Are Vulvas Like Snowflakes?
A Tribute to Betty Dodson
Where is the vulva?
If someone with a vagina spreads their legs, you’ll see their vulva. Some people also call this area the vagina, but the vagina is the canal that exists inside the body. As readers, you get to call your body parts whatever feels right for you, but for the article, I’ll use vulva so we’re all on the same page.
Why does vulva diversity matter?
People with vulvas often grow up with shame around their labia and clitoris size, shape, and coloring. This shame can lead to low sexual self-esteem. It also fuels the majority of the thousands of annual labiaplasties. Labiaplasties generally decrease the size of labia minora (inner lips) so that they do not come out further than the labia majora (outer lips). These are mostly aesthetic/cosmetic surgeries, which, for some, have resulted in loss of sensation. While the choice to alter one’s body to feel more comfortable in one’s skin is personal, the societal pressure to fulfill an unrealistic aesthetic ideal is oppressive and harmful.
Who is Betty Dodson and why is this a tribute to her?
Back in the 1970s, Betty Dodson was known as the “Mother of Masturbation.” Driven by her own shame about her asymmetrical labia, she recruited several women in a room to compare vulvas. The women realized that most of the vulvas, unsurprisingly, didn’t look like the centerfolds of magazines. This gathering eventually became BodySex, a two-day experience in which I had the privilege of participating. In my own group, we had women and nonbinary folk with tucked vulvas, butterfly vulvas, constellation vulvas, short hair, dark hair, straight hair, no hair. I can only imagine the power in the room every time a new group of people realize they are both unique and completely normal all at once. As she transitions from life to death, this article honors her contribution to not only clitoral masturbation, but also body love and acceptance.
Some important parts of the vulva are the clitoral glans/head, the clitoral hood, vaginal opening, labia majora/outer lips, labia minora/inner lips and urethra. Check out the fun facts below to learn more about these parts and how they vary.
Fun Fact #1: The clitoris is between 4-7 inches long and shaped like a wishbone.
This might seem surprising if you’re used to thinking about the clitoris as the sexy button at the top of the inner labia, but that spot is actually the clitoral glans (think of it like the head/tip). If you add the glans, body, and roots, which make up the whole clitoris, you get your several inch pleasure masterpiece that is almost completely hidden within the body.
Variations: For some people, the clitoral glans is always sticking out from beneath the clitoral hood, excited to see the world. It can grow long and hard when erect. For others, the clitoris only pokes out when aroused and erect. For others still, it remains barely visible, even during arousal. Whatever the size and however much it sticks out, or hides within the clitoral hood, it’s your personal pleasure center and deserves love and appreciation. If you have experienced genital cutting and have limited sensitivity, you may be able to find a surgeon who is able to expose part of the internal clitoral anatomy to increase your pleasure.
Fun Fact #2: The labia minora (inner lips) often come out further than the labia majora (outer lips) and they also often come in different colors.
Variation: While porn has given many the impression that vulvas are symmetrical, pink, small mounds that are tucked away, this is not frequently the case. Vulvas come in all shapes and sizes. For some folks, the labia minora butterfly out from the labia majora. For others, they are tucked inside. For some, the left and right sides are symmetrical. For others, one side hangs lower than the other. Labia colors include browns, beiges, pinks, blacks, tans, purples, and pale skin tones and can vary between labia. They can also have skin tags, freckles, birthmarks, and moles.
Fun Fact #3: The vulva has two holes.
The vaginal opening is the larger of two. It’s an area that can be penetrated, where blood leaves the body for people who menstruate, and where babies come out of during natural childbirth. This is also where lubrication comes from when aroused. It’s also the area that produces varying levels of discharge during menstrual cycles. The urethra is a small hole above the vaginal opening. It’s where urine comes out, as well as ejaculatory fluid if you squirt (just like penises). Despite anatomical illustrations depicting the vagina as a gaping hole, it is often closed until the labia/lips are pulled apart to reveal the area and stretch the opening.
Fun Fact #4: Hair comes in different colors, textures, and amounts.
There’s a fun image that compares pubic hair trends over the decades because ideas about what is popularly considered sexy is constantly shifting. As an adolescent, I was convinced that a naked vulva was the way to go. At some point, I let my hair grow back and realized that I love the aesthetics of looking like a nude painting with a small bush. It’s a very personal choice and one that shifts over time. In addition to how much, hair color and texture can vary widely. Not until the BodySex workshop did I realize that pubic hair could be straight because I had never seen it represented nor had a partner with straight pubes.
Fun Fact #5: A vagina should smell like a vagina, not a flower.
Concern about scent leads many to use products in an attempt to create “better” smelling genitalia. While it’s important to maintain good hygiene for the outer areas of the vulva, natal (born with) vaginas are self-cleaning. Therefore, it should not be cleaned with outside products—not even mild soap. For those with neo (constructed after birth) vaginas, douching recommendations by doctors should be followed to keep it healthy.
For those who menstruate, scent and scent intensity can vary at different points in the cycle (as can discharge color and texture). It’s important to recognize your own scent and discharge variations so you can distinguish between a healthy scent and infection scents. Otherwise, consider your scent part of your sex pheromones, which are intended to attract the people who enjoy your special smell.
Vulvas ARE Like Snowflakes
It’s time to spread the word. Vulvas have snowflake-like uniqueness and deserve to be celebrated in all their beautiful forms. Who do you know that could benefit from some vulva love?
Yael R. Rosenstock GonzalezSex Educator, Researcher, Author, Speaker
Yael has been engaged in workshop development and facilitation since she joined the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) as a teen peer reproductive rights educator at 15 years old. Since then, she has served as an educator with children ranging from 10 months old to adults in their 70s with different organizations and communities. In her work as first Program Coordinator, then Director of Programming, and finally Associate Director of the Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding, Yael developed and led events, workshops, and programs with an intersectionality lens.