When I was a teenager, conversations with my friends about our vulvas made me question whether mine was normal, so I asked my mother for a reality check. At an age that was embarrassingly old to do this, I climbed on top of my dining room table and went into a full spread eagle, allowing my mom a bird’s-eye view. My mom reassured me that I was perfectly normal—if petite—in that area.
Since then, I’ve discovered that I am not alone in my anxiety. In the research-focused journal “Body Image,” author Breanne Fahs wrote that “the increasing publicity around having a ‘designer vagina’—that is, perfectly symmetrical inner labia, a ‘tight’ vagina, and attractive and hairless outer labia,” has resulted in increasing insecurities.
But if so many vulva-having people are self-conscious, and the lack of representation in porn does little to counteract that, how are we supposed to build confidence in our most sensitive parts? I spoke with five women to learn if they’ve been able to overcome similar insecurities about their vulvas—and, if so, how they were able to do it.
As the child of a medical professional, Ashley* grew up knowing the difference between her “vagina” and “vulva.” Even so, when she first took a mirror downstairs to get a good look, it was nothing like she expected from the porn she had stolen glances at. “I had a small moment in time where I was embarrassed that it didn't look like the women on screen because those were the only vulvas I had seen outside of my own,” she told me. She would ritualistically check the mirror each week to see if her vulva had become “cooler,” but nothing changed. Over time, though, Ashley learned to feel comfortable with her differences. “I now know that she is different and that there is great importance in loving, pleasing, and caring for her.”
Raised in a religious, traditional household, Lindsay* feared her vulva “from a young age, as thoughts of sex and self-pleasure were absolutely off limits.” When she entered her first relationship with a woman, her girlfriend’s teasing about the shape of her labia made her “more hesitant in actually liking [her] vulva because it wasn’t ‘perfect.’” But, thanks to a random hookup, she gained a “new appreciation” for her vulva. Now, in her current relationship, she’s been able to move past the insecurities and fully enjoy sex. “Basically,” she told me, “I think my vulva and I are in a much better place than we were 10 years ago.”
For some, surgery is the path to an improved vaginal self-image. Casey’s* insecurities about her vulva were getting in the way of her enjoyment of sex, and no amount of external validation would change that. Since her labiaplasty, she told me that she feels more sexually confident. She said, “If women can feel good about their vaginas without surgery, then awesome—especially since insecurities are probably the product of stupid social pressures and unrealistic expectations perpetuated by porn.” But for Casey, the surgery has had a positive impact.
A very different surgery gave Megan* the opportunity to love her body in its entirety. Though, she told me, gender-affirmation surgery is incredibly painful, “when you’ve suffered for something you want, you either work at loving the outcome or you go absolutely crazy.” So she went along with months of follow-up procedures, knowing that they’d bring her closer to loving the area she once found “repugnant,” even as they created a “dissonance between [her] vulva and actual feelings of sexual pleasure.” Since then, she’s reconnected with her sexuality through exclusive parties and experimental dance.
For Jessica*, her vulva “could be a model for what that whole situation is ‘supposed’ to look like.” But problems arose when she married a man who desperately wanted children; something she wasn’t so sure about. With a diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome, conception has been difficult—and the stress has been weighing on their marriage. Eventually, the routine sex simply for procreation’s sake had lost its appeal. “I had cerebrally given permission, but my body was clamping up. It was painful. I hated it.” While she understands that her husband, who has since asked for a divorce, has to advocate for what he needs to be happy, the message she takes away from her experience is that she’s not enough to salvage things. Even if her vulva is “cute and pink and attached to [her] personality.”
But Jessica, and anyone else featured in or reading this article, is enough. Whether your vulva looks straight out of a porno or you’ve never seen one like yours before; whether you’ve had surgery or decided against it; or whether you want to have children or have trouble conceiving—all of it’s okay. The appearance or perceived functionality of our vulvas and reproductive systems do not determine our value.
There’s no right or wrong road to accepting, and eventually loving, your vulva. But as societal pressures and pornographic depictions continue leading us to question whether or not we’re normal, it becomes increasingly important to make the most of the vulva you have (or the vulva you get). So go on and celebrate it, however you see fit.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
Sarah duRivage-Jacobs is a writer, editor, and copywriter living in New York City with her creamsicle cat, Jasper.