“Is my labia normal?” There’s no such thing as a “normal labia.”

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Is my labia normal?

A lot of women are worried if their labia  is “normal” because they think it is the wrong colour, size or shape etc. Some women are worried their vulvas are deformed when they have a healthy and beautiful vulva!

I’ve been in the privileged position as an erotic photographer to have seen hundreds and hundreds of naked women who’ve posed in explicit positions for my camera  over the past twenty years and I can tell you that all vulvas are all so staggeringly different and unique.

This experience was like the sex education I wished I’d had at school. Seeing first hand the beautiful array and diversity of genitalia out there and how they’re all beautiful.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen one vulva that looks the same!

There is no such thing as a “normal” labia!

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Although if you really want to hear the reassuring “normal” word, I’ll say everything is “normal” when looking at the amazing diversity and range of labias out there.

Large inner labia is normal, small inner labia is normal, one inner labia bigger than the other is normal, darker skin on the labia is normal, bumpy skin on the edges of the inner labia is normal, inner labia hanging two inches out past the outer lips is normal, a clitoris hidden away is normal, a protruding clitoral hood is normal..  They are all healthy and normal in all their wonderful diversity!

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Let’s get some definitions out of the way first so we’re all speaking the same language; the entire area “below the belt” is called the vulva, this includes the clitoris, labia, vaginal and urethral openings. Labia comes from the latin word labium for ‘lips,’ but don’t let the words ‘ labia minora’ for inner lips and ‘labia majora’ fool you, it is quite common for the inner lips to protrude beyond the outer lips. I prefer the words, “inner” and “outer” labia rather than minora or majora- less misleading.

LABIA SHIRT

Images of nude or almost nude women are almost everywhere, but it’s pretty darn hard to see a realistic and accurate picture of our beautiful female sex organs. Hell, those simplistic drawings I got at my blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sex education classes in school didn’t even SHOW any external genitals on the female diagram.

Geneviève Santerre_

There was just a kind’ve ambiguous line where the labia was supposed to be. I don’t think they even showed the clitoris on those diagrams or maybe it was just another vague suggestive line. In fact we’re really only starting to understand now the complexity of these pretty amazing sexual organs.

Here’s a little thing about our sex organs that not many of us were taught at school. Throughout all  the hormonal magic of puberty the labia and clitoris actually get bigger, longer and darker. And if that didn’t happen to you, that’s ok too!

My textbook at school told me that the penis and testicles got bigger in puberty but neglected that rather important detail about my own body.  It’s fairly common and all part of becoming a woman but how confusing for women out there that they aren’t taught this!

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What’s the purpose of the inner labia (inner lips)?

The outer lips protect the inner lips but the inner labia have some pretty important purpose.  The inner lips keep everything sealed up and closed so that bacteria can’t get inside and cause infections.  The inner labia protect the opening of the vagina and the urethra (that’s where you pee from) from the outside world.

These special inner lips kept the internal area moist and protect from dryness, irritation and infections.

During sex the the lubrication from the vagina coats the inner lips which reduces friction, irritation and make intercourse or anything being accepted into the vagina less painful.

Some sex researchers believe that women orgasm during vaginal sex because the inner labia are being stimulated and this then stimulates the clitoris.

It’s totally normal for them to be long, uneven or darker than the rest of your vulva.

Oh yeah and your labia and clitoris get engorged with blood (ERECT!) and much bigger, “puffy” and open when you’re aroused- but that’s a whole other blog post right there!

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While some people seem to think the “ideal” inner labia is a small one, there’s a lot of people that find all shapes and sizes beautiful, and some people don’t even care what it looks like they just feel honoured and lucky to be able to be touching it at all! The trend for smaller labia is fairly new and the supposed “ideal” (I scoff at genital ideals! PAH!) is based on a troubling narrow range.

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Many cultures in Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Rwanda find elongated inner labia to be sexually desirable, a source of erotic power and believe create heightened sensation during sex. 

Inner labia are stretched out from childhood as part of a rite of passage.

I read one interesting story from a Zambian woman who explained how fingers, herbal oils, and mango stems were used and in Rwandan culture women are taught how to stretch and lengthen their labia from puberty.

Also, some people in the west use weights to gradually stretch out their inner labia as part of body modification.

