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What if a guy thinks my labia are gross?

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Lucy asks:

I've been worried recently due to my labia being different sizes and one being rather stretchy. They have also gone darker in colour. Is this normal, different, a medical problem? I have been searching on the internet for some help on whether this is normal or not. Most articles say size difference is normal but this doesn't make the situation any easier for me. Oral sex seems a worrying thought, what if the guy is like "What the hell is up with this... gross... it doesn't look normal to me!" Even when it happens I'm going to worry he's thinking it. There's no way to tell if mine looks normal or not, I can't exactly ask my friends...embarrassing or what!? Anyway, I would be forever grateful for a bit of a suggestion.

Heather Corinna replies:

A guy thinking that would be similar to someone from one culture looking at someone of another, who looks different or unfamililar, and presuming that because someone looks different from what they look like, or what they know or expect, that that person isn't normal.

Just as when that's the case with someone being xenophobic, such would be the case here: that'd be all about that person's limited perception or their expectations, not about you or your body at all. No matter what your genitals look like, and what kind of labia you have -- even if your labia looked like however you, yourself, idealize labia -- a person could potentially react that way.

It's normal for labia to be stretchy: if they were not, then when they got tugged around a bit, as often happens during certain sexual and other activities, they would tear and/or cause a lot of pain. It's normal for them to also be different sizes and shapes: when they form in utero from the genital folds, it's pretty free-flowing, especially since for everyone, they have the capacity to be labia or a penile shaft before fetal sex organ development determines which. Since that's not done by a machine that makes everyone the same, but happens organically, and then we also all have different levels of hormones, and all kinds of different physical development, we see a lot of variance. Any number of shades and hue variations are also normal, and it's normal for genital tissue, just like the rest of our skin, to change in shade with puberty or over time (though I'm willing to bet your shade really hasn't changed that much: it's pretty typical for us to find changes that are minor but perceived as major if we're self-conscious about something).

If you need verification that your labia are normal, one of the best people to ask is your gynecologist: after all, they look at labia all day, every day. They know full well how much vulval and labial appearance varies, and also know that nearly all women's labia are normal. Your GYN could tell you all about how much variation if you asked, and would likely be happy to talk to you about it. You're hardly the only person with this kind of concern, I assure you. if you haven't started seeing an OB/GYN yet for an annual exam, this is one great reason to get started with that.

But without even doing that, I can tell you that if you're not having any sort of pain or physical discomfort, and if you've never had a serious genital injury nor did your pediatrician ever have any concerns, then chances are exceptionally good your labia are within the range of healthy or "normal" variation. Understand that even the idea that they might not be is primarily a totally new idea which only gained any popularity once cosmetic surgeons figured out that there was a profit in women's insecurities and body image problems. In other words, like with many kinds of poor body image, poor vulval body image has become a cash cow for some folks.

While some women have genital surgeries because of differences that really are profound, issues causing them physical pain, or because they are getting sexual reassignment surgery due to extreme comfort with their gender identity and their bodies, most of those surgeries are entirely cosmetic. It is in the interest of cosmetic surgeons who work in fully elective surgeries (some do reconstructive work, which is different) to have any of us think our bodies are not normal and fine as-is. If so many people didn't have so many insecurities, the entire industry of cosmetic surgery wouldn't exist, and it makes those who work in it an awfully large chunk of change. Just as is the case with the diet industry, such is the case here. You've just got to be smarter and more confident than to let standards set by people or groups like this impact you: they financially benefit from you thinking that way, but it's you who pays the price.

This isn't just about cosmetic surgeons, either. In part because so much of the vulva is hidden from view, and in part because our cultures have made so much of the female body a big secret (save when it's used to sell something), a lot of people don't know what vulvas really look like. Unless you have had female-bodied sexual partners or have worked in women's sexual health, you probably haven't seen one up-close-and-personal save your own, and a young male partner may never have seen one at all.

Smart people don't tend to assume that something we have never seen before isn't normal the first time we see it, because we know -- when that's the case -- that we've no basis for comparison. Usually, when any of us sees something new and mysterious for the first time that we've interest in seeing, we're much more likely to think, "Whoah, cool," rather than "Eeew, gross." And in case you really need to know, when most men who sleep with women talk about their first experiences with female genitals outside the locker room (where there can be a lot of pressure to be dishonest), "Whoah, cool," is the usual response they describe having.

If and when you get to the point that you're giving someone oral sex, and have not been face to face with genitals before, might you think that they don't look like you expected, especially if your only expectation was based on what people say or pornography or your own imagination? Sure. Would that mean that something was wrong with that person's genitals? Nope: it'd just mean you had no real way of knowing what something really looked like until you actually had a look at it. Do you think that person should invest a lot of energy in worrying about you having that reaction? I sure don't: after all, we can't control someone's expectations of something new to them.

And if and when a partner is giving you oral sex, I'd hope that well before then, you've established that they are someone you can trust, who has exhibited the kind of maturity someone ready for sex with a partner has and who you know treats you and your body with respect and care. If that's the case, there's nothing to worry about here. If that is NOT the case, then you have more to worry about with a partner without all that than what they're going to think about your labia. If none of that is the case, that's just not a person who it's wise to have any kind of sexual relationship with at all.

So, let this worry go. Really: it's only going to drag you down. If you're confident about your own body, and choosing partners well, it's all good. If you're not yet confident enough to be showing this part of your body or others to someone, you get to wait until you are. If you're not choosing partners you feel confident have the maturity needed for a healthy and enjoyable sexual relationship, you get to hold out for partners who do.

When you get to the point where you're ready to share your body with someone, it should be an experience that, even while it can be a little bit nerve-wracking at first, is ultimately something joyful for you that you feel good about with someone you feel safe with. That has far more to do with who that other person is, what they're like and what regard they hold you in, as well as your own confidence and acceptance of your body, than it does with what something looks like. Even people who by any given set of standards are "perfect," will sometimes be so convinced they're not -- and really, they aren't, we aren't: people are imperfect by design, because bodies are not factory-made -- and that something is so gross about them, that they'll miss out what would be an otherwise wonderful experience.

I'm going to leave you with a few links with some more information on your genitals, some additional advice to others in dealing with issues like this, and a strong, enthusiastic suggestion that you put any energy you're going to put into this into loving and accepting your awesome and unique body (which we all have) just as it is:

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