My, your labia are so pretty
Feeling anxious about your labia?
Just stick a cellphone camera between your legs, post the photo to the Internet, and invite strangers to discuss what you're working with. That's the theory behind the Large Labia Project, a submission-based Tumblr that encourages women to air their insecurities (and their vaginal selfies) in the spirit of 'labia pride.' Here's how it works: Take a photo of your vagina. Share your feelings. ('Hey! I'm so self-conscious and feel insecure about showing my labia.') Then shoot it over to 24-year-old moderator Emma, who will invariably heap praise on your submission.
'Wow you look so beautiful!' Emma wrote of one photo. 'Any sane guy seeing that would be getting an instant boner in anticipation of the awesome playground between your legs.' Emma says she launched the site in order to counter the images pushed by the porn industry, which provides a 'false view of what real women look like.' Clicking through the photos on the site, Jezebel's Madeleine Davies was 'taken aback by the diversity of shapes and sizes that were depicted' and says she found it 'interesting (and mildly depressing) to see how the norms of pornography (have) become pervasive in mainstream culture.' She was particularly surprised that she's internalized these norms, because she 'doesn't even regularly watch porn.' But when you start a movement that says, 'Our porn-obsessed society thinks your vagina is weird, but it's not,' you risk reinforcing the first part of that message before moving on to the empowerment part. For some visitors to the Large Labia Project, the campaign itself appears to be fueling the anxiety.
'Although I see all sorts of variety on your site, for which I am grateful, I don't see this saggy-ish outer labia, so I guess I still feel like a bit of a freak,' one woman wrote. 'How do the women on this site have such clean shaves? Without any irritation?' another asked.
As Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory noted, 'some posters find it devastating when their photo doesn't get as many 'likes' as others.' And though this is ostensibly the 'large labia' movement, actual submissions vary greatly in size. That speaks to a skewed idea of what women believe to be 'large' in this arena, but it also makes for an anxiety-inducing labia measuring contest: If her labia are big, what does that say about mine?
If posting your vagina to the Internet gives you a confidence boost, go nuts. But it's also perfectly healthy to not spend a ton of time looking at your vagina and thinking about where it fits in the spectrum of other ladies' vaginas.
And it's also worth considering that obsessing about any body part, even if in the pursuit of female empowerment, has its downsides. I'm not aware of any studies specifically addressing labia insecurity, but one study of the pubic hair removal habits of 2,541 American women found that those who had 'looked closely at (their) own genitals in the previous month' were also more likely to have removed every last bit of their pubic hair.
As for porn's blame in all this labia anxiety: People who do watch a lot of porn have a more informed view of the industry's approach to genital diversity. Porn performer and director Nina Hartley told me that she's seen 'every type of vulva' in her three decades working in the industry. When young women start out in porn, producers don't send them off for a routine labiaplasty, she says. They tend to instead say, 'You want to take off your clothes and have sex on camera? Yay!' Last week, a porn performer took a photo of her vagina and submitted it to the Large Labia Project.
'While I have always been self-conscious of my larger labia, I am a 7-year veteran of the adult industry, where my labia have never been an issue,' she wrote. 'Let's not create a false and dehumanizing dichotomy between 'real' women … and pornographic actors.' Emma replied: 'I don't know what the truth of the matter is, whether it's a porn myth or not. But the weight of feedback I've received suggests it's reality, even if it's in people's heads.'
- Amanda Hess writes for the XX Factor blog at Slate.com. To comment on this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and city.
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