So that means if a person hasn’t seen a range of women’s genitals in real life there’s no way s/he is going to know what real women’s genitals look like. Everyone then starts to think all genitals should look like the airbrushed ones – which are really just frauds, and not half so interesting or useful as the real ones we think.

Family Planning Health – Australia, in response to a young girl who asked if her vagina was ‘all messed up’.

This is the post my 18 year old daughter will disown me for writing. Yesterday afternoon, she came flying in the door in a panic and announced to me “You have to come into my room right now and talk to me. This is VERY important.” I half-expected her to announce to me that she was pregnant and was preparing my ‘whatever decision you make, you know I love you’ speech when she stepped up onto her bed, yanked down her pants and panties, spread to show pink and demanded – in a very worried tone – “Is THIS normal??”

THIS, it turns out, was those tiny little bumps under the skin that are more prominent in some women than in others – sebaceous glands, the exact same glands that secrete oil in your face and sometimes get a little clogged up. THIS was a perfectly normal vulva – but it took me half an hour to reassure her of that, and even longer to find pictures of an un-retouched, un-airbrushed normal vagina so that I could show her. When I finally did find a picture it was on a site for a health clinic in the UK. All I could find on major US sites were drawings of female genitalia and photos of genital abnormalities. But that’s not what really bothered me about the whole thing. This is.

While I was looking for non-pornographic images of a normal human vagina what I did run into were literally dozens of posts from girls and women on various medical forums and discussion groups asking frantically for information about ‘these funny little white bumps on my vagina”. In most cases, the description made it pretty clear that they were talking about this exact same thing – a variation of normal.

The answers that they got were answers that would have sent me in a panic to my midwife – it could be herpes, it could be genital warts, it could be this rare condition, you’ll probably need a biopsy to determine what they are. Even the medical folks that chimed in never once mentioned that ‘there’s a very good chance that what you’re describing is perfectly normal”. The closest that anyone came to that reassurance was the statement that “It’s hard to tell if this is something serious without examining the bumps personally, but it’s probably not one of these horrible things.”

Update: This was precisely the kind of information I was looking for. Thanks, Scarleteen! This one goes on the bloglist for sure.

Now, I came of age in the first heyday of Our Bodies Our Selves. I’m part of a generation of feminists that advised women to learn about their bodies, to sit down with a mirror and examine our genitals so that we would know where to find all the various bits and pieces. I’ve always been open and honest with both my daughters and sons about their bodies and their sexuality. So… how come my kid is freaking out and certain that there is something horribly wrong?

I’d like to say it’s because all she (and her boyfriend, who caused the panic) have ever seen are airbrushed pictures of vaginas that make everything look smooth and silky, but I think it’s deeper than that. I think it’s because she lives in a society where most of the female images she sees are airbrushed and the only abnormalities allowed are those that fit some standard of attractive. Media images and expectations have taught girls to be massively insecure about their bodies in general, and when it comes to something as hidden as the vagina, they don’t even dare ask what’s normal and what’s not. And if they DO dare, finally, in a panic believing that there’s something wrong, they have a hard time finding straight, honest answers.

Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New EraI finally found something for my daughter to read at Our Bodies Our Selves but I had to go to a UK clinic site to find an unretouched picture of a normal vagina – and even there it was behind a link that said ‘some may find this picture offensive’ – all of the explicit images of genitalia were labeled that way, though, so at least it wasn’t a comment on the photo itself. The whole experience made me think seriously about the things I have not discussed with my daughter, and about the way that leaves her open to getting her messages about womanhood and femininity and sexuality and her body and her rights about people who are even less informed about them than she is – but seem to know and understand it all. I’ll be ordering her a copy of the newest edition of Our Bodies Our Selves, which helped me make sense of it all 30 years ago and dropping a bookmark to Scarleteen in her browser favorites, for those things that she just can’t bring herself to ask me about.


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