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Differences in labial appearance and sensitivity: is something wrong?

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C asks:

I am an 18 year old virgin, and I have been reading about labia on your website. I realize labia come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors, and many other girls have posted similar concerns. My labia minora are very asymmetrical (I know, normal) and different colors (I know, also normal). The one thing that concerns me is that the left side, the much larger side, is not sensitive, in fact, I can hardly feel anything towards the end of it. It protrudes beyond my labia majora, and I don't remember it always being that way. I think it became this way when I was thirteen, and then, it was very sensitive and would hurt if I wore my jeans to tight. Is this lack of sensitivity normal? Is there any way to regain sensitivity? near the base, where it is still more protected, it is still highly sensitive. My boyfriend of 8 months and I have recently begun to explore new physical territory, and he thinks I'm beautiful, but it's hard to enjoy the closeness if I'm self conscious about my body. Do you think I should see a gynecologist?

Heather Corinna replies:

A lot of people don't realize that there are changes to the vulva during puberty. The labia and clitoris so expand some, and in addition, because of the rest of your body growing and changes in your body composition, the mons of the vulva tends to pull back, which can result in the inner labia looking bigger -- and extending further outside the outer labia than they did in childhood -- because more of them can be exposed than were previously with the lifting of the mons.

The inner labia do have plenty of nerve endings, but it's normal for them not to have the same sensitivity on both sides or on every part of them.

And having inner labia which are different in shape, size and coloration is totally normal, as you've made clear you know.

In other words, nothing you're describing here is outside the range of what's considered normal.

By all means, since you're becoming sexually active and are also 18, you should be seeing a gynecologist regularly -- ideally, once a year -- anyway, for your yearly pelvic exams, pap smears and for STI screenings as you need them. That would also provide you the opportunity to have someone take a look at your vulva who has seen a gazillion of them, has a great idea of what's normal and common, and who could also help you be sure you've nothing to worry about. Just hearing from an expert who has seen your vulva up close and personal might also help improve your body image in this regard: sounds like you could use that.

Too, know that most young guys haven't seen a lot of vulvas: heck, most people who don't work in pornography or in women's sexual health haven't seen a lot of vulvas, even if they've had a lot of sexual partners. Those of us who work in in-person women's sexual health will see 10, 20, even 30 vulvas in just one day of work: that's more in a day than most people will see in a lifetime, and even that one busy day of looking at vulvas isn't enough to show us how variable vulvas can be. If you haven't seen a lot of penises, I bet you can figure out that you'd have a pretty hard time knowing what you would and would not think is normal, and knowing that you'd probably figure that whatever your boyfriend's penis looks like, you'd assume is the normal way for penises to look. That's likely what he's going to assume about your vulva: he's not likely to be as hypercritical as you are, since it's not his body, it's yours, and it also happens to be the body of someone he likes a lot. We tend to find the bodies of our partners beautiful MOSTLY because our partners inhabit them, not because they meet some ideal or general standard we have.

In terms of how you're feeling with your boyfriend, it might also help out to remember that guys have body image issues, too. If guys weren't often seriously insecure about their genital appearance, none of us would have to clear penis-enlargement spam out of our email boxes every day. We wouldn't hear about circumcised guys worried about what people would think of that, and uncircumcised guys worried about what others think about that. We wouldn't get guys at Scarleteen almost every day asking if their genitals were normal when it comes to size, shape, symmetry and general appearance. And often enough, those guys aren't asking because they're worried about what friends will think, but because they -- just like you -- are worried about what partners will think. As well, parts of the penis and male sexual anatomy aren't equally sensitive, nor do all the same spots have the same sensitivity for all men.

Point is, your boyfriend will probably understand worrying about what a partner will think about your genitals or your body. So, why not talk about this with him? Just voicing your worries, and hearing his responses, are likely to make you feel a lot better.

You might also find it helpful to visit this page of my friend Sarah's site: it has links to a bunch of different images of vulvas. (These images aren't intended to be pornography, but they are explicit, so for obvious reasons, you may want to be mindful of if you're in an appropriate environment when you visit those links.) For a lot of reasons -- the primary one being that most of our vulvas aren't easily visible by design: we can't walk by girls in a locker room and see their vulvas like guys can see penises -- most heterosexual girls haven't seen enough vulvas to get a real sense of how variable they are. It's obviously easier to stress out about the normalcy of your body when you don't have any real clue what kind of spectrum we're talking bout. Even these photos and illustrations are limited, in that they aren't the real deal, but even with those limitations, taking a look may be a comfort as well as mighty enlightening.

written 22 Feb 2008 . updated 22 Feb 2008

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