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A vision of vulvas: expanding knowledge and concepts of diversity

The body positive movement has exploded in the last decade. Now, it’s finally expanding to a much less talked about part of women’s bodies – the vulva.   

The female anatomy has always been something of a spectacle.

Early renaissance artists sculpted the dips and folds of women’s bellies, the curves of their spines, or the soft span of their collarbones. But when it comes to the space between women’s legs, very little has been depicted – even today.

You might be cringing at the thought (and fair enough) considering that women have been shamed for exposing their bodies throughout a large portion of history.

But amidst today’s demands for better research into women’s health, a rise in sex positive values, and popular culture’s obsession with WAPs – it appears we’re ready for open conversations about this once-taboo and multi-faceted body part we have long-generalised using the word pussy.

To do that, we need improved knowledge and adequate representation.

Credit: Ashley Britton / SheKnows

Let’s get technical

When people talk about pussy, they’re usually talking about the vagina. In hip-hop/rap music, the pursuit and mention of this part of female anatomy is relentless. For example, rap legend Lil Wayne has said ‘pussy’ 766 times in his lyrics and counting, at least once every 1.23 songs.

But what we’re interested in here is the vulva, the outer area of female genitalia commonly referred to as the ‘lips’ which includes the labia majora, labia minora, and clitoris – amongst other less talked about areas I was previously unfamiliar with, despite being an owner of all of them.

Before you judge, I don’t feel particularly bad about this, granted that a lack of proper sexual education has seen nearly half of 16-24 year olds admit to not knowing what a vulva even is.

Moving on, it’s clear that much of what people know about this area of women’s bodies (aside from their own personal encounters) has been discovered by watching porn, which is now easier to access than ever.

Because our only real way of getting up close and personal with vulvas comes from the limited representations of them in porn videos, producers in the adult film industry have perhaps unwittingly influenced public perceptions of what they’re ‘supposed to look like’ and what is considered aesthetically desirable.


Designer clothes, bags… and vulvas?

On average, vulvas in porn are usually hairless, neatly tucked in, and tiny. While subtle variations do occur, they’re few and far between, which could be why there are 379 million Google results for the question ‘what are vulvas supposed to look like’.

I’ll save you the search and say the answer is not clear-cut, because like an eyeball or a fingerprint – everyone’s is unique.

Planned Parenthood says that ‘there’s really no such thing as a normal looking vulva.’ Some might be neatly tucked away, while others are puffy, splayed out, barely there, wrinkled, darkened, and the list goes on.

But with inadequate education and online porn as our only reference point, one quarter of people worldwide experience shame about the way their vulva looks.  As a result, requests for labiaplasty surgeries – or labia reconstruction – rose by over 73 percent globally between 2015 and 2019.

Labia reconstruction typically involves making the vulva smaller or shorter and is highly controversial in the world of gynaecology unless performed for medical reasons. Despite this, UK specialists have reported requests for labiaplasties from girls as young as nine.

In a quest for ‘designer pussy’ as R&B singer SZA has coined it, labiaplasties have become the 15th most popular plastic surgery procedure amongst female patients – despite risks being a loss of sexual sensation and an increased risk of trauma during childbirth.

Credit: Flirtmoji

Body positivity makes room for vulvas

In the same way that bodies, skin, and hair types have seen increased representation in media and product ranges after being bolstered by the body positivity movement, there are several initiatives pushing for awareness around vulvas.

This area of the body might not be well-received on screen or in marketing campaigns (although HBO’s Euphoria clearly got the green light for frequent, full-frontal male nudity), but there are different and tasteful ways to go about doing this.

Photographer Laura Dodsworth has taken 100 portraits of women to raise awareness about vulva variations saying that ‘cocks are right there at the front while vulvas aren’t. If you’re a straight woman, you don’t see many.’  And she’s right, she even included her own in the portraits to prove her point.

There’s also a book by The Vulva Gallery called A Celebration of Vulva Diversity. It aims to educate on anatomy, sexual health, and encourage conversations about experiences and insecurities surrounding vulvas. The world’s first Vagina Museum follows a similar tone.

If we want a better understanding of ourselves and others, diversity awareness is important.

Like never before, representation of all kinds of people in art, TV, film, and advertising is being carefully factored in – and it’s worked to make people feel comfortable in who they are.

Since Gen-Z is least likely to latch onto anything that is less than inclusive, it’s time we make discussions around body positivity include vulvas, too.  Besides, loving yourself fully does mean every part.