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It’s heartbreaking to see how worried, ashamed or embarrassed some women in the west can be about their genitals, especially when they compare them to some ideal that often doesn’t even exist. It is so distressing to hear women with perfectly normal and healthy genitalia worry that they’re deformed and believe they need permanent, risky and expensive surgery.

Apart from women who sleep with women, a lot of women in our culture have not seen many real life vulvas in real life except for pornographic material.    Men’s magazines in Australia that are sold unsealed are not allowed to show any clitoris or inner labia. That’s the Australian law. Apparently inner labia and clitoris is just too much for the censors!

I had to work with this cernsorship law for many years during photo shoots and my models were often shocked and horrified when they saw what the retouchers at the  magazines had done to their genitals in post production to pass this law.  Instead of say, putting a little ‘star’ or censored black mark over the models vulva, the magazines airbrush out any external inner labia that may be showing and replace it with a little ‘tidy’ crease or weird line created on Photoshop.
So no internal lips, no clitoris or clitoral hood. Nothing. Some of my models shreiked outloud when they saw the magazine for the first time. You could only see their unphotoshopped and “uncircumsized” vulva in the sealed magazines.

I’ll post some examples soon! You’ll be shocked at the differences.

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Unfortunately, some women looking at these magazines end up comparing themselves to the radically altered and edited vulvas and they think they must be abnormal because they don’t look anything like that.  Then there’s the confused young boys who might look at these magazines before they ever become sexually active or see a real life vulva! Then there’s the pressure some women feel from their partners because their genitals look different to the airbrushed ones in magazines.   (TIP: You should never ever critisize your lovers genitals by the way. EVER!)

However, even the women in the magazines don’t look like that in real life. And I’m speaking from experience here as a photographer that shot for these magazines for years and years.
Women often go in search of this illusive ‘perfect vagina’ or the ‘designer vagina’ and head off to the plastic surgeon for labiaplasty to match an ideal that doesn’t exist as it might be a photoshopped “ideal.”

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Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery is rising in popularity and it’s kind’ve like the wild west right now.  It’s pretty unregistered– anyone with a medical degree can perform these surgeries and there’s NO controlled evaluation of the short term and long term effectiveness of this kind of surgery or  its outcomes in ANY PUBLISHED ACADEMIC JOURNALS ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET OR THE UNIVERSE ANYWHERE.  Can I say – WILD WEST- again?

This stuff is scary and downright dangerous.

Labiaplasty has risen in popularity 150% in the past few decades in Australia as more and more women think there’s something ugly about their healthy genitalia and more and more plastic surgery businesses pop up that tell women all they need to do to feel happy is come and have some of their genitals cut off.

Labiaplasty is an operation where a surgeon who doesn’t need to have any formal training in FGCS cuts off the inner labia of a woman. It’s so wild west there’s actually surgeons in America who specialise in repairing women’s botched labiaplasty jobs.

Here’s the thing about undergoing  plastic surgery to your very sensitive parts that are teeming with sensitive nerve endings.
According to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners labiaplasty surgery could;

  • do permanent damage to your nerves (we’re talking sexual pleasure here!)
  • reduce sensation and lubrication
  • impair sexual function-the nerves and vascular features of the labia minora are essential in sexual arousal
  • interfere with sexual pleasure. Professor Helen O’Connell is a urological surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and explains that it’s not just “skin” they’re cutting off but the inner labia come from the “primordial phallus.” This means removing it can have big consequences for reducing sexual pleasure.
  • tear scar tissue during childbirth after labiaplasty operations
  • give you dyspareunia
  • bring about wound dehiscence, infection and bleeding
  • giv eyou long term scarring that can leave a permanent lumpy, uneven appearance to your labia
  • cause pain during intercourse and when wearing clothing when too much skin is removed from around the protective clitoral hood
  • 1-2% of patients having this surgery will end up with chronic discomfort.
  • Women who’ve undergone the procedure said it took three months of painful recovery time.

betty doddson

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has publicly stated that the safety and effectiveness of female genital cosmetic procedures has not been proven and that, “it is deceptive to give the impression that [these procedures] are accepted and routine.”

These American specialists also said the labaiplasty procedures are not medically indicated, were ethically questionable, and were not standardized, routine or acceptable.

Their report concluded with these  facts;

“Women should be informed about the lack of data supporting the efficacy of these procedures and their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia, adhesions, and scarring.”

