“Girls say they hate their vaginas.” WTF?

Image description: colour picture of a lower body, from navel to thighs, of a women dressed in black with long sleeves and pants, holding a painting in pinks and reds of a vulva right over the spot on her body where it would be visible if she were naked.
Image description: colour picture of a lower body, from navel to thighs, of a women dressed in black with long sleeves and pants, holding a painting in pinks and reds of a vulva right over the spot on her body where it would be visible if she were naked.

Sam sent me this link to a BBC article entitled “Girls say they hate their vaginas,” quoting Dr. Naomi Crouch, a gynecologist for adolescent girls. Dr. Crouch says, and I agree, “for a girl to feel that way about any part of her body, let alone a part that is intimate, is really upsetting.”

The issue is the labia. Girls as young as nine years old are asking for it to be “tidied up.” A young woman interviewed for the news story says, “I guess I just picked up from somewhere that it wasn’t neat enough or tidy enough. And I think I wanted it to be smaller.”  She had the idea, from porn she guesses, that it was supposed to be symmetrical.

Sam and I had an interesting discussion about this because, as I told her, at no point in my childhood, teens, young adulthood, or even today, have I ever had any thoughts at all about what my “vagina” looked like (I put that in quotes because of course there’s more to it than the vagina, as the article “Sex Education: It’s Called a Vulva,” reminds us). As all teens did, we came across porn and magazines. But not once did anything I saw lead me to question whether my own anatomy was “normal” or not normal.

Sam said the same. It just wasn’t a thing that we ever thought about. It’s not that either one of us inspected ourselves and determined, with relief, that “whew! it’s all good!” We just never thought about it at all.

The invention of bodily things for girls and women to care about and worry over — camel toe, muffin tops, perky breasts, nipples, “back fat,” cellulite, booty size [too big? too small?], and now untidy labia — continues to grow.

If you want to see all of our posts about labia, you can find them gathered here.

It’s disturbing when any woman or girl squinches up their nose out of disgust for a certain part of her body. But when girls under 18, some under 15, are being referred for labial surgery (more than 200 had the surgery in the UK last year; over 150 of those were under 15), there’s got to be something wrong (and not with the way they look down there). According to the news story, cosmetic reasons are not sufficient for girls under 18 to be approved for the surgery. They need to have a medical “abnormality.”

Dr. Crouch says that she finds it hard to believe that 150 girls had a medical abnormality requiring labial surgery. According to her, “as a pediatric and adolescent gynecologist, I’ve never seen a girl under the age of 15 who needed an operation on her labia.”

So what can be done. One of the most important things is for girls to be exposed to realistic information, even images, of what the different anatomical parts of their genitalia are. For example, maybe something like this informational page from Our Bodies, Ourselves would be useful.

We might also take more time to explain and illustrate to enable them to learn about vulva diversity. And in general it would be super helpful to encourage girls to be less judgmental and more accepting of their bodies in general. Not just their “privates,” but the whole deal.

I like Jamie McCarthy’s artwork, “The Great Wall of Vagina,” which is a display of 400 actual plaster cast vaginas, “each one as unique as the women who posed for them.” Its point is to “change female body image through art.” Here’s one panel of the piece:

Image description: white plaster panel with four rows, each containing 10 white plaster casts of different vaginas, set into a rectangular tile. Each is different. From Jamie McCarthy's "The Great Wall of Vagina.
Image description: white plaster panel with four rows, each containing 10 white plaster casts of different vaginas, set into a rectangular tile. Each is different. From Jamie McCarthy’s “The Great Wall of Vagina.

The discussion Sam and I had made me start wondering when “tidy vaginas” became a thing. I mean, back in the day there was pubic hair too, so things weren’t quite as “exposed.” Nowadays people shave. Sam suggested that, pubic hair aside, today’s porn is way more up close and personal, with closer camera shots.

I have no idea what the actual turning point was. But I do know that we never worried about. Now it’s a thing. And that is another step back, especially for today’s young women.

When do you think this attention to “tidiness” took hold and what do you attribute it to? I get that this sounds more like an exam question than anything else, but I really am curious to hear people’s thoughts on this and I didn’t really want to ask readers to divulge their personal experiences with their own labia.

19 thoughts on ““Girls say they hate their vaginas.” WTF?

  1. I definitely remember seeing a news piece in the 90s about women in France having cosmetic surgery to both tighten the vagina and change the appearance of the labia. I think the colloquial expression was “going for a tuneup”. If I remember correctly it was about reclaiming genitals for sexual pleasure after childbirth. It was framed as one way to fight aging.

    1. Interesting. That’s a different type of reason that’s less about the aesthetic and of course wouldn’t apply to girls. So there is something more going on now and it somehow seems even more disturbing. “Fighting aging” is its own disturbing narrative but the sex positive slant is a good thing (though there is more to sex than vaginal intercourse and none of that would be affected by childbirth). Thanks for this!

