In high school, I asked a number of my closest female friends, “Do you think that vaginas are ugly?”
Secretly, I was hoping that they’d disclose what their own vulvas looked like to me. Eighteen years old and new to sex, I was desperately grasping for any words of encouragement that could quell my uneasiness about the way my own vulva looked.
A close friend responded: “Sometimes. But other times, my pussy looks really cute.” Another answered by telling me that she would apply this weird, “pussy-safe” glitter lotion on her labia before she had sex with her partner to make her vulva look more alluring, “He goes nuts for it, and he’ll beg me to eat me out.” I squirmed uncomfortably, opting to privately scroll through the camera roll on my phone to examine all the photos I had taken of my unglittery vulva earlier that day.
After all my trying, I never got the response that I really wanted — that someone else’s vulva looked just like mine — and I now realize that this is because no one’s vulva is supposed to look like mine. For a long time though, I felt incredibly insecure about how dark and ugly I felt my vulva was.
I didn’t like how my labia minora fell in messy brown ribbons down the opening of my vagina rather than sitting up in the neat, unobtrusive, Barbie-looking way that I had seen in porn. I didn’t like that when I touched myself and parted the lips of my private parts with my fingertips, my labia could spread out like a butterfly’s wings. And I especially did not like that when someone penetrated me, my long, ribbonlike labia would sometimes fold inside of my vagina along with their penis.
I thought my vulva was so horrible and grotesque that I never really prioritized my pleasure when I had sex. I wouldn’t allow my ex-partner of almost a year to go down on me, even though I always went down on him. Whenever I switched positions during sex, I’d position my body in such a way that my vulva was always out of sight.
Because I hated my vulva, I grew to hate sex. But no biggie, I told myself. I’ll just get a labiaplasty when I get a job and make some money. Then I can finally enjoy sex.
This mindset was ultimately unsustainable; I definitely wasn’t going to have that much money anytime soon, but I wasn’t going to stop having sex either. How could I claim to be this sex-positive feminist when I wasn’t upholding such values in my own sex life?
So, for the first two years that I was sexually active, the only thing that I could do was agonize over my unlucky pussy by Googling the same keywords. To no surprise, there’s no such thing as a “normal-looking” vulva. All I had to do was break down my own internalized sexism enough to believe it.
Of course, it still took a lot of combing through subreddits, looking up vaginas on Google and watching feminist porn for me to register that my vulva is normal, that every vulva is normal. Our pussies all have a special difference and similarity.
This epiphany was cathartic and so was all the back-arching, toe-curling sex that came after it, too. Reclaiming my body and my pussy felt like a small act of resistance against the patriarchy.
The truth is that there is no right size, color and shape for vulva, but no one tells you this when you first become sexually active. No one tells you that your labia does an amazing job at protecting your health or that your labia plays a huge part in enhancing pleasurable sensations.
Instead, women are told by many videos on Pornhub that only pink pussies with slim lips are normal. Women are told by the culture of silence about their own sexual organs that our vulvas and our nipples can’t be too big or too small, too pointy or too long. No one even bothered to let us know that there’s a difference between “vulva” and “vagina” and that using the correct term to refer to the correct part of a woman’s sexual anatomy is critical to centering her sexual pleasure. So many young adults still get their sex education from videos with titles such as “Jacked Man Pounds Amateur Pink Pussy”; this is the product of a culture that continues to objectify women’s bodies and marginalize their pleasure.
All of this confusion around pussies and women’s sexual pleasure perpetuates a culture in which women’s sexual organs are policed for the enjoyment of men. Somehow, oppression likes to find its way into our sex and our daily lives. We see the tangible impacts of this in the persistence of female genital mutilation, the endurance of rape culture and the survival of power differences that continually allow men to take up more space than women.
So when I decided that I too deserve to feel joy and excitement and be unapologetic about my labia, I began to feel powerful in other parts of my life.
To the labia of the world, thank you for keeping us safe from foreign objects and infections, as well as helping lubricate our pussies during sex. Thanks for helping us channel our divine feminine energy and reclaim our power in a world that tries so hard to silence our pleasure, our success and our voices.
I’m not going to eradicate sexism and misogyny by choosing to learn less from porn, but ending the oppression of women starts with loving my labia. My pussy, with its brown folds and glistening wetness, is perfect the way it is.
Laura Nguyen writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].