Viva la Vulva

In the News Viva la Vulva What the “designer vagina” craze says about our culture -Joanna Balfort “Is my vagina ugly?” a college-aged woman asks as my friend Kelsey, a medical student completing her ob-gyn rotation, examines her. “I’d heard some odd questions in medical school, but this was a first,” says Kelsey. “It caught […]

In the News

Viva la Vulva

What the “designer vagina” craze says about our culture

-Joanna Balfort

“Is my vagina ugly?” a college-aged woman asks as my friend Kelsey, a medical student completing her ob-gyn rotation, examines her.

“I’d heard some odd questions in medical school, but this was a first,” says Kelsey. “It caught me off guard. I told her that her body was completely normal – that there’s so much variation in vaginas, there really isn’t any standard to aspire to. But she didn’t seem convinced. Apparently her boyfriend had made a comment that made her self-conscious. I felt really bad for her.”

This anecdote is not only upsetting, but speaks to the damaging emotional effects of our hyper-sexualized culture. While I haven’t seen a lot of vaginas up close and personal myself, I know enough to know they come in all shapes and sizes, colors and textures – and I happen to like mine a lot. So when it seems like an increasing number of women, especially younger generations, feel bad about their bodies or pressured to look a certain way, alarm bells go off in my head.

How did this happen? One culprit is Internet pornography, which grossly misshapes reality and wreaks havoc on relationships, as well as the self-images of both women and men. As Naomi Wolf wrote in a 2004 essay for New York Magazine: “Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training – and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.” For the first time in human history, she argues, “[Porn] images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women.”

First it was hairless vaginas: Porn cemented the meme that bald vulvas were the epitome of sexiness and desire. Suddenly men wanted women to look like and position themselves like the slick-vulvaed porn stars on screen. The great to-shave-or-not-to-shave debate was recently chronicled on, when some 350 women responded to a question from a female reader who wrote to Salon’s popular advice column about her experience dating men who wanted her to shave her pubic hair. (Read the most popular responses).

Next came barely there labia, with adult film actresses popularizing labiaplasty, a medically risky surgery where the inner vaginal lips – or labia – are shortened. In a 2004 New York Times article, a yoga instructor from Boston explains her decision to go under the knife: “The only women I could compare myself to were women in pornographic movies,” she says. “[Their labias] were tiny and dainty and symmetrical. Nobody looked like me.” Suddenly, labiaplasty and vaginoplasty, which tightens the vaginal canal, are all the rage. A 2007 New York Times article describes the marketing of these procedures, which promises “an improvement in sexual satisfaction, cosmetic appearance and self-esteem.”

In 2006, “U.S. women spent $2.3 million on cosmetic vaginal procedures and the number of such surgeries grew 30 percent, to 1,030, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS),” notes a 2007 Bloomberg news report. Both the ASPS and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose the surgery, which is “a bad fix for problems with body image and sexual function” and poses risks including “loss of sensitivity to the genitals, infection and pain from permanent scarring.”

Sound sexy? Clearly, in the age of ubiquitous and ever-present porn, there is a significant need for basic public health education about what is “normal” as far as vaginas go. As UCLA clinical psychologist Gail Wyatt says in the Bloomberg report, “For women dissatisfied with their appearance, doctors need to cover the basics of sex education and show women pictures of enough vaginas so they see how many different images are normal,” she said.

Go Ask Alice!, the award-winning health-education site at Columbia University, suggests asking your provider for a hand mirror at your next ob-gyn visit. “When the speculum is in place, admire the beauty that is you. Some providers are surprised by this request; others are delighted and see it as a teachable moment.”

To combat all the misinformation, maybe it’s time for a national campaign promoting the diversity of our divine lady parts. Do we need billboards in Times Square boasting: “Ladies! Your va-jay-jays are gorgeous in all their glorious variety!” Will Georgia O’Keeffe provide the graphics? Or would women benefit from a viewing of sex educator Betty Dodson’s video Viva La Vulva! Women’s Sex Organs Revealed, in which a group of 25- to 68-year-old women share images of their own vulvas?

When I was coming of age as a young woman, I worried about whether my braces would get caught in Michael Dwyer’s when we kissed under the bleachers, or if my bra was visible through my white Madonna T-shirt. Today, young girls are waxing in junior high school, and women of all ages are obsessing about the length of their labias. Here’s the reality, ladies: we are all “normal.” Just look in the hand mirror.

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0 thoughts on “Viva la Vulva

  1. That’s great for females, but what about the double standard against males? How many Americans circumcise baby boys because they think that the natural penis is ugly? All too often I hear American society denigrating young and adult men for having a whole body. Circumcision always results in “loss of sensitivity to the genitals” and scarring. It can also cause sexual dysfunction, infection, pain throughout life, and event death.

    Sound sexy?

  2. cmaglaughlin, you clearly didn’t read the article you referenced or did not understand it. It says that mostly people in Africa and other 3rd world places are most at risk and have the most to gain from circumcision. Western (Thats North America and Europe), gain very little by this stupid practice. Western people wash themselves on a regular basis and circumcision will not really help much. What other body parts do you think should b ecut off? Most people behave like sheep and have their boys cut because “everyone else is doing it”. Very stupid reason.

  3. I think the best thing for ladies to do is to take a look at free to use websites like where amateur Women, and men, send in their own erotic / nude pictures. This way you can see the average everyday people and what their genitals look like. There are certainly all shapes and sizes, far from the shaved moneybox slots and basketball breasts in commercial porongraphy. I personally like the definition that a certain amount of hair provides and find it more attractive.

  4. Hi, I am a 33yr old man. I look at it like this, if a woman shaves her vagina I think the man should return the favor and also shave his genitals. I actually enjoy when my genitals are shaved and I have talked with some women who I have been with and some women i Haven’t been with. They say they are more comfortable to to perform oral sex on a man that is shaved than a man that isn’t. I am not a metro-sexual but, if a woman shaves I think her partner should return the favor to her so she doesn’t have to floss while performing oral sex.

  5. My baby boy was circumcized because the statistics of that period said that cancer of the penis was much more common among UNcircumcized males. As for the aesthetics of the thing, as long as it inflates like it’s supposed to, whether circumcized or not, it’s a thing of beauty. Especially to the woman it inflates for.

  6. I am a 53 year old white male. I personally think the idea of, “designer vaginas”, is stupid. I actually find a woman with beef curtains to be sexier than a woman whose lips are smaller. Like tattoos, this is a form of self-mutilation that does nothing to enhance a woman’s appearance or desirability in my book. I’m far from a religious person but in both cases, what God gave you is probably far better than the modified product. Leave well enough alone and don’t worry about some offhand remark by the idiot boyfriend.

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