For the entire statement see: Vaginal “rejuvenation” and cosmetic vaginal procedures. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 378. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2007, v.110, p.737–8.

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A recent study in England investigated what a ‘normal’ labia actually was.

The researchers wanted to investigate fully the reasons women were giving to plastic surgeons -ie “I want a “normal” vulva/labia. Please make mine look normal.

The researchers found that not only was there no such thing as a “normal” labia, but there was much greater diversity in “labial and clitoral size, colour and rugosity, vaginal length and urethral position” than they had previously thought. Wow! That’s how little we know about the vulva in all its uniqueness!

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They concluded their study with the warning that this great diversity they ‘discovered’ should really be taken into consideration when deciding or planning any cosmetic genital surgery.

Then the researchers advised lots of other options to resolve personal or relationship dissatisfaction, like seeing a counselor (or a sex therapist like me!) rather than seeking plastic surgery.

Here’s the final statement in their report;   “Many options exist in the health services and the community at large for resolving personal or relationship dissatisfaction and distress other than surgery.”

There’s no long term studies into the impacts of this kind of surgery and no formal kind of training in this type of surgery is required before a plastic surgeon/gynaecologist or urologist can hang the “Labiaplasty here” sign on their door. There is no evidence based training that exists in the world for these types of surgeries.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners states;

“Cosmetic surgery redefines the patient as a ‘consumer’, and uses advertising to promote
the ‘product’. Advertising for female genital cosmetic surgery tends to reflect and reinforce sociocultural messages about the vulva and vagina, potentially creating dissatisfaction among women who do not meet the narrow ideal of normality. Advertising suggests that FGCS procedures are simple, and offer high levels of satisfaction. It normalises surgical procedures and is likely to create demand among those women who experience genital dissatisfaction.”

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Remind me later to tell you about when I was a guest in the Triple J studio for the program Hack back in  2010. I was speaking about labiaplasty/genital image and photoshopping in the adult industry and my experience as a photographer. They got a plastic surgeon to call in and – ahhhhhh I couldn’t help but laugh as he sold his marketing line- “we can solve everything and anything for you- just be under our knife….” It was such a shameful pitch and yeah I said that on national radio too.

Dr Magdalena Simonis is a GP that specialises in women’s health. She says about the labiaplasty surgeons; “Instead of reassuring women that they’re normal…. (they) promote expensive, irreversible surgery..  It’s like saying, ‘if you don’t like the way you look, I’m happy to change perfectly normal genital anatomy, without you nor I really knowing what long-term consequences there may be’.”

Henrique Oliveira - MELT

It can be very liberating to love and accept our bodies and truly appreciate them in all their uniqueness. It can be so empowering not to compare ourselves to others or to a normalised standard or be bogged down by others criticism.

Let me help you look at your body in a whole other way and improve your body image.

Let’s start the path to body acceptance together. A sex therapist is important on this journey because unlike many GP’s or some counsellors we won’t shy away from talking about sex, how you feel about your body, your genitals, relationships… The nitty gritty that some other therapists can feel uncomfortable talking about or shy away is where I’m comfortable. This is where change happens!

Obviously there’s more complexity to these issues than  I’ve been able to touch on in this blog. There’s all the cultural norms in our society that women’s sexuality should be docile and passive and her genitals should also be neat, small and “tucked away.” (This is such a load of nonsense by the way! Female sexuality is anything but small and passive! Let me yell this from the rooftops please!)

A lot of women who come to see me have severe dissatisfaction with their vulvas that can often stem from childhood sexual abuse, relationship resentments and body image issues that need to be worked through. No amount of surgery will help with this. Therapy with someone you trust and feel comfortable about is the way to break down the door on this thinking and start loving your body for the amazing thing that it is!

This shame and embarrassment about our genitals and the false belief that they’re abnormal and not like the genitals that are “in fashion” now can cause problems during sex and in relationships. This can manifest as body dismorphism, eating disorders, depression or social anxiety.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

I have seen countless women over the years who have made peace with their body through our sessions.  After seeing me this change has rippled outwards into their relationships, their sex lives and their body image and confidence. These women have felt better about their bodies and their place in the world.

Learning to love our bodies and our genitals is absolutely essential to having great orgasms and sex and be more confident in our everyday life.

Viva la Vulva!

Viva Genital Diversity!

Labia petals

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