Our Bodies, Our Selfies: Can Showing Your Labia Make You Feel ‘Normal’?

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Photo: Corbis

Emma is a young Australian woman who has a cheery demeanor. She describes herself as flirty, maybe even a little deviant, but basically  “an ordinary girl” who’s “pretty normal.”

Oh, and she has “medium-large labia.”

The fact that Emma offers a relative size comparison of her vulva makes a certain amount of sense, given that she’s the proprietor of the Large Labia Project, a new Tumblr blog to which women submit photos of their genitalia and describe their quest for self-acceptance. (Many links in this post are NSFW.) The other words in Emma’s brief biography — ordinary, normal — are invoked over and over again on the site, which reads like a catalog of sexual insecurities and corresponding reassurances. “It's such a relief to know I'm normal, but also special,” one woman writes. “Throughout my adolescence I thought my downstairs was abnormal because it wasn't 'neat and tidy.' I grew up and got more comfortable with it gradually, but to see that they come in all shapes and sizes is such a delight for me.”

The project could just be called the Labia Project, as evidenced by some posts with captions like “Small labia yet quite normal.” Emma says this is fine by her. “And girls if you aren’t big-lipped, I’m happy for you to participate too if you’d like to contribute in solidarity,” she writes. “This is really all about diversity, and tiny little labia are just as normal as the largest ones.” And there’s that word again, normal.

When it comes to bodies and sex, our myriad insecurities mostly default to this core concern: “Am I normal?” Women have long compared the shapes of their waists or the sizes of their butts. But with porn accessible at the click of a button, perceptions of what constitutes “normal” have never been more uniform — or applicable to every single body part. I haven’t polled my grandmothers, but I doubt they spent a lot of time fretting about unattainable mainstream standards for labia.

There's feminist precedent for showing “real” bodies as a radical act; the classic feminist sex-ed book Our Bodies, Ourselves features ample female nudity, including an illustration of a woman admiring her vulva with a hand mirror. “The fantasies in OBOS weren't airbrushed, and neither were the people,” wrote Kara Jesella in a review of the book’s 2005 edition. In the sixties, Carolee Schneeman created nude self-portraits at the nexus of feminist politics and performance art, and in the decade that followed many feminist artists, including Judy Chicago and Eleanor Antin, put their own bodies and insecurities on display. “In ‘Carving: A Traditional Sculpture’ (1972), Eleanor Antin recorded herself losing 10 pounds over 37 days, playing with the idea of Greek sculptors carving at marble to create ideal forms,” writes Soraya Roberts in a recent essay for Salon about (what else?) Lena Dunham’s nudity. “Though Chicago admits that anorexia and bulimia weren’t yet major issues during this time, she recalls a film in Fresno by one female artist that showed ‘a very large, naked woman getting into a bathtub and caressing herself.’” From TV and movies to ads and porn, we see so many naked women who look nearly identical — thin, young, white, taut — that it’s not hard to argue that photographing a wider variety of nude women is a transgressive act. Emma is not alone in returning to this line of thinking; a Minneapolis couple just Kickstarter-funded “a fine-art book featuring non-models” photographed naked.

But befitting the Internet-porn-heavy age in which it was conceived, the Large Labia Project takes the alterna-nude a step further. These aren’t portraits of Rubenesque reclining beauties or straightforward smiling women; up close and way personal, the vulva-pic submissions are self-shot and almost medical. It seems reasonable to call them hardcore selfies.  

And unsurprisingly, women aren’t the only ones enjoying the Large Labia Project. A detractor recently charged that Emma has “been corrupted by the power of the penis” and is “turning this blog into an anti-feminist haven for men to simply jerk off.” Charges of exhibitionism are common against initiatives to showcase body diversity — they were also levied against Lady Gaga’s campaign for fat acceptance through selfies, for instance. And Amanda Hess argues at Slate that some Large Labia Project submitters may end up with more anxiety when they tally up the number of likes and reblogs they’ve gotten or because they covet the other “real” vulvas they see on the site just as much as the ones they watch in porn.

The vulva-submitters — most of whom are heterosexual — confess that they’re sizing themselves up against women they see in porn. “I might not be porn star perfect down there, but that doesn’t mean I’m sub-standard either,” one woman wrote. Who can blame her for the comparison? After the awkward locker-room years, during which most of us are shielding our bodies and trying hard not to stare at others’, actresses (pornographic and otherwise) are the only women we see naked. Even through the haze of our own bodily insecurity, we know we’re not the only ones who aren’t reflected on screen. (Undeniably, part of the appeal of amateur porn is the opportunity to study a slightly wider variety of bodies, some of which look more like our own.) After thanking the “not porn star perfect” woman for her submission, Emma replied, “I’m going to try to stop referring to pornstar pussy though, as really, in lots of porn the girls who model and perform have as wide and varied vulva as you and me.”

Despite what late-night infomercials or spam e-mails will tell you, nothing short of drastic surgery will fundamentally change what’s between your legs. Which perhaps partly explains most young women’s commitment to pubic-hair grooming. The quest for normalcy can be channeled through waxing and trimming and shaving, all ways of controlling and literally sculpting the presentation of a body part that many women are insecure about. Commenters have remarked on the paucity of pubes in the photos on the Large Labia Project. Pubic hair, too, is subject to the normalcy test. To put it in women’s mag terms, a Glamour column asked, “Have you ever wondered if you're "normal" about your pubic hair grooming habits?”

Academia has some answers. In 2010, Debby Herbenick, a professor and researcher at the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana, studied 2,453 sexually active women in the United States and found that “women reported a diverse range of pubic hair-grooming practices.” Even here, there is no universal “normal.” It’s worth noting, though, that women who sometimes removed all of their hair (went "bare") tended to have higher scores” when it came to their genital self-image, Herbenick wrote in Psychology Today, and also better sexual experiences, “even after controlling for things like younger age which are known to be linked to positive sexual function.”

Why? “It may be, for example, that removing one's pubic hair does indeed help a woman learn to like her genitals more,” Herbenick speculated. “Maybe we have such societal shame and disgust around women's body hair (underarm and leg hair included) that when we remove it, we like the parts better. And maybe in so doing, we end up being more open to sex — for example, more receptive to enjoying or receiving oral sex.” It’s not exactly a grand feminist statement, but the idea that the closer women get to seeing themselves as normal, the better they feel is a tacit an endorsement of the Large Labia Project approach, which is a show-don’t-tell version of a sex educator or gynecologist’s reassuring refrain, “Don’t worry, you’re perfectly normal.”

Usually when we talk about genitals and self-esteem, we’re talking about men. Who hasn’t been cut off in traffic by an obnoxious sports car and made a joke about the driver’s tiny dick? In My Penis and Everyone Else’s, a 2007 British documentary about penis size, the filmmaker explains, “I went on a journey to find out why the size of my penis was such an issue for me,” and “I started to realize the problem was less in my pants and more in my head.” He attends a small-penis support group, gets the full Cynthia Plaster Caster treatment, and tackles head-on his self-described “penis insecurity.” He arrives at the conclusion that most heterosexual men have no idea what “normal” is.

The answer, for both men and women, probably lies in defining difference as the norm. Whenever I hear a woman compare her body to someone else’s or feel a pang of insecurity myself, I think of my friend Jen’s mantra: “Bodies are different,” she always says cheerily, with a shrug of her shoulders. Sometimes it helps to have a few photos to illustrate the sheer range. After all, if no one’s normal, we all are.