Vagina Dispatches: What Don't You Know About Your Vulva?

September 29, 2016

Do you know what your vulva looks like? Could you, say, draw it if you were asked? What’s the difference between a vagina and a vulva? These are some of the questions behind the first episode in a new four-part video series called Vagina Dispatches in The Guardian. It’s the sort of brilliant and fun women’s health project that most of us probably think we don’t need — but if the first episode is any indication, many of us do!

Vagina Dispatches is the creative child of two candid young women: a journalist and a filmmaker who simply want to answer some of the basic questions about the female anatomy. Mona Chalabi, the journalist behind the series, explains, “We want to understand what a normal vulva looks like … what is the average labia length? What color is it supposed to be?”

Mae Ryan is the filmmaker who pulls from her own life to explain why she and Chalabi are doing this: “I feel like we need to get to the basics … and let’s get the labels right. Before I started this, I couldn’t draw a vagina. Everyone could draw a dick…”

She’s right. In a British survey, the episode notes, half of young women couldn’t find the vagina on a basic anatomical drawing of a uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and cervix. The vulva is the external genitalia on a woman and includes the clitoris, clitoral hood, labia minora, labia majora, urethra, and vagina. If women can’t recognize our own genitalia (let alone draw it), what hope do we have of understanding how our bodies work? How can we take care of our genitals or derive sexual pleasure or recognize when something might be wrong without knowing where everything is?

But there are other reasons to spread the word (or the picture) about vulvas. For many women, the only time they see other women’s vulvas are in pornography, and these images are often photoshopped to look a specific way. There’s an enormous lack of awareness that vulvas come in many different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. In a society that offers so few realistic images of what actual vulvas look like, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many women have a false image of what their own vulva should look like or end up feeling bad about their bodies.

Some women are so concerned that they opt for surgery. Labiaplasty is a procedure to alter the size of the labia minora (the inner labia). It can alleviate physical discomfort and is also sometime performed on people whose genitals aren’t clearly male or female, and for trans people following vaginoplasty. It has been scrutinized for the lack of standard measures of care or long-term evidence about its safety or risks. Still, the episode notes, the number of labiaplasty surgeries performed last year increased by 16 percent  — and among young girls 18 and under the number of labiaplasties doubled.

The point of noting this isn’t to shame women who choose to have the procedure, but, as Mona Chalabi tries to uncover, to figure out why so many women feel bad about the way their labias look.

There is evidence that women who see lots of vulvas are more accepting of their own genitals. In one recent study, college-educated women who were shown pictures of a large variety of natural vulvas reported more positive genital self-image that remained weeks after they were shown the pictures.

If you’re not sure what’s between your womb and the world, confuse your vulva with your vagina, or simply want to know that your labia is perfectly beautiful as-is, Vagina Dispatches makes you feel like you’re far from alone. Plus, it’s not often that you get to watch a young woman walk the streets of Manhattan holding a giant vulva.

Bonus: After you watch the video, draw your own vagina vulva.

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