We need to talk
about vulvas

Several casts of different vulvas stand around on plinths, showcasing the natural variety of vulvas

Did you know that a quarter of people have negative feelings – including hatred, shame and disgust – towards their vulva? Or that 1 in 5 people aged 16-24 have considered cutting or bleaching their own vulva? We believe that if we spoke more openly about vulvas and the wide variety of what’s normal, these numbers would fall dramatically.

Too many people enter adulthood believing that there’s something wrong with their vulva. With textbooks and pornography showing a limited variety of so-called ‘perfect’ vulvas, it’s easy to conclude that all vulvas should look a certain way. But that’s simply not the case.

1 in 5

The number of people aged 16-24 that have considered cutting or bleaching their own vulva.

46%

Thanks to a lack of proper education, nearly half of 16-24 year olds don’t actually know what a vulva is.

33%

One third of the people we asked said they had never looked at their own vulva, and half that number had never seen anyone else’s.

There is no such thing as the perfect vulva. Just like our fingerprints, our vulvas are unique to us. One third (33%) of the people we asked said they had never looked at their own vulva, and half that number had never seen anyone else’s. Thanks to a lack of proper education, nearly half of 16-24 year olds (46%) don’t actually know what a vulva is. Many of us can’t label the basic anatomy of our own vulvas or explain the difference between a vulva and a vagina. It’s no surprise we feel so much confusion about our bodies. It’s time to educate ourselves on the true diversity of vulvas: only then can we dismantle the social taboos and shame we feel.

It’s time for some real #VulvaTalk
Here you’ll find a range of honest stories, told by a group of amazing people who have opened up about their relationships with their own vulvas. Each person is accompanied by a cast of their vulva, to help illustrate how different everyone’s anatomy can be, and they’ve also shared the essential advice they wish they’d known sooner. A series of in-depth guides cover topics from how to know and love your vulva more, to what to expect when transitioning on testosterone. You’ll also find a range of educational resources to share with young people in the classroom or at home, and a pledge you can sign to show your support for honest and accurate #VulvaTalk.

Whether it’s for ourselves, our partner or our children, we need to talk about vulvas. Are you with us?

1 in 5

The number of people aged 16-24 that have considered cutting or bleaching their own vulva.

46%

Thanks to a lack of proper education, nearly half of 16-24 year olds don’t actually know what a vulva is.

33%

One third of the people we asked said they had never looked at their own vulva, and half that number had never seen anyone else’s.

Textbook vs reality

Here’s the problem…

Textbook
An illustration of a light-skinned, even vulva with no pubic hair

A light-skinned, even vulva with no pubic hair. It’s no wonder that nearly 40% of people aged 16-35 wish they had a symmetrical vulva, when we grow up seeing images like this in textbooks at school. While some people’s vulvas might look a bit like this, most do not. The more variety we see, the less we worry that something’s wrong with us.

Reality

A variety of vulvas of different shapes, sizes and colours. In reality, there is no single ‘type’ of vulva. Our labia might be bigger, smaller or asymmetrical. They can be wrinkly, smooth, frilly or straight. Our skin might be darker or lighter, and we might have lots of pubic hair or very little. All these things are normal.

First person stories

Lydia Reeves

Artist Lydia Reeves sits surrounded by a few of the 200 vulva casts she’s created in
                            collaboration with their owners. Lydia’s body is painted to match the casts.
Artist Lydia Reeves sits surrounded by a few of the 200 vulva casts she’s created in
                            collaboration with their owners. Lydia’s body is painted to match the casts.

Artist Lydia Reeves sits surrounded by a few of the 200 vulva casts she’s created in collaboration with their owners. Lydia’s body is painted to match the casts.

Lydia Reeves is a body casting artist from Brighton. Her teenage years were shadowed by a secret fear that there was something wrong with her vulva. But thanks to art, honest conversations and her trust in her mum, she’s been able to turn her deepest shame into her life’s work.

Lydia’s advice.

I used to wish so badly that my vulva looked a certain way, the same way that I thought every vulva was ‘meant’ to look. But now I’m so aware of how different we all are, and how much beauty comes from our differences, I would never change her now.

