With beauty predicated on women’s insecurities, the industry’s newfound focus on the appearance of the vagina — from over-the-counter products to cosmetic treatments — should come as no surprise. Just last week, a new study on the female genitalia went viral. Swiss researchers set out to determine what constitutes a “normal” vulva (aka the external vagina) to use as a baseline for gynecological cosmetic surgery, and what they found was, well, expected: no two female genitalia are exactly alike.
The study, which was published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in June, examined the genitalia of 657 consenting white women ages 15 to 84, all of whom were in good health and none pregnant. Various parts of the vulva were measured for length and width, including the clitoris, vaginal introitus, labia majora, and labia minora, and the results differed significantly from woman to woman. The labia minora, for example, varied from one-tenth of an inch to more than three inches while the clitoris ranged between one millimeter and 22 millimeters wide.
Because there was so much variation, researchers concluded that they could not offer an average dimension for a ‘normal’ vulva. This is not the first time researchers have focused on finding similarities in female genitalia. Healthy vulvas have been shown to come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, and the appearance of the external vagina is known to change as women age. So did we really need another study to prove this? Apparently, we did.
Authors of the study point to a rise in labiaplasties, a vaginal reshaping surgery. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the elective surgery saw a 200 percent uptick in the last five years and has been particularly popular among Gen Z and millennial women. Many gynecologists credit this to the sexual revolution in the digital age. With pornography so readily available, society’s standard of the vagina — slim, hairless, “tight” — is unrealistic, and young girls, especially, are growing increasingly insecure with their own appearance.
“Although representations of female nudity are common, detailed accurate representations of female genitalia are rare,” lead author of the study Jillian Lloyd wrote. “Women and their sexual partners are increasingly exposed to idealized, highly selective images of the female genital anatomy.”
“The labia, or lips — which vary from person to person — seem to be under the greatest scrutiny by my patients,” writes Sherry Ross, MD, an OBGYN who is not affiliated with this study and author of She-ology. “The fact is that the two lips of the vagina are not identical on the same person. Just as our two eyes are not the same size, our ears, breasts, and lips of our labia are neither identical nor symmetrical.”
So, while this study confirms what many of us already knew, it serves as a friendly reminder that a “normal” vagina does not exist. In fact, different is normal. The authors hope it will be used as reference point for gynecologists to share with patients who have concerns about the appearance of their vulva.