The term “vagina” is often used as a general reference to the female genitalia. But the vagina is mostly inside the woman’s body. From the outside, you can see and feel the pubic hair, labia, vulva, and clitoris.
“Normal” female genitalia has become a moving target. Research in the United States has found that women are removing their pubic hair and pursuing genital surgeries more. A study of 171 adolescents and young women ages 12-20 in Houston, Texas revealed that 70% were routinely shaving or waxing their pubic hair. Those who were sexually active were more likely to remove pubic hair routinely. These girls and women felt there was “too much” hair in the genital area. Shaving, waxing, and other methods of pubic hair removal are most common with younger ages and greater interest in sex, among other factors.
Another study of young women found that women’s perceptions of what is “normal” and desirable changed depending on images seen. Some women were shown images of surgically-modified vulvas, others non modified vulvas, and the third group were not shown any images. Afterwards, all three groups rated modified vulvas as more like society’s ideal than non modified vulvas, with the effect strongest among those shown surgically-modified images. This has become a source of anxiety for women. Some women do pursue surgical modifications for functional reasons beyond the aesthetic and cosmetic purposes.
To address the rise in cosmetic genital surgery, Women’s Health Victoria, a non-profit organization in Australia, has created an educational website. The Labia Library has a photo gallery with a variety of women’s external genitalia. It’s a great place to refresh yourself (or perhaps familiarize yourself) with the anatomy. There is info and advice about the color, texture, smell, and other characteristics that women (or men) may be wondering about. The Labia Library website is a great educational resource for young girls and boys as their bodies change.
Hopefully exposure to the variety of labia and vulva will help women with their body image, as well as men’s understanding of what can be expected. The Labia Library presents a more accurate and representative display of women’s genitalia whereas the other sources we are exposed to may be limited to models and the sex industry.
- Herbenick et al. Pubic hair removal and sexual behavior: findings from a prospective daily diary study of sexually active women in the United States. J Sex Med 2013;10:678-85.
- Bercaw-Pratt et al. The incidence, attitudes and practices of the removal of pubic hair as a body modification. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol 2012;25:12-4.
- Fahs. Genital panics: constructing the vagina in women’s qualitative narratives about pubic hair, menstrual sex, and vaginal self-image. Body Image 2014;11:210-8.
- Moran et al. What’s normal? Influencing women’s perceptions of normal genitalia: an experiment involving exposure to modified and non modified images. BJOG 2014;121:761-6.