You might think for someone who enjoys talking about healthy attitudes towards sexuality and intimacy that my relationship with sex has always been a great one, but I’d be lying if I said that was the case. In truth, I’ve spent the majority of the time I’ve been sexually active ashamed of my own vulva. For a long time I wouldn’t even let a partner go down on me because I worried about whether my vulva would smell or taste bad, if my labia were abnormally large or small, or whether I would be “appetizing” to my partner at all.
This anxiety and shame plagued me for years, and I still have my moments where those doubts creep back in. I’m here to say that it’s completely normal to be self-conscious about your vulva, but what’s not okay is to hold yourself to some mythical standard of normalcy. The reality is that all vulva’s are uniquely beautiful and uniquely vajestic.
What’s helped me improve my confidence in my vulva over the years is the realization that I am not alone. Vulva shame affects most women, and it’s no secret why. Women are told to shave, clean, douche, trim, wax, bleach and essentially fix ourselves from the moment it becomes acceptable to start seeing us as sexual beings. This culture of primping and tidying makes it hard for us to see our vulvas as anything but flawed or in desperate need of tidying up.
In contrast to the shame I felt towards my own body part, I grew up completely desensitized to dicks because of how common they were on TV, in media, and in pranky doodles done by my classmates on my notebooks in grade school. In sex ed class we got to see anatomically correct models of penises, but when it came to the vulva and the vagina we only ever saw 2D images of the fallopian tubes and the uterus. Not once growing up did I ever see an image of a vulva head on. Not even a cartoon one, at least not until the Netflix show Big Mouth came out and we were introduced to Jessie’s vagina as a character.
As a young teen I looked to porn to find an example of a vulva. If you did the same, you might have stumbled upon some amateur porn with real, unmodified vulvas. Or you might have looked at top pornstars with their neat and tidy vaginas, many of which were the result of labiaplasties, which might’ve made you feel like shit about your own vulva– at least it did for me.
Bottom line: the overwhelming majority of women today have grown up without any example or knowledge of what a healthy vulva should look like. We have also been told that to make our vulvas appealing to a sexual partner requires 24 hours worth of prep; a multi-step process featuring anti-razor burn lotion. It’s no wonder many of us have had a hard getting chummy with our vulvas.
It took me a really long time to even look at my vulva in the first place. When I finally did, it wasn’t out of curiosity, but out of absolute necessity.
The first time I saw my vulva was also my first time using a tampon. My camp friends and I really wanted to go swimming at the pond that day but I was on my period. I couldn’t use a pad in the water because it would balloon up and get soggy, so I had no choice but to use a tampon. I had never used one before so after lunch I had to have my friends Karli and Libby stand outside the stall and walk me through it. Where was the correct entrance to insert this thing because I really had no idea what my vulva looked like? After almost an hour, I had to ask for a mirror because I just could not figure it out on my own.
The whole experience was both hilarious and mortifying. It was mortifying for me back then because of how long it actually took me to figure out how to use the tampon, which I knew was due to how little knowledge I had about my vulva. Now, with a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the nooks and crannies of my vulva, I am able to laugh at my naïveté, but it took me a while to get to this point.
After years of familiarizing myself with my vulva and exploring what it is that feels good for me, I can say I’ve finally gotten to a point where it doesn’t matter what your puss looks like, so long as it’s healthy and purring. A huge part in forgiving myself for my lack of knowledge, but also in building this new-found confidence in my vulva, has been talking to other women and hearing their stories.
I asked some of the babes at Lovability to share their stories of their first memory of looking at their vulva, to see if our experiences were similar have been despite having grown up in completely different backgrounds.
Take for instance this story about using a tampon for a pool party, which is almost identical to my own experience:
“When I was just turning 15, I got my period. Going to a Catholic middle school, I never got comprehensive sex education or even education about women’s health. The first time I used a tampon was right before a pool party; but there was one problem: I had no idea where my vagina was. For nearly 15 years, I had barely even looked down there. My mom kept telling me it was easy to put a tampon in, but it was really difficult for me. I remember crying in the bathroom trying to figure out how to use one and where to put it, and the shame because I felt like I couldn’t ask my friends about it either. I felt like I was too old to not know where exactly my vagina was. Yes, I eventually figured it out, but I couldn’t help feeling ashamed and confused about my lack of knowledge of my vulva and vagina.”
“The first time I looked at my vulva was at the height of a particularly bad yeast infection. I was very familiar with my intimate areas based on touch alone, so I knew something wasn’t right when the shape and texture of my vulva was off. I ended up squatting over a mirror and being absolutely horrified. It only looked like the alien from, well, Alien because of the bad yeast infection I was experiencing. The before and after made me realize (a) how advanced my infection had been and (b) how cute my happy and healthy vulva was in comparison. 10/10 would recommend looking at and appreciating your healthy vulva.”
Whereas men have no choice but to look at their penises because of its prominent and unavoidable location, women can go almost a lifetime without ever looking at their vulva’s (check out episode number three “The Pleasure Is Ours” of the goop lab with Gwenyth Paltrow on Netflix, where they talk about this much more in depth with expert Betty Dodson).
After some time in college— and a one night stand that forever changed my perspective on giving and receiving by validating for me my innate right to pleasure— I had come up with a new resolution; to learn more about my vulva.
Getting to know your vulva is as easy as it seems: take a mirror down there and spend some one-on-one time with your vulva. Look at your labia/lips, your cute lil clit, and see how it feels both inside and out. Perhaps you might even want to give your vulva a pep talk. Let’s face it, we all know your vulva deserves it.
If you’re at a loss for what to say to your vulva, my personal favorite mantra has come from Lovability’s hand-held mirror, Your Vajesty. Inside every mirror is a note reminding you of how beautiful and kick-ass your vulva really is. So for all the women out there who worry whether their vulva is tidy enough or OK in terms of taste/shape/size/smell and have shied away from intimacy because of these anxieties, just remember: you are not alone.
I’d also recommend you check out The Vulva Gallery (@the.vulva.gallery) on Instagram. All the amazing, unique and vajestic vulvas on their feed are SUCH a sight for sore eyes, and one that I genuinely wish I could’ve been able to see growing up.
We want you all to love your vulvas: explore them, appreciate them, and most of all, don’t hold them to any so-called “normal” standard. Why? Because there is no standard aside from it being healthy.
So take a moment to cherish and appreciate your vajesty today and every day. Your vulva is uniquely yours, uniquely beautiful, and uniquely vajestic!
About The Author
A senior double Anthropology and Women’s & Gender Studies Major at Kenyon College in Ohio, Liza Brilliant (@brill.ant on Insta) is devoted to destigmatizing conversations around sexuality and promoting healthy, sex-positive femininity. Liza hopes to one day work in law and public policy, specifically around destigmatizing and decriminalizing sex work. She firmly believes that sex-positivity has the power to influence broader political and social norms, changing the world one orgasm at a time.