Another level of Doubt for Teen Girls and Young Women
By Cindy Pierce
The first time I heard a tearful confession from a sixteen-year-old girl that she was worried about her flappy vulva being abnormal, I assumed her concern was rare. The subsequent months of conversations with girls and young women across the country confirmed that genital image had become an increasingly common struggle for many. The term “vulva” is rarely used in conversations about normal genital appearance, but their gestures and words clearly indicate their concern about how external genitals appear to their sexual partners.
There is still confusion and discomfort around female genitalia, including using correct terminology to describe them. Just to clarify, “vulva” refers to the external part of the vagina and is considered the entrance to the vagina. It includes the labia (minora and majora) and the clitoris. “Vagina” refers to the interior canal between the vulva and the cervix, the base of the uterus. The combination of oppression, standards of politeness and vulva shame continue to create obstacles between girls and women and full understanding of their own bodies.
It turns out we haven’t really made much progress in the body shame war, particularly for girls and young women. The Beauty Industry continues to profit from doubt and insecurities fueled by marketing and rarely take responsibility for how their messaging infiltrates the minds and souls of young girls and women. As if being plagued with the task of navigating body shame wasn’t enough, now girls and young women have additional angst about the appearance of their genitals, which has set them back even further. Many parents and caregivers avoid conversations with girls about the health and features of their genitals, contributing to their vulnerability to criticism about the inadequacies of their vulvas and vaginas.
The doubt most females experience about their bodies, breasts and general appearance not measuring up to the unrealistic beauty standards is internalized through the influence of peers, media, culture and social media. Shame starts with confusion and uncertainty, fueled by relentless reminders of what one needs to fix in order to feel worthy of love and attention. A shift in the standards for the appearance of female genitalia has contributed to debilitating self-doubt for many young women, which usually starts with feedback from male partners. I have yet to hear any young woman talk about negative feedback from female partners. An unsettling number of girls and young women tell me that their male partners (in their teens, twenties and even thirties), openly expressed repulsion at the sight of pubic hair and told them that their vulvas are “different than most women” in color, size and appearance.
It turns out the standard of how “most women” appear is based on the vulvas seen in internet porn. While masturbation is the most common reason people look at internet porn, it is often the first source kids and teens explore for answers to questions about bodies and sexuality. Teen interest in porn has been the same for many generations; however, the volume and variety of pornographic content online as well as the speed and ease with which it reaches consumers on any device has exploded. When internet porn trends started to feature women with pubic hair removed from anus to navel and with surgically altered vulvas, vulva shame skyrocketed. As the term “genital image issues” became part of the lexicon, a whole industry of vaginal and vulva “rejuvenation” products, procedures and surgeries started gaining popularity.
Vulvas without hair and smaller labia make women in porn appear younger (a long-time popular and troubling theme in porn) as well as improve the camera angle to maximize the penetration view. In addition to surgically altered/trimmed labia, sometimes the labia minora are tattooed red or covered with bright red make-up to appear perky and fresh to appeal to viewers. While there are plenty of reliable resources online with factual answers to sexuality questions, searches often lead to porn or sources that reinforce viewers’ idea that their own genitals and those of their partners are abnormal or unattractive.
Regular porn consumers develop skewed expectations of how female genitals appear rather than an understanding of the broad and normal range of size, color and appearance. Artist James McCartney created The Great Wall of Vaginas to help alleviate the genital image issues that plague so many women. He uses the word “vagina” because so many people don’t know the word “vulva.” It is not lost on me that a man has made one of the boldest and most effective efforts to end vulva shame. The extensive and much-needed work by many women experts who have spent decades reeducating women about genital image and pleasure has been overlooked and even dismissed by mainstream culture and society. As women, we need all genders engaged in this education. Cheers to James M!
Imagine a world where girls and young women focused their time and energy on productive endeavors, personal interests and what really matters rather than obsessing about the appearance of their bodies and vulvas. Parents, partners, educators, consumers and creators could help break the cycle of discomfort and banish the normalized repulsion around female genitalia by educating themselves as well as educating young people with reliable resources. Girls and women who clearly understand the broad spectrum of how normal and healthy vulvas appear could experience and model positive genital image. Access to accurate information increases the chance for girls and young women to develop healthy ideas about their bodies and genitals, including their capacity for pleasure.
Girls and women who are tuned in to how companies actively prey on their insecurities to sell products to improve physical and genital appearance would be motivated to challenge and boycott those companies. Empowered and informed girls are more likely to stand up to a partner who gives them negative feedback. Interrupting the cycle of body and vulva shame requires sexuality education that starts early and keeping conversations going until they leave the house. These conversations may feel awkward for all involved, but they get easier with practice. In the words of parent educator Tova Garr, having these conversations are “more important than they are uncomfortable.”
Special thanks to Nicola Smith for her keen eye in editing.