“There is a lot of stigma around vaginas and genitalia and it’s very ‘hush hush’. You don’t really talk about it much I think because when you are in your teens that’s kind of the time where you are thinking about your body more – things are changing, there’s hair and stuff like that – so it was good to have that experience (of seeing a doctor) and to know there was nothing wrong with (my labia)” – Kathy*
Kathy was just 13 when she started thinking her vagina didn’t look right.
Her worries began in PE class at school when she saw textbook drawings that she felt didn’t look like her vulva at all. She was so worried she made her Mum take her to a doctor to explore the option of surgery.
She was referred to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne where a specialist adolescent gynaecologist was finally able to reassure her that she was perfectly normal.
Among grown women, research suggests that their view of what is normal and sexually desirable is being skewed by a modern culture that promotes an unrealistic “minimalist” vulva as the ideal. Typically, these are images in which the inner folds of skin surrounding the vagina, the labia minora, aren’t visible, when in real life, in half of women they are.
But what’s additionally concerning is that these unrealistic views of what is normal also appears to be making even young girls anxious about how they look.
“What I’m finding is that you don’t have to be an adult to have these concerns,” says University of Melbourne health researcher Emma Barnard who is interviewing young women who had sought genital cosmetic surgery as girls. “It is happening much earlier than I anticipated.”
YOUNG AND ANXIOUS
While the research study is still in its early stages, with eleven interviews so far, Ms Barnard says those she has spoken to had little sense at the time of what a normal vulva looked like. And that uncertainty can sometimes begin with their mothers.
Among the 41 girls and young women referred to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne between 2000 and 2012 because of concerns over how their labia looked, the median age was just 14.5, and in nearly a quarter of cases it was the mother who was concerned. None of them was abnormal.
“For nearly all the women I spoke to, this experience of having concerns is happening from around 13 to 16. It is a very specific and fraught time when they are trying to figure out who they are and how their bodies work,” says Ms Barnard, from the School of Population and Global Health.