to achieve that neat, Barbie-like or “porn pussy” appearance. Research in the same year found that Medicare labiaplasty claims more than doubled in the decade between 2003-2013.

So where does this need for a designer vagina come from? In a TedX talk from 2018, Dr Gemma Sharp notes that talking about vaginas is where we, as a society, really struggle. And because of this, “many girls and women have fundamental misunderstandings about their own genital appearance”.

The way we talk about vaginas and vulvas matters. From a young age, many girls and women are taught to use euphemisms like “lady garden”, “girly bits” or “down there” (not to mention other more disgusting variants). So how are we meant to talk and learn about our vaginas and vulva when it is constantly reinforced that although this is a private part of ourselves that needs to remain unspoken, unseen and untouched, our genitals still need to look pretty?

Vaginal wellness

Just as self-care has become a money-making buzz word for the beauty industry (think beauty face masks, $200 candles and expensive 10-step skincare routines), investing in your vagina has become somewhat of a trend in the world of wellness — and it’s called “V-Care”.

There are vulva facials and microneedling that promise to make over and rejuvenate your genitals; jade yoni eggs to strengthen your vaginal muscles and enhance sexual and feminine energy; and vaginal steaming to cleanse your uterus, help with irregular periods and boost fertility. Sound too good to be true? That’s because they probably are. As obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter writes in her book The Vagina Bible, vaginas are a “self-cleaning oven” and the wellness products we’re being sold are marketed to us “based on the idea that there are ‘toxins’ or ‘impurities’ to remove”.

“Honestly, in my personal and professional opinion this [vaginal wellness trends] is merely another gimmick for money making,” says holistic sexologist Cheryl Fagan. “From a sexologist perspective, I want people to learn to love their bodies (show kindness and compassion) just as they are and to question the system (cough… misogyny) that is telling us we ‘need’ these sorts of things. You’ll love your vulva when you get comfortable with it and know how to give it pleasure.”

Pharmacy brands are making scented washes that promise to make your genitals smell like peach blossom and restore pH balance, despite ingredient lists that include alkaline and other skin and pH irritants. There’s also deodorants, cleansing wipes, moisturiser and scented sanitary products for your vagina. And many of these are being marketed specifically to teenagers, teaching them that their vaginas or vulvas need improving.

“It’s inappropriate and teaches self- or body-hate,” Cheryl explains. “Fragrances and different chemicals in the products can alter your pH and cause irritation so you want to be careful. The vagina (the canal) does not need to be washed; you can use unperfumed soaps on the vulva gently, but water is enough.”

And while gimmicks like Goop’s “This Smells Like My Vagina” candle seem harmless and funny, they may actually be contributing to the shame and stigma surrounding vaginal shame. Because, let’s be real, no one’s vagina smells like a flower bouquet with a hint of cedar and citrus. “The idea that the vagina and vulva smell badly or need extensive cleaning products or need to smell a certain way is just not true; these are myths to get people to buy,” says Cheryl.

Clapping back

There has been a global response to the general lack of education and shame surrounding women’s genitals, from inclusive Instagram accounts to viral TikToks by gynaecologists and health experts. Ellie Sedgwick, founder and photographer of Comfortable In My Skin, a platform that displays images of real women’s natural genitals, launched her business after seeking advice on labiaplasty for herself — and then realised her vulva was perfectly normal.

Then there’s Queens of Eve, a women’s health platform founded by Jillian Currie, the self-proclaimed “vagina fairy godmother” who gets real about all things vaginas, from periods and endometriosis to painful sex and everything between. It’s an empowering, body-positive space that provides education and a community to connect and inspire women. These kinds of platforms bridge the gap in our sex education and help bust myths and misconceptions about our bodies.

“Unlearning here is key; we grow up with so many messages subconsciously telling us how to feel about our vulvas,” says Cheryl. “I think part of the answer is addressing ‘porn pussy’ and having a discussion as to why so many look the same and how this came about. Talking about it can help change those subconscious beliefs … we can break the power of this horrible standard by having meaningful conversations about how it’s impacted us individually and collectively. Sex education should include this and encourage self-reflection. And the vagina wall — everyone should see the wall!”

The Great Wall of Vagina was launched in 2008 displaying moulds of real vulvas to emphasise that, just like us, no two vulvas are the same. The UK-based art project by artist Jamie McCartney features casts of more than 400 vulvas to spark a conversation, free women from genital anxiety and prove that there is no such thing as the “perfect vagina”.

How to get embrace your natural vulva, according to a holistic sexologist:

  • Remember that vulvas come in all different shades and sizes. And this is beautiful.
  • When you feel shame or embarrassment, find out where you need healing in this area. If you’re feeling embarrassed just being in your body, this will impact your openness and sexual satisfaction.
  • Have open dialogue with your friends to normalise talking about vaginas. Have you ever struggled with how yours looks? Has anyone ever made you feel weird about it? This can also help with increasing your confidence in talking about sex in general.
  • Look at your vulva with a hand mirror and really get comfortable with it.

Georgia Nelson is a journalist based on the South Coast of NSW and a features writer for WellBeing and WILD. She has a penchant for sustainable beauty, slow fashion and feminist literature. Keep up to date with her latest (mis)adventures on Instagram @_georose.