The only thing we ever really need to change is how we see ourselves.

We are all so unique, and so beautiful just the way we are, and one day our eyes will see what everyone else has always seen. The only thing we ever really need to change is how we see ourselves.

The only thing we ever really need to change is how we see ourselves.

Vic Jouvert

Vic sits with a cast of his vulva, staring into the camera. His left hand is painted gold to match the cast it rests on.

Vic sits with a cast of his vulva, staring into the camera. His left hand is painted
                            gold to
                            match the cast it rests on.

Vic is a nonbinary trans man from London. His vulva has changed during his transition on testosterone, taking him on a journey from trepidation to a place where, ultimately, he loves the fact that his vulva doesn’t fit an either/or binary.

Vic’s advice

If you don’t have a partner or somebody you’re regularly sleeping with, I think learning to be comfortable with yourself first helps. You can build up confidence that way, before engaging with new people.

The way you think you’re going to feel about things is not necessarily the way you think about them when they happen. Nothing is how you think it’s going to be, so expect the unexpected.

Nothing is how you think it’s going to be, so expect the unexpected.

Vulvas are not meant to be the way they look in mainstream pornography, which is where lots of young people are seeing vulvas that aren’t their own for the first time. Any vulva-owning person will have one that looks different – no two are alike.

It was a bit of a process to be comfortable with being ‘in between’. The idea that I’ll always be in this ‘other’ category. But actually there are no categories; everybody’s body is so different.

Read Vic’s full guide to vulvas on T

Nothing is how you think it’s going to be, so expect the unexpected.

Poppy Jay

Poppy and Rubina sit together with their casts. Parts of their body are painted blue to match
                            their casts.

Rubina Pabani

Poppy and Rubina sit together with their casts. Parts of their body are painted blue to match their casts.

Poppy co-hosts the podcast Brown Girls Do it Too with Rubina. She grew up in a Bengali community where girls had fewer freedoms than boys and she came to hate her vagina for holding her back. Thanks to conversations with Rubina, some self-reflection and a dose of Gen-Z body-positivity, Poppy is learning to like her vulva.

Poppy’s advice

Look your vagina in the eye! Don’t be scared of it. Don’t think it’s going to stop you from anything. Only you will stop you from doing the things you want to achieve. It’s easy to be 15 or 20 and have a chorus of voices saying “You can’t do this,” or “You’re not meant to do that,” and to feel trapped by it. But really – this sounds so cheesy – it lies in you. Life is to have fun and if a global pandemic hasn’t proved that, what will? Seize those moments. As Cher would say, “Carpe diem!”

If you believe in yourself – and you believe in your vulva – the sky’s the limit.

I think 35-year-old Poppy would tell 15-year-old Poppy that it’s really not that deep. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Love yourself. I know it’s easy to say when you’re 35 because when you’re 15 you just want to fit in. But if you have confidence and swag and you believe in yourself – and you believe in your vulva – the sky’s the limit, basically.

If you believe in yourself – and you believe in your vulva – the sky’s the limit.

Rubina co-hosts the podcast Brown Girls Do it Too with Poppy. She grew up a shy girl who was self-conscious about showing any flesh, and felt disconnected from her vulva. During adulthood she’s discovered the importance of self-pleasure and now advocates for everyone to connect their mind with their body.

Rubina’s advice

I definitely recommend masturbating – it can change your mood so quickly and you can also feel really empowered, because you can do that to yourself without anybody else at all. It’s a way of thinking about your mind, your body, your hands and all the parts that you use.

Masturbating is just one example of self-pleasure; it might be having a bath or going for a run. I also think body temperature is a really interesting one: cold baths, cold showers. You’re in charge of that. Everyone feels out of control of their body, but the stuff you can control is actually very simple. It’s touch, texture, temperature: they reset you.

It’s so freeing to see the things that other people think are sexy, and find yourself in them

Pornography has a lot to answer for. If you’re somebody who’s interested in pornography in any way, whether it’s watching videos or reading novels where people have sex, try and find the porn that represents you. It’s out there! For me, it was going back and looking through nudie Indian drawings from the 18th century of really beautiful, big-boobed women on Hindu temples. We have a narrow range of what we think beauty is but actually, it’s so freeing to see the things that other people think are sexy, and find yourself in them. If you’re just on that same stream that everybody else is, you’ll never find the thing that’s yours.

