‘My vulva is phenomenal and I wouldn’t want her any other way’
The internet’s ‘designer vulvas’ were perfectly symmetrical, but this wasn’t me
Liv Little: “I hope that we can socialise boys and girls into understanding that women’s bodies come in lots of shapes and sizes.” Photograph: Darren Gerrish/Getty
I didn’t look at my vulva until I was 14, and when I did it was purely because my friend and I had planned to lose our virginities to each other. I remember calling up another of my best friends at the time and telling her what was about to happen. The guy in question was on his way over, and my friend advised me to shave everything, immediately.
This would have been the first time I had seen my vulva in all her glory. As we were about to have sex he commented on my having something “hanging down” there. I don’t think he meant it as an insult, but I suppose what he had seen was the neat, perfect vulvas we are exposed to through online pornography. I’m well aware that this was the source of sex education for all my male friends at the time.
I can’t say I thought much about it in that instant; I had bigger things to deal with – such as the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. After what I can only describe as an anticlimactic encounter I repeatedly replayed in my mind the comment he had made about my vulva. I looked online, wanting to see what most women’s vulvas looked like, but I certainly didn’t want to ask anyone about it.
I became increasingly paranoid about my body. I would insist on having sex with the lights off, and if anybody attempted to go down on me I would freeze
The internet, as we know, can be a scary space, filled with opportunities for self-diagnosis, and the vulvas I saw there all emulated what I knew were referred to in the film Kidulthood as “designer vaginas”. These were vulvas that were perfectly symmetrical, but this wasn’t me.
The guy I lost my virginity to had been the first, but he wasn’t the last, to offer his unsolicited opinion about what my vulva looked like. I can recall two other instances. One was very public (through a BlackBerry Messenger broadcast that a friend decoded for me) from a boy who I’m pretty sure would have married himself given half the chance. The other, several years after the first, was a light-hearted comment made by an ex-partner. It was enough to tip me over the edge.
I became increasingly paranoid about my body. I would insist on having sex with the lights off, and if anybody attempted to go down on me I would freeze. This affected my ability to develop healthy sexual relationships, and I began to form an unhealthy obsession with what I ought to look like. Aged 14, 15, 16, 17 and even 18, I was yet to find intersectional feminism and body positivity, and during those formative years I spent time obsessing on internet forums, googling labiaplasty, staring at my vulva and imagining what she would look like in a perfect world.
There were constant reminders that my body did not live up to expectations, and therefore I harboured a severe amount of shame about what I looked like. The reminders that, as a woman, I was supposed to transform into a superhuman, pornographically pruned version of myself were never-ending: there were comments from boys; girls talking about vulvas that protruded, referring to them as “hanging ham”; and a Channel 4 documentary about a woman going through surgery to get a “designer vagina”, her relative squealing when they saw what her original vulva looked like. This shame was something that I carried with me well into my early 20s.
Then I recall stumbling across The Great Wall of Vagina, the artwork by Jamie McCartney, which altered my thinking. I was beginning to witness a real celebration of the multitude of forms that vulvas could take. It wasn’t as though my attitude immediately changed. I did, however, begin to feel as though my increasing knowledge of feminism was somehow at odds with the discomfort I felt about my own body. How could I encourage other women to flip the discourse around “imperfections” when I was still battling with my own insecurities?
The anxiety I had developed around my vulva was heightened by the fact that I had not yet figured out who I was attracted to. I had gone through periods of feeling as though I was asexual, and, after multiple negative experiences with men, I remained as confused as before. Aside from being convinced that I had found the love of my life (a beautiful, cool girl) aged 16 and messing around a little bit, I was yet to be entirely intimate with another woman. I think I had psyched myself up so much because the teenage boys I had been with had seemed oblivious to my controlling tendencies to turn off lights, but I had gathered from the limited experiences that I had had, and conversations with friends, that intimacy with a woman would be very different.
It wasn’t until I was 22 that I spoke to one of my friends about my insecurities, and this was because she broached the topic first. She told me how she had always been insecure about the fact that her vulva wasn’t “perfect”. I was taken aback to hear her speak so honestly, and, very reservedly, I told her that I had experienced similar feelings.
I have not had a woman look at me and degrade me for what I look like. In fact the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive
This friend had always seemed to me to be entirely confident when it came to sex, but I suppose people may have thought that of me, too. I had become pretty strategic when it came to hiding my insecurities. She told me it had taken a sexual experience with another woman to make her realise that how she looked was completely normal. She told me that during her first time sleeping with another woman she had felt comfortable enough to relay her insecurity, and the woman did more than enough to reassure her otherwise, and that was a turning point for me, too.
It was a combination of things that changed my perception and ability to acknowledge that I was, and still am, beautiful as is. I’m fortunate enough now to be surrounded by women who choose their words more wisely than 14-year-olds. The internet has brought with it an understanding that women are powerful, and, although pornography is still damaging in promoting stereotypes, there is a colossal, positive community burgeoning alongside it. I have not had a woman look at me and degrade me for what I look like. In fact the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
What I have learnt is that language is extremely important, and I hope that we can socialise boys and girls into understanding that women’s bodies come in lots of shapes and sizes. This includes people who identify with a multitude of gender identities. If the young men in my life had been educated in understanding the implications of flippant comments, and were exposed to a broader spectrum of images, that would have made my journey easier.
Each and every one of us has a different relationship to our bodies, and that is okay. The judgment I placed on my vulva was not a signifier of a lack of feminist credentials. If there is one thing I know today it is that my vulva is phenomenal, and I wouldn’t want her any other way. – Guardian
Liv Little is editor-in-chief of Gal-Dem. This is an edited extract from Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies), curated by Scarlett Curtis and published by Penguin