I was 13 when I took a wooden ruler, the kind meant to be wielded by a grimacing nun, and pressed one end against my crotch. This wasn’t a weird sex thing; I had a serious task at hand. With one hand, I steadied the ruler against my body; with the other, I stretched out one of my labia minora and lined it up with a notch on the ruler. I paused, seriously considering whether it was best to measure it in its natural resting state. What made for a more authentic labial measurement, anyway? Boys have it so easy, I thought. A hard dick is the only kind of dick that matters. I wrote the measurement down, still a bit unsure about how to denote the smaller marks in between inches — hadn’t I learned that years ago? I might have paid more attention if I’d known it would prove to be so crucial: My very sense of normalcy depended on it!
Intrepid child of the Internet that I was, I had seen a fair share of porn up until that point. In the stuff I’d seen, the women had pubic hair that was meticulously waxed in landing strips or narrow triangles, and their vulvas were slit-like, pre-pubescent. I’d had one of those once! Before my body had started its hormonal revolt. I was left to conclude that there was something wrong with me. That’s why I, in my very first year of teenagehood, long before anyone but my doctor had touched my lady-bits, went so far as to look up information about a labiaplasty. At some point during my research, I found an estimate of the average labial size. That’s when I decided to break out the measuring stick.
Even when I discovered that my privates were within the average range, I was convinced that I was abnormal. The only real-life labias I’d seen had been in porn — and at 13, I was watching the most plastic, La-La-Land adult material around. Save for in sex ed illustrations, I had never seen female genitals that diverged from the norm of labiaplasty “after” photos.
I was reminded of all this when I came across “101 Vagina,” a coffee-table book by Australian photographer Philip Werner that is currently on tour in the U.S., accompanied by a gallery show of, you guessed it, pictures of women’s vaginas. There are hairy ones and bare ones, discreet and pouty, young and old. The black and white images are taken up-close of women standing plainly. There are no spread-eagle poses or come-hither body language. This is matter-of-fact, documentary-style photography. And you know what? It just might be one of the best sex ed books you could possibly give to a teen girl. Sure, information about contraception and STDs is important — make sure they get that, too! — but let’s not forget about the importance of bodily perspective. The truth is that vaginas — even just the vulva, to be more anatomically accurate — remain a mystery to many, male and female alike.
Why is that, I had to wonder, while looking at this book, which was inspired by “The Vagina Monologues” and an exhibit of vagina sculptures by Greg Taylor. Even after the hand-mirror-toting feminist consciousness circles of yore, the labia pride blogs of today, and the absolute ubiquity of the most hardcore, downright gynecological porn online, labia ignorance persists. I’m not the only one to notice this. Consider this article on the fantastic teen sex-ed site Scarleteen, in response to a flood of reader questions about “big” lips:
We’ve done a couple blog-a-thons on it in years past. We’ve answered questions … tirelessly for years. We’ve talked about it in other pieces, we’ve suggested visiting gynecologists to have an expert assure someone they’re normal. We’ve directed people to some links or books with labial imagery. We’ve worn t-shirts which proclaim ‘I Love Labia!’ while shaking peach, violet, brown and pink pom-poms on the White House lawn (okay, so we haven’t but if someone sent me the supplies, I would in a heartbeat), but for the love of Pete, the labia-freakouts keep sticking around. Whatever it is that keeps churning labia worries out these days is doing it like bunnies.
The article estimates, “If we had to make a list of the top five questions we’ve gotten at the site over the last few years, ‘What’s wrong with my labia?’ would come right on the heels of ‘Am I pregnant?’ ‘What’s sex like?’ and ‘Is it okay for me to have sex/masturbate?’ and sit just in front of ‘Is my penis too small?’” That is remarkable: More teens express anxiety about labia size than penis length. Penis length! The subject of legion locker room jokes, porn-site banner ads and just general, unceasing cultural mega-obsession. It’s fitting, really: The obsession with big dicks looms large, while the fixation on vanishingly small lady-bits hides away like a pair of surgically-altered labia minora. (Sorry, I had to.)
It wasn’t always this way. When Debby Herbenick of the Kinsey Institute started answering the general public’s sex questions in 2001, she says, “Mostly labia questions involved some mention of long enough labia that the young woman experienced pain or discomfort when exercising.” In the years that followed, there was a shift. “The cosmetic surgeries began being widely marketed and pubic hair disappeared … and porn showed a lot more women without pubic hair and labia became more visible,” she said. “Between porn and labiaplasty marketing, many young women got the idea that there was likely something wrong with their labia. So then we started getting questions about asymmetrical labia or labia with darkened edges.” She explains, “It’s not that no one even felt that way before, but the frequency with which I heard these questions definitely changed in the 2000s.”
Herbenick often sees a transformation in her female students when she teaches human sexuality classes. “I always have several women each semester say, in their end of semester papers, that one of the powerful things that changed for them is that they learned to like their vulvas,” she says. “They attribute this in part to the first day of class when we look at tons of images of female and male genitals and talk about the diversity of each and how there’s no normal.” Which brings me back to “101 Vagina.” In so many ways, a book like this seems superfluous, because there is no shortage of available imagery of female genitalia — but there is a shortage of diverse representations. That, as Herbenick has found, can make all the difference.