• author
    • Debra DeAngelo

    • September 23, 2012 in Columnists

    Of vulvas and vaginas

    When I saw the title, “Your Ugly Vagina is Normal & Gorgeous” on the Elephant Journal website, I had to click. I was expecting some sort of exploration of vaginal concerns, and how many things that we worry about are actually normal. Sadly, the well-written, thought-provoking and informative column wasn’t about the vagina at all. It was about the vulva. Yet, the word “vulva” appears nowhere in the column, nor does the writer‚ Tanya Lee Markul — appear to be aware that there is a difference. And she’s not alone.

    She references a film, “The Perfect Vagina,” which focuses on the trend toward genital plastic surgery, because apparently someone has arbitrarily established a beauty standard for the vulva. Unless we’re all cookie-cutter copies, we should feel so ashamed that we’re willing to hand over thousands of dollars to a plastic surgeon so that he can reshape the perfectly natural shape of our genitalia. Once he does, we can trot down to the local beauty salon to have all that nasty pubic hair waxed away. Well, not trot. Walk, probably. It might be a bit uncomfortable to trot with stitches down there.

    Oh, one little thing — Markul mentions in her column that two possible side effects of this surgery to trim the inner labia to more aesthetic proportions (apparently it’s unfashionable to have visible inner labia these days) include decreased sensitivity and sexual dysfunction.

    Oh. My. Goddess.

    Trade trimmed labia for decreased sexual pleasure? Are you ladies insane? The inner labia are key to having a pleasurable sexual experience, and one of many routes to reliable, satisfactory orgasm. Why  on earth would any sane woman make that trade? Particularly when I suspect that most men probably really don’t give a shit about whether the inner labia are visible or not. Most men are more interested in getting past the frilly entryway and continuing onward, and the really good ones — the keepers — are even more interested in getting you into a state where you can’t wait another moment to open the door. The truly talented ones, the vulva ninjas, if you will, know what to do with inner labia. And it’s not to point and say “ewww.”

    Yet, I digress, having been distracted by the sheer idiocy of handicapping your own precious, wonderful genitalia in the interest of “beauty.” Baby, if your parts do what they’re supposed to do, and help propel you to wonderful, rolling, rocking, grab-the-sheets orgasms, your genitalia is already gorgeous. Don’t change a thing.

    Back to the woefully misunderstood vagina, however.

    It’s clear to me that somewhere in the allegedly required sex education classes that are supposed to happen in middle school, right at about the age when children need to understand their equipment because their hormones are simmering and they may be enticed to use that equipment in the very near future, there has been a huge disconnect. I can’t even begin to enumerate all the times I’ve heard women say something about their vagina when they’re actually talking about their vulva.

    It’s not that difficult, ladies. The vagina is the passageway from the uterus. It’s the esophagus of your reproductive system. It’s where the baby travels to the word, and an excellent depository for the sperm that gets the baby there in the first place. The vagina, like the labia, also plays a role in orgasm, but its main job is to allow babies and menstrual blood to escape, and to let sperm in.

    The vulva is everything you see on the outside. You do not see your vagina on the outside, unless you have a prolapsed uterus and everything is hanging down through the opening like a big pink water balloon, in which case you aren’t going to see a plastic surgeon, you’re going to go straight to the hospital for gynecological surgery.

    So, if the vagina is the esophagus, the vulva is the mouth. It’s the visible opening that allows things in and lets things out. Like a mouth, it has lips — “labia” is Latin for “lip.” No coincidence there. So, unless your mouth is open, you don’t see your esophagus. Ditto for your vagina.

    And while we’re talking about what we can and can’t see, what’s the deal with pubic hair? Why the disgust? Apparently to most under 40, there’s an obsession to keep the area hair-free. Our vulvas have been pronounced unattractive unless they resemble that of a pre-pubescent 10-year-old. Why are we suddenly demanding that full-grown, sexually active women have the genitalia of a child? Is it because there’s a subconscious fear of full-grown, sexually active vulvas? Too threatening? Too bossy? Too demanding? Maybe. However, the men (and women) who relish that challenge are the ones you want for bed buddies anyway. NOW things are getting spicy. Me, I want the partner who embraces the challenge, not the one that cowers in fear.

    Compare our culture’s squeamishness over the vulva, and shocking ignorance about it, to the Hindu culture, where the vulva is known as the yoni, a thing of beauty and feminine power, and associated with the Goddess Shakti. And the altars and artwork celebrating this physical representation of feminine power… they do not have trimmed inner labia. Our culture could learn a thing or two or ten thousand from the Hindu culture on the natural beauty of the female form.

