Almost two years ago (wow, it doesn’t seem like that long ago!) I participated in a study that wanted to explore women’s perceptions of their vulvas: and what a ‘normal’ vulva looked like, and what it was meant to look like. I found the flyer in the women’s room at uni, and signed up. A few weeks later, I found myself sitting in the library with my laptop looking at a whole bunch of vulvas.
My job was pretty easy. I was told to just sit back and watch as the screen showed me thirty-five images of different vulvas. After I’d seen them all, there was a second set of twenty images, and this time I was asked to rate each vulva on two things: how normal it looked, and how well it represented society’s ideal. Well, I thought. All of these look normal, except maybe that one that just seems to be a slightly odd colour. Some of them had big dangling labia, some had little hidden ones, some had asymmetrical ones. Some vulvas had a lot of pubic hair, others had none. Some were light pink, some were brown-ish, one, I remember, was blue-ish. None of that made me think that some were more normal or less normal than the others.
Rating the images as normal or abnormal was easy. Rating how well they represented society’s ideal was harder, because my ideals and society’s ideals don’t often coincide. I tried to think of what society seems to uphold as desirable – small labia which are symmetrical and regular, no pubic hair, a pink colour without any visible ‘blemishes.’ Then I rated each vulva according to how well it fit those criteria, because I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t find vulvas particularly desirable or repulsive – they just are. Perhaps my asexuality compounded this a bit. Either way, I think my answers must have been a bit confusing for the researchers analysing them, because on one hand, I’d rated everything as normal, and on the other, I’d rated many as not fitting society’s ideal.
After I’d finished, I got to read the debrief – and that was where my brain really started whirring. It turned out that all the images I’d seen in the first part of the study had been surgically modified by means of labiaplasty, and that half of the vulvas I’d been asked to rate were surgically modified as well, while the rest were unmodified. I found myself shocked. The idea that labiaplasty was a factor in the appearance of the vulvas I’d rated hadn’t even occurred to me before I read the debrief. I’d expected the punchline, so to speak, to be something along the lines of ‘surprise! All these vulvas are actually normal!’ Instead, it turned out half the images I rated as perfectly normal weren’t normal at all, but the result of surgery. Ironically, the vulvas that had undergone labiaplasty to appear more normal had only succeeded in becoming more abnormal. I puzzled over the reasons why women would have their vulvas surgically altered.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from the researchers (C. Moran & C. Lee) running the study, with a copy of the study’s main findings and the journal article it had become. The results did not really surprise me.
There were three groups in the study: one group which had seen thirty-five unmodified vulvas in the first phase, one group (which I was assigned to) which had seen thirty-five images of modified vulvas, and a control group who had seen no images prior to rating the next set. There were two main findings, which supported the predictions of the researchers:
- The women who had seen the modified vulvas in the first phase rated the modified vulvas in the second phase as more normal than the unmodified vulvas.
- All three groups rated the surgically modified vulvas as closer to society’s ideal – but the women who had seen the modified vulvas first expressed this tendency much more strongly than the other groups.
Basically, the study shows that whatever women have the most exposure to is what they will see as more normal. This isn’t particularly unexpected, but it is troubling. Vulvas don’t get much exposure in our society (most of the time we can’t even call them by their proper name), and therefore the range of images women have to inform their perception of normal genitalia is pretty small. As Moran and Lee point out:
Cultural representations of women’s genitals reinforce the idea that labia minora should be invisible. Widely available pornography containing selective or digitally altered images, together with limited exposure to other women’s genitals, gives a false impression of what is normal. Our research on cosmetic surgery websites that offer labiaplasty shows the pathologising of normal genital diversity, by depicting and describing large labia as abnormal (2013: 1-2).
To me, the study highlights just how much of an impact pornography, the cultural cringe about women’s vulvas, and the lack of education around genital diversity have on women’s perceptions of what is normal and what needs to be fixed. The ‘ideal vulva’ is a construct seemingly created only to shame women and their bodies and to foster insecurity. And of course, businesses want to sell surgeries that aren’t needed, and it looks like they’re succeeding: the number of labiaplasties in the UK has risen five-fold since 2001.
Proper, widespread education around women’s vulvas, bodies and health in general is really the only thing that can help change unrealistic perceptions of what is normal – education not just aimed at women, but at men as well. We need more projects aimed at illustrating the diversity of normal vulvas and their appearances, such as The Labia Library and 101 Vagina. We need more education in the media, like the many articles written about this study at the Daily Mail, in Cosmo, on health websites. We need discussion that doesn’t say ‘hey, silly women, stop obsessing about your bodies and just love yourselves,’ but that actually looks at why women are made to feel so bad about their bodies by society, and what we can do to fix it.