I never gave much thought to my vagina’s appearance—until my lady bits endured major trauma after childbirth, that is. That’s when I had an inkling things were going to look a little different down there.
Getting the kiddo out required an episiotomy (where they surgically cut the opening of the vagina during childbirth, to aid in delivery and prevent ruptured tissues). Yes, that’s as painful as it sounds. And at three weeks postpartum, I was popping pain killers and sitting on ice packs, but the area around my vagina still hurt like hell. I knew something wasn’t quite right but, TBH, I was afraid to look. Luckily I had a visit scheduled with my midwife that week, and I knew she’d check it out. What I didn’t expect, though, was her reaction as she got down to business about my business.
There I was, legs spread on the exam table, answering all kinds of questions about the baby, when, from between my knees, she looks up at me and declares: “You’re healing okay, but I think your dreams of being a porn star are finished.” (I still laugh at the memory of the befuddled look on my husband’s face from across the room.) Apparently I’d pulled a few stitches, probably walking up and down the stairs in my house. The skin was healing, but not smoothly. As a result, she said, I’d be left with a bit of a bump on one side of my labia. And, apparently, this imperfection would exclude me from the adult entertainment industry for good.
Fortunately I don’t have any Jenna Jameson-type ambitions, as my midwife knew well. (When you’ve been to the brink with a many-hours-long, very intense childbirth with someone, I guess you can make porn jokes since you know each other, well, intimately.) But, it did make me wonder: what does a so-called perfect, or even normal-looking vagina look like, anyway?
We say vagina, but we *mean* vulva
Technically, the vagina is the internal canal connecting to the cervix. The vulva is the external area that includes the labia, clitoris and openings to the vagina and urethra. So, most of us are misnaming our hoohoos, but that’s not really important. What counts is that we understand how it works—and appreciate our vagina however it looks, says Dr. Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.
Vulvas come in all shapes and sizes
The larger outer lips of the vulva are called the labia majora and the inner lips, closer to the vaginal opening, are called the labia minora. The inner lips can be long and hang past your outer lips, as much as an inch or more. Outer lips can be thick and plump or thin and loose, hang low or sit flat. Sometimes the inner and outer lips are the same size and the outer folds sit open. Other times the outer lips sit tight to the vulva, concealing the inner lips completely. (This is the typical shape for pre-pubescent girls—and what we see idealized most often in porn, though it’s not actually very common in grown women.) “You can think of the overall configuration as a butterfly or angel wing,” says Dr. Blake. That is, unique and beautiful.
The clitoris is a pea-sized organ found between where the two inner lips meet, at the top of your vulva. It’s usually covered by a hood, but this can vary in shape and size, too.
… And colours, too
Some people have pink, purple, brown or reddish labia. Often both sets of labia are darker than a person’s skin tone and they’re not totally uniform in colour. “If you look at your labia minora, it turns from being lighter pink towards the inside to deeply pigmented at the edges,” says Dr. Blake. And the whole area will get darker when you’re aroused.
Getting laser hair removal or even a Brazilian wax won’t permanently affect your vagina’s colouring, though hair removal might make it look a little lighter at first because the skin is newly-bare.
And FYI, it’s normal for the skin around the vulva to be a bit bumpy here or there, too. It’s also not uncommon to have swollen veins, ingrown hairs (especially if you shave your pubic hair) and/or small bumps or cysts that come and go.
What’s the deal with discharge?
Vaginal tissue is similar to the inside of your mouth—it has to stay moist, but the amount of secretions vary from person to person. It can also change in colour and texture throughout your cycle. If you’re not on the pill, you’ll likely notice that mid-cycle there will be more discharge and it’ll have a watery, stretchy texture. (If you’re trying to get pregnant, this is one indication that you’re fertile.) And later in the month, secretions become thicker and creamier-looking. If you’re on birth control, you’ll likely still notice some changes, but they may be more subtle. You only need to worry about your discharge if it comes with an unpleasant odour, itching or irritation, which can be signs of infection and may require a trip to the OB/GYN.
That’s why knowing what’s normal for your lady bits is a good idea in general. “There are things that can need medical attention, so to be familiar with the skin on your vulva and aware of changes is helpful,” says Dr. Blake. You should call your doctor if you have blisters that ooze, bumps that are painful or if an asymmetrical multi-coloured mole pops up. Your doctor will rule out skin cancer, STIs and other infections.
Real talk: your vagina does not need a makeover
Let’s be very clear here: your vagina does not require cleaning. Like, ever. Douching and #vagacials are not only unnecessary, they’re potentially harmful because they can disrupt the delicate pH balance inside your vagina. The vagina is naturally acidic, which helps in its protection against infection, but this can be disrupted by soaps and cleansers, says Dr. Blake.
Everyone asking me about that stupid Jamu Stick to “exfoliate” and “tighten” the vagina. Same b.s. as the Japanese tightening stick that I wrote about in 2016. I am your go to defender against vulvar and vaginal snake oil https://t.co/N2oKqxn98z
— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) March 1, 2019
If you’ve seen ads for vaginal rejuvenation procedures or the Jamu Stick (which is supposed to exfoliate your insides) pop up in your social media feed, you may be wondering if your intimate area really is screaming for a makeover. The answer: heck, no! These also fall under the category of unnecessary and potentially harmful. In fact, they’re so super popular south of the border that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has officially warned against vaginal rejuvenation spa treatments and at-home devices, citing cases severe of burns and scarring.
Unfortunately, interest in so-called vagina makeovers doesn’t end there. Cosmetic gynaecological procedures are more popular than ever. “There is a trend to women looking at labial reduction as a desirable feature,” says Dr. Blake. Labiaplasty is every woman’s right to consider, of course, but these procedures shouldn’t be taken lightly. For one thing, “tightening” the skin of the vulva means you’re removing excess tissue that your vagina might require later in life. This area naturally shrinks and loses elasticity as you age, which can lead to pain during sex, or even the inability to have sex in the future, if the skin becomes too tight.
It’s also worth thinking through why you’d want to change the way your vulva looks. “The other thing that’s alarming is where people get their ideas of what’s normal and unfortunately a lot of this comes from the [mainstream] pornography industry where cosmetic procedures to modify the vulva and labia are common,” says Dr. Blake. “And these are vaginas that are altered to look juvenile—that’s disturbing too, on a whole other level.”
Let’s stop vagina shaming
Big or small, brown or pink, your vagina is all yours, and you oughta own that. “We should be celebrating the diversity and pushing back on messages that try to homogenize us or infantilize us,” says Dr. Blake. So, let’s honour the #bodypositivity movement all the way down to our undies, and celebrate the most private part of our bodies, too.
I for one have decided that my lady garden is in no need of improvements—it’s bloomin’ beautiful just the way it is, imperfections and all. (Though it does require occasional pruning, but only because that’s the way I like it.)
Posted June 2019. Updated June 2020.