    So, ladies, I beseech you. Analyze your motivations about A) disparaging the wonderful, natural, perfect, pleasure-giving vulva that you have and B) considering letting a human sculpt your genitalia into a more “acceptable” form, all in the name of “beauty.” Who are you trying to please? If it’s your sexual partner, he or she is the thing you need to trim away from your life, not your inner labia.

    And, for God’s sake, learn the correct name for your own body parts. If you’re old enough to use them, you’re old enough to know what they’re called. Yes, your vagina is normal and gorgeous. But unless you have a hand-mirror and a speculum, you won’t know that. Your vulva is also normal and gorgeous, as unique as a blossom or a thumbprint, and or a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t.

    To read the Elephant Journal article, go here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/05/your-ugly-vagina-is-normal-gorgeous-adult/

    To learn more about why you should appreciate your natural, intact vulva, go here and learn about Sia Amma and the efforts of Global Women Intact: http://www.celebrateclitoris.com/

    To learn how to make the most of your glorious, natural genitalia, go here for some ideas:



    • Yes! I had this discussion with my daughter last year. She was a grad student in reproductive health and her RH club was selling chocolate genitalia to raise funds. The group advertised the perfectly nice chocolate vulva they were selling as a vagina. “It’s a VULVA,” I said. “Feminists fought to give vulvas the dignity they deserve!” The term had completely fallen into disuse–among grad students in reproductive health!!
      Where did the reclaim the vulva train go off the tracks? Was it the popularity of the Vagina Monologues? And now we get Naomi Klein’s Vagina when she means far more. Sigh.

      • It seems that most young women today not only don’t know the difference between a vulva and a vagina, they’ve never even heard the word “vulva.” And celebrities aren’t helping the matter.

    • I grew up when you took a mirror and really examined everything and knew all the correct terms and used them properly. I am 63 and no the difference. Wonder what age doesn’t? If you lived through the 60’s you know and in some cases you learned with a group of women in a room with mirrors and a leader, if necessary. Otherwise you sat on your bed and examined yourself. I had sons so not much explaining except my wise methods of securing a condom and the old saying when you think you have done enough to a women, do more.

      • It does seem like “back in the day” – we learned the correct names of things. Is it possible that sex education has deteriorated?

      • Liz Cohen

      • September 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm
      • Reply

      Not only do we need to wonder why a grown woman should/would desire a vulva looking like one of a 10-year old, we need to wonder why hair in armpits or on legs evokes EWWW reactions. Is this also a step in getting grown women to look like 10 year olds?

      • Yes, it is an effort to make grown women look as young as absolutely possible – prepubescent, actually. Hairless. It’s really quite sick, if you consider the subconscious motivation. There’s a vein of pedophilia running through it.

    • If you think about it… this trend toward forcing women to alter their genitalia for aesthetic purposes, and to make it look like a child’s really another form of misogyny. A fear and loathing of the natural, mature part of the body. It’s bizarre to me that we have such hatred-laced obsession with the vulva in this country… while in others, it is a joyful, lusty symbol of worship. Americans need to be deprogrammed about their beliefs and attitudes about the female body.

    • I recently learned that neither my mother (age 93) nor my cousin (age 73) had ever heard the terms “vulva” or “labia,” had never examined their pelvic area, and were disgusted that I would even such a thing.

      I worked for a dr. who does pelvic aesthetic surgeries and know that in SOME (limited) cases, it is a good thing, but mostly…I don’t work for him any more.

      • Wow…. how is it that learning the correct names of our body parts is so taboo? Particularly the body parts we’re most interested in!

      • leira

      • September 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm
      • Reply

      Don’t know if anyone else noticed but, all this talk of proper reproductive knowledge and vulva power and yet, she talks about making babies as if sperm is the only thing that goes into it. ” It’s where the baby travels to the word, and an excellent depository for the sperm that gets the baby there in the first place.” Actually there has to be a willing and fertile egg present to accept the sperm before the baby can “get there in the first place.” If you’re not ovulating, you’re chances of getting pregnant decrees and on certain days of the month, there is no chance of the sperm finding an egg to accept it so it dies. Does not turn into baby magically all by itself. It is only 1/2 of the DNA for potential offspring. Not the whole things. Otherwise, great article.

      • Jesse

      • September 26, 2012 at 10:07 pm
      • Reply

      Say VULVA
      Gimme a V- V
      Gimme a U- U
      Gimme an L L
      gimme a Va- Va
      what’s that spell?

    • Reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where the woman said her name rhymed with a female body part.

      Mulva? No Deloris! Now there’s a body part to discuss!!!!

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