The Vulva Gallery is a series of illustrations of all kinds of vulvas - celebrating the vulva in all its diversity all over the world. The Vulva Gallery was created in 2016 by Hilde Atalanta, an Amsterdam based illustrator.

In the past decade there has been an enormous global increase in labiaplasty surgeries. At the moment it is the world’s fastest growing type of cosmetic surgery. In 2016, 39% more labiaplasty procedures were carried out than in 2015 (source: International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, ISAPS). 

Last summer the BBC published an article about young girls seeking for labiaplasty surgery online: “Leading adolescent gynaecologist Dr Naomi Crouch told the BBC girls as young as nine were seeking the cosmetic procedure because they were distressed by the appearance of their vulva. More than 200 girls under 18 had labiaplasty on the NHS (National Health Service) in 2015-16 – more than 150 of whom were under 15, according to the broadcaster.” (source: independent.co.uk)

Labiaplasty is cosmetic surgery to partly or entirely alter the size of the labia minora, the inner folds of the vulva. The performed labiaplasties are often not medically indicated, and are merely done because of cosmetical purposes (Goodman, 2009). Many individuals who undergo this procedure are unhappy with the way their labia look, especially their labia minora (inner labia). They think their labia minora are too large, and therefore they perceive them as ugly and disturbing. Their ‘genital self-image’ is on average more negative than that of other women (Veale, Eshkevari, Ellison, Costa et al., 2013). Especially private clinics make a lot of money with these procedures (Pauls, 2007). 

Hilde: "I feel that labiaplasty because of cosmetical reasons isn’t a good development. The trend of undergoing labiaplasty surgery to live up to an opposed beauty ideal - and out of fear a (future) partner may not like how your genitals look - is worrying to me.

In the past decades there has been a global rise in cosmetic surgery in general. I want to underline that I’m not against cosmetic surgery per se. There are many different reasons an individual may choose to undergo surgery, and I feel it should be every individual’s personal choice to do what they please with their bodies. However, the labia aren’t an average body part, as they play an important role (in sexual functioning). The labia are made of a very delicate tissue, they are very sensitive, and they are an important part of the erogenous zones. They play a role in lubrication and sexual pleasure, and they serve a role in protecting the vulva from impacts and influences from outside like bacteria. To have a surgeon cut away such a delicate part of your body just to look ‘pretty’ - it’s hard for me to grasp that this is happening so often. It’s not that I don’t understand why this happens; like so many individuals growing up, I’ve also been insecure about my own body, and a “quick fix” would have been very appealing at times. Still, it makes me sad to see that for many individuals the external pressure is so high that surgery seems to be the only solution.

In the past two years with The Vulva Gallery I have learned that amongst many individuals from all around the world sexual education has been poor - often mainly focused on biology, STI’s / STD’s and preventing pregnancy. Neither an open conversation about sexuality nor portraying body diversity were part of sexual education.  

A way to change the way individuals view and experience (their) bodies is to provide inclusive education. To teach about natural variety in anatomy, and visualizing this by showing many different body types - in all shapes, sizes, and colours. In the line of inclusivity it’s important to be age- and gender inclusive as well; for The Vulva Gallery this means including people of all kinds of genders in the gallery, as having a vulva doesn't define your gender identity.

I aim for The Vulva Gallery to contribute in changing the way we look at vulvas, by showing that all vulvas are wonderful just the way they are. 

The reason for using the word 'vulva' instead of 'vagina', is that the vagina is only the internal part of the genitals. The vulva consists of the external part of the genitals: the mons pubis, the inner labia and outer labia, the clitoris and the clitoral hood, the vulval vestibule, urinary opening, greater and lesser vestibular glands, the vaginal opening, the pudendal cleft, sebaceous glands, the urogenital triangle (anterior part of the perineum), and pubic hair. Let’s stop reducing the genitals to just its internal structure, when there's so much more to it than that.”