Underneath a self-portrait snapped of the ruffly pink flesh in-between her legs, a woman writes, “I am 23 and so embarrassed of my labia that I still have never shown it to anyone — to a guy or even a doctor!” It’s a post submitted by an anonymous reader on the Tumblr “Large Labia Project.” The blog is filled with similar photos accompanied by tales of vulval shame. One woman writes of distress over the fact that her labia are lopsided. Another worries that she’s lost lovers in the past because “they all thought my vagina was weird.” There arEe concerns about taste and smell, too, but mostly vulva shape and size.
It’s just one of several new sites calling on women to bare all — to benefit womankind.
These crotch shots are not meant to titillate — although some male readers pop in to proclaim that they navigate the site with one hand. Instead, the idea is that submitting a photo can help a woman get over her body shame — particularly because of positive feedback from site moderators and readers, who often offer “you go, girl” cheerleading. (Although, some posters find it devastating when their photo doesn’t get as many “likes” as others.) The greater aim is to publicly catalog normal genital diversity — the kind you won’t find in mainstream porn — so that women no longer judge their nethers by an unrealistic standard.
This isn’t exactly a new concept. Sex educator Betty Dodson has been holding Bodysex Groups for women, which include some “genital show and tell,” for over 25 years; she also drew up detailed sketches of a rainbow’s array of vulvas as a means of decreasing “genital shame.” But the explosion of online porn — which often promotes a “neat and tight” aesthetic — has made the work of Dodson and her ilk that much harder. Porn is commonly fingered as a culprit on these sites: “I thought I was a freak of nature cause all the women in the porn industry didn’t have the same pussy or lips like mine,” writes one woman on Large Labia Project.
Emma, the 24-year-old Australian behind the blog, tells me in an email that she was inspired in large part by concerns about the influence of porn. “A whole generation of young women who have grown up with ready access to the Internet are learning about their bodies and sexuality through this medium,” she says. “Often the first and only way girls get to have a good look at other girls’ naked genitals is through pornography.” But porn, she says, “is giving a false view of what real women look like,” so when girls and women compare themselves to what they see on-screen, they often “feel that there’s something wrong.”
Molly, a 40-year-old mother of two, was inspired to create the Pussy Pride Project “after reading about the increasing number of woman who were turning to surgery to change the look of their genitals.” Indeed, “vaginal rejuvenation” procedures are on the rise, of which labiaplasty, in which the labia is surgically trimmed, is the most popular. It should be noted that some women have such procedures for non-cosmetic reasons — say, to address severe discomfort while riding a bike, but such cases don’t account for the popularity of these surgeries. A recent article in Guernica reported on a California urogynecologist who claimed that his “most requested surgical procedure is the Barbie: a procedure that excises the entire labia minora,” which “results in a ‘clamshell’ aesthetic.”
Labiaplasty is a common call-to-arms: The site “Courageous Cunts” features an image of scalpel hovering over a woman’s nether region with a “no” sign over it. The site’s description explains, “We got quite angry about the growing propaganda to surgically ‘improve’ the female genitalia …. BE PROUD OF YOUR LABIA AND LET THE WORLD KNOW!”
For some women, these sites are working their magic. Emma, who says she’s brought to tears daily by the submissions she gets, has “received feedback from numerous women who have found the site and suddenly feel their whole world has changed because for the first they realize they are normal,” she writes in an email. She compares it to group therapy: “It’s not an overnight thing for them, and part of the process is seeing other women, using their photos for comparison, and reading other people’s stories.” Similarly, Molly says, “I have had numerous messages thanking me from all sort of people, women and men, who have said that the project has been a liberating and educating find for them.”
In an irony familiar to the Internet age, it’s the same technology that allowed a porny standard to proliferate that is now allowing women to challenge that norm. It’s more than that, though: They’re also eroticizing these counter-culture vulvas. As the site SexyLabia.com puts it: “[This] marks the end of the labia shame and the beginning of an age where you as a woman can also be proud to be ‘endowed.’” Just, let’s refrain from pulling out the rulers.