    2. Right. There are cosmetic surgery places in London who advertise “mommy makeovers” who do that. Tummy tuck plus tightening and tidying down below. Ugh. My body isn’t a messy bed!

  2. Only very privileged girls who see themselves primarily as sexual objects would have such concerns.

    1. That’s an empirical claim not born out by the facts. Maybe only those girls would have access to surgery, but not only privileged girls (I assume you’re speaking of class privilege) see themselves primarily as sexual objects and not only privileged girls struggle with body image issues. We might limit this discussion to girls raised in “the West” but even then, labial surgery (for different reasons) has been practiced on girls elsewhere as well.

      1. It’s amazing to me that many of the first world countries look down upon 3rd world countries, cultures, and religions that practice genital mutilation (even calling it mutilation adds stigma) and yet plastic surgery is okay for them even though it’s body mutilation in disguise.

  3. I remember when the Brazilian became the “norm”. There were periods in my twenties where I thought I might be the only one that didn’t mess with anything down there. Ugh. Now I’m mom to a nine year old girl and I have had many feelings of fear and sadness on how I can possibly help her the navigate the weight of expectations on us.

  4. Unencumbered by facts, I highly suspect that you can trace this trend back to porn, but then what drives porn makers to think this is what heterosexual, heteronormative, cisgendered men want to see? I believe labiaplasty began with the Brazilian wax. This was something embraced by porn producers to give the camera more to see, and in doing so, put the labia on greater display. So, yes, I agree with your similar argument in your essay. However, I also see labiaplasty as just another tool in the box to make women appear more like androids. It serves to dehumanize us. Look at Photoshopped magazines for example. It’s not “normal” to have pores, hips, thighs, or even armpits! Look at the actual androids that are being created in a “perfect” young girl’s image today. Labiaplasty is merely another symptom of a disease in our culture – the constant enforcement of the patriarchy through policing of women’s bodies.

  5. It is genital mutilation in disguise –for purely cosmetic reasons. I read within the past month in the news media, that some surgeons (those who aren’t money greedy) are concerned the girl/women may feel pain long after surgery recovery is over.
    Porn is so readily available on the Internet. It’s not like the pre-Internet days. Kids share it among themselves out of curiosity, bravado, etc. Girls can now witness directly reaction of their peers (boys or whomever) when others see vulva/labia photos -comparing real vs. photoshopped.
    I do recall being puzzled and somewhat secretly amazed for awhile how rapidly my body was changing from ages 9-15 in pubic area, breasts. Sure my mother told me about purpose of a period, showed me what to do about it, and I had sex education classes at age 10 yrs. But watching scientific, dry stuff on film was different than figuring out my own body changes. I did wonder for few months if I was “normal”.
    I think sex education and body maturation for girls now must include the diversity and normality of how our body areas change and mature.
    I’d like to show a young girl if she was “disgusted” how the American painter, Georgia O’Keefe was inspired by the vulva in her large floral paintings that are celebratory and bright, which made her famous.

  6. Girls are oversexualized. This is what happens when you raise daughters without Alpha males in their lives. Beta fathers and single mothers are the norm now. Destroy men or remove them from the home, then this is what you get. Women give in way too much to their daughters. It’s no different than having a strong mother in a boy’s life to teach him the concept of mercy. He then runs around like a chicken with its head cut off.
    Propaganda has crushed our civil society as well, but that’s another discussion for another time.

  7. I’ll be honest. I really didn’t like the way my vulva looked either until I was about 17. I was looking into possibly getting surgery as well. Funnily enough, seeing other women’s vulvas in “The Great Wall of Vaginas” when I was a teenager really helped me accept my body for the way that it was. I realized that each vulva is unique and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with mine. A big thanks to Jamie McCarthy and to the women who participated in the project 🙂

  8. What? I am 45 and I have never thought about my vagina or vulva until now. Except when I have had fungal infection, but that’s not counted, I suppose. And of course, in bed with the significant other, which I think is natural – what else CAN one think of at that point? When I was in my teens I am not sure I even knew their names ! Could this be a cultural thing? I am an Indian living in India, and have a 13 year old daughter, who I think (God, I hope) does not think about her vagina and vulva either….
    That aside, I can’t get my head around to how the artist was able to get the plaster cast made…I mean, the technical details. Make the woman sit on gooey plaster? Wouldn’t it be a pain to clean up afterwards?

  9. I didn’t think about my vulva either until I realized that mine was different from other girls, which did not happen until I began having sexual partners. Since then, I have been conscious of it and also viewed it in porn, but the first comments were made by actual men. They were not negative in a sense, but let me know that I was different.

    1. All I can say is: try having a micropenis. It’s not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. LOL, it’s taken me about 10 years to get past the comments directed at my thumb-sized: “pickle”, “cocktail sausage”, etc., by people being thoughtless or outright cruel. So, I do empathize, but, really, you have nothing to worry about. 😉

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