Blog

Sharing my thoughts about the importance of sexual health education, showing diversity, open conversations and the role of The Vulva Gallery in these.


Why is it important to show diversity?

In most of the popular media (books, magazines, websites; porn as well as sexual health education books) this diversity is hidden. About 50% of all vulvas have inner labia that are longer than the outer labia; but if you look online, you’ll find the typical tiny shaven vulva with inner labia that are barely visible. And it’s not that you can’t find videos or pictures of vulvas with long inner labia, but often they are portrayed as something “dirty”, or something older women have, or something girls who had lots of sex have - or it’s being fetishised. Funnily, long inner labia have nothing to do with age or sexual activity, at all, as it’s all genetics. You can be a 17 year old virgin and have very long and wavy inner labia that have a very dark colour; or you can be a 65 year old woman who had lots of sex and still have very tiny pink labia. It’s not related.

What we see online or in magazines (or even in medical education books for that matter) is not at all representative for the natural variety in vulvas, but it has a huge influence on any young individual who sees it. Not only girls, but also their boyfriends (or to neutralise it: people with ánd without vulvas). They will learn that only tiny pink vulvas are “sexy”, and that this is something to strive for (or something their girlfriends should have). That they are unattractive and dirty if they have long inner labia (with a dark colour). It can make a young individual very insecure about the way they look.

Therefore I believe diversity should be a very important part of sexual health education. From a young age on - even before the onset of puberty - kids should learn that their body is perfectly normal as it is, as there is a very broad range of “normal”. They should be encouraged to understand and embrace this diversity, hereby normalising different kinds of body types instead of rejecting or fetishising them. I think this could solve a big part of the problem - partly in giving young individuals confidence about the way they and their (sexual) partners look, and partly in teaching them to respect others with different body types by understanding: we all look different and yet we’re all equal.


Why are open conversations about vulva-related subject (also: menstruation, UTI's etc.) important?

I think there’s a lot of shame surrounding this subject. From a young age on, we learn to hide our genitals. We’re not supposed to talk about it, or about our sexuality. It’s considered “dirty” and “shameful”. When you enter puberty, and your body starts to change, it can be so helpful to talk about these things, but because it’s all behind hidden doors and conversations about sexuality aren’t common in many homes or friend groups, I think it can become uncomfortable very easily. You might be concerned about the way your vulva looks, or about why a tampon doesn’t fit, or why your vulva is itchy for already a couple of days - it can be so helpful to know: your vulva is normal, not everyone’s anatomy is made for tampons, you might have a yeast infection.

I think it’s good to normalise talking about all these topics, as they are things we all cope with on a daily base. We shouldn’t have to be ashamed about things that are so human. It can be very comforting to know that your body is normal - and that the things you struggle with, are things others struggle with as well. That you are not alone. That you are not weird, but perfectly normal. I learned that sharing experiences and listening to other’s stories can give a feeling of belonging, support, and confidence. And that’s why I encourage an open conversation about these topics.


What do you think causes the global increase in labiaplasty surgeries?

I think there are several reasons that the amount of labiaplasty surgeries is and has been rising so much, with three major reasons in particular:

1. A lack in education
2. Popular media (magazines, sexual health education books, porn, television) show us "perfect bodies"
3. Easy online access to surgery (often in private clinics)

I will elaborate on this.

1. A lack in education. I learned that in many countries, the quality of sexual health education is poor. Genital anatomy is something that young kids don’t really receive good education about, and in textbooks there is little to no room for diversity. Many young individuals don’t even know that half of all vulvas have inner labia that are longer than the outer labia. I think there’s a lot of shame surrounding this subject. From a young age on, we learn to hide our genitals. We’re not supposed to talk about it, or about our sexuality. It’s considered “dirty” and “shameful”. When you enter puberty, and your body starts to change, it can be so helpful to talk about these things, but because it’s all behind hidden doors and conversations about sexuality aren’t common in many homes or friend groups, it can become uncomfortable very easily. You might be concerned about the way your vulva looks, or about why a tampon doesn’t fit, or why your vulva is itchy for already a couple of days - it can be so helpful to know: your vulva is normal, not everyone’s anatomy is made for tampons, you might have a yeast infection. I think it’s good to normalise talking about all these topics, and provide good education about it - as these are things we all cope with on a daily base. We shouldn’t have to be ashamed about things that are so human. It can be very comforting to know that your body is normal - and that the things you struggle with, are things others struggle with as well. That you are not alone. That you are not weird, but perfectly normal. I learned that sharing experiences and listening to other’s stories can give a feeling of belonging, support, and confidence. And that’s why I encourage an open conversation and good education about these topics.

2. Peers / popular media. A common theme in the messages I receive is the insecurities that young individuals develop because of peers or insensitive lovers (talking about ‘ugly’ and ‘weird’ bodies) and the body types they see in porn. Many individuals learn that there’s just one ‘perfect’ body type; they see the ‘cute, tight, tiny vulvas’ in porn and learn that this is the only beautiful kind of vulva there is. Often, the only place where they will find pictures and videos of naked bodies, is in porn. This is easily accessible, but unfortunately gives a highly distorted image of reality: it simply doesn't reflect the diversity in body shapes. All models are athletic and skinny, and they all have either a large penis or a tiny vulva (both completely shaved). This can result in deep rooted insecurities and a negative genital self-image, and in the stories I read this often led to not wanting to be naked in front of anyone else (deep feelings of shame) and the wish for surgery in order to just ‘be normal’.

The combination of these two things: a lack in education, and a distorted view on what is normal, can add to feelings of insecurity in young individuals. They have nothing to defend themselves with, simply because they don't know how to. They never learned to speak about sexuality and their body, they never learned about diversity in body shapes, and they never learned that they are normal and don't need to be ashamed. Surgery suddenly seems appealing, offering a "quick fix" to their problem.

3. Easy access to cosmetic surgery through internet. When an individual types in Google: "long inner labia", they won't find assuring websites that tell them about diversity, and teach them that half of all vulvas have longer inner labia. No; they will find clinics, websites that tell them: "you can fix this problem!", which inherently sends the message: "there's something wrong with you!" These (often private) clinics make a lot of money out of these surgeries. Surgeries that are often unneeded, simply because there's nothing wrong with the vulva they are "fixing".

I believe that the whole problem can be solved by good sexual health education, where speaking openly about sexuality, and showing diversity in bodies, are a basic part of education.

There has been a research article published last year, about a research with young women who were waiting for a labiaplasty surgery. The researchers then educated them about diversity, and showed them different photos of vulvas, all natural shapes and sizes, a broad range in diversity. The majority of the women gained a positive genital self-image after receiving education and seeing the photos. You can find the article here: Laan E, Martoredjo DK, Hesselink S, Snijders N, van Lunsen RHW, Young women's genital self-image and effects of exposure to pictures of natural vulvas. J PSYCHOSOM OBST GYN 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27649469?dopt=AbstractPlus&otool=inluvalib

My experience with The Vulva Gallery has been the same. In the past months I've repeatedly received messages from young women who told me that because of my gallery, they cancelled their labiaplasty surgery. This (and the amount of messages I receive about similar subject) tells me that there’s a need for an open conversation about body diversity, and that there’s a need for education. Many of the people (women as well as people with other kinds of gender identities) that approach me, tell me that before they saw The Vulva Gallery, they didn’t know that there was so much diversity in vulvae. That they learned for the first time that they are normal. I think that The Vulva Gallery, and other similar projects, can be a very valuable addition to sexual health education.