What’s in Your Vulva?
Thirty years ago I went to the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective to get fitted for a cervical cap. “What is that?” some of you might be wondering. The cervical cap is a barrier form of birth control, which fell out of favor when easier hormonal methods became more popular and more effective. It worked by inserting the cap before intercourse and removing it a few hours later. The cap blocked sperm from entering the cervix. And it had the advantage of not interfering with the spontaneity of sex because it could be inserted up to several hours before. I liked the method, but I didn’t like what I had to do in order to get fitted for it.
I assumed I could just make an appointment at the clinic, get my cervix measured for the proper size, and leave with the prescription. Instead, I had to sign up for a group instruction session. Group instruction session? I already knew how to use a diaphragm (another veteran barrier method). How hard could it be? I wanted one simple appointment, not a feel-good consciousness-raising session with other women, complete strangers!
It turned out the instruction session was “hands on,” so to speak. Each woman there (about 15-20 of us) pulled down her jeans or hiked up her skirt and looked inside at her own vagina and cervix with a mirror and plastic speculum. Then we had to look at each other’s! Are you kidding me? An east coast girl myself, I figured that this was how they did things out in California. I had wanted to go to Berkeley for graduate school, hadn’t I? I brought this groovy, hippy behavior on myself, I reasoned, and so might as well go with the flow.
Teaching women about the most intimate parts of their bodies was a hallmark of the feminist health movement of the 1970s. Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1970, signaled the beginning, encouraging women to know what was happening both in the gynecologist’s office and in the bedroom. It was 1983 when I was reaping the benefits of this up close and personal approach to my own body and the bodies of several other women.
The cervical cap instructional session turned out to be one of the most formative experiences of my life. It taught me several things that I never would have truly believed otherwise. The most important lesson was that everyone’s body looks different. In this group that I had the privilege to observe, some women had large labia; some had small; some had a visible clitoris; some women had shaved; others hadn’t. And all these women had sexual experiences with men apparently, because they all were at this gathering to obtain birth control. Their private parts — in fact, their entire bodies — were all alright, even desirable to somebody!
The realization that everyone’s body was different went beyond what their labia looked like. These women were young, old (from my mid-20s perspective), thin, fat, homely, pretty … all kinds of women who didn’t want to get pregnant and who were taking matters into their own hands, taking charge of their own sexuality and their own bodies. The entire experience was weird (I’m not going to lie), but exhilarating.
I am convinced that if more women had the opportunity to see other women’s labia and vaginas, we might stem the rising tide of cosmetic vaginal surgeries. Labia reduction and vaginal rejuvenation, as these procedures are broadly called, are the fastest expanding area of cosmetic surgery. In fact, an entire discipline, called cosmeto-gynecology, has evolved to accommodate (and convince) the increasing numbers of women who believe there is something wrong with the way their labia are shaped. Some people are making a lot of money off of women’s growing insecurities. How do these women know their labia are not “normal,” when, most likely, they have no idea of the wide range of what normal actually is? Heterosexual women typically do not have the opportunity to scrutinize other women’s genitals.
Many women who undergo procedures to create “designer vaginas,” construct their own self-esteem according to what they think men want in a sexual partner. Some show their physicians pictures of women from pornographic magazines to indicate how they want their bodies to look after surgery. Perhaps times have changed, and today’s easy access to porn has made men more critical; all the more reason for us to clue them into what real women look like. I can only hope that most men agree with my male informant. When I told him that some women are self-conscious about their vulvas and worried that guys might criticize them, he exclaimed, “Are you kidding me? Men are just so happy to be there!”
Women’s bodies can look all different ways, and the truth of the matter is that sex partners can find it all intriguing and exciting. Women need to be aware that serious risks attend any surgery and that scar tissue can develop, in addition to other complications, which might interfere with sexual sensation. To Women’s Health Clinics and Feminists: perhaps we need to resurrect the hands-on, group sessions. We need to take the opportunity to teach women that what they see in pornographic magazines (pre-pubescent, shaved, perfectly symmetrical labia) does not reflect the range of women’s bodies. We do not need to expand the field of cosmeto-gynecology, but rather our vision of what is real, normal, and desirable.
Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.