It’s so freeing to see the things that other people think are sexy, and find yourself in them

The real deal

Breaking the mould

All vulvas are different and there is no ‘normal’ way for a vulva to look. By creating vulva casts to sit alongside the stories of our contributors, we wanted to show that every experience is different and not one vulva is the same. Many people have complex relationships with their vulvas and the act of casting your own vulva – even to those who feel confident about theirs – can be unnerving. For some, their experiences and emotions surrounding their vulva are so difficult and negative that we have kept their stories anonymous, under an alias name.

Self-acceptance

Catriona Lygate
Catriona Lygate

Cat is from Scotland and currently lives in Berlin, where she runs sexual empowerment platform Ungirl. For years Cat felt her vulva was only there to give men pleasure during sex, and not something she owned herself. After rebuilding her relationship with her body, Cat can firmly say she loves her vulva and makes sure to look at herself in the mirror regularly.

Cat’s advice

Just know that it will get easier. It’s OK if the first time – or the tenth time – you look at yourself, you feel a bit strange. It’s just about patience. It’s been a journey of ten years for me – that’s quite a long time.

It’s harsh, but cut out anybody who makes you feel bad about your body. We all need to have a higher standard for what we accept.

Try to surround yourself with positive influences. Follow vulva accounts and start to see the diversity of vulvas as a beautiful expression of nature, because that’s what it is.

Don’t look at porn for body examples. I think it’s unrealistic to say just cut it out – for some people that might work, but for others it won’t. But fill your life with positive representation too.

Last, just try to spend time with your body, whether that’s your vulva or other parts of yourself. Start seeing your body as a relationship that you take seriously in your life and that you prioritise. Care for your body and start to acknowledge the things it does for you.

If you’re a heterosexual man reading this, try to watch more realistic porn. Know that porn is fantasy, it’s not real life. Educate yourself about feminism and body acceptance. Follow accounts like Ungirl and others. You’ve got a lot of unlearning to do as well! It’s challenging but we’ll all be happier when we normalise vulvas.

I see it as like a relationship: you’re not always going to be madly in love, but if you want to maintain the relationship, you make an effort. Not everything’s perfect all the time – but that’s ok.

Read Cat’s full guide on how to love your vulva

Disability

Ginny
Ginny

Ginny’s relationship with her vulva was deeply affected when she contracted genital warts – she swore off sex for over a year-and-a-half, and wasn’t able to look at her vulva. Ginny has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which means she has weak and stretchy skin, and she soon realised that shaving was leaving her with tears in her vulva. Through her disability Ginny now feels more connected with her vulva.

Ginny’s advice

Looking at my vulva regularly has helped me build a positive relationship with it.

I found online sex-positive communities really informative and helpful to find out things I couldn’t access anywhere else.

I’ve drawn pictures and even written a dedicated poem to Tina, my vulva, and I’ve done lots of great things because I now feel quite spiritually connected to it.

Sexuality

EC
EC

EC is bisexual and found that their sexuality was part of their drive to explore their vulva more. EC planned to have labiaplasty when they turned 18 but, after opening up to friends, realised they were not the only person to feel that way towards their vulva. Through art and social media EC was able to see a more diverse range of vulvas that they could relate to.

EC’s advice

Speaking to friends about my insecurity helped. There was a sense of community – not only feeling different, but also feeling this pressure to change together.

Following accounts that show a variety of vulvas was good for me to see how unique vulvas are – they’re all beautiful.

I started telling myself that I was beautiful. At first it was difficult and I felt silly, but then I started to believe it.

Vulvodynia

Mary
Mary

Mary suffers from vulvodynia, a chronic, persistent and unexplained pain in the vulva. For this reason, Mary was unable to take part in the casting process. It took a long time to receive a diagnosis but Mary has now learned to live with her vulvodynia. Before her diagnosis Mary felt neutral towards her vulva, but she now knows to listen to her body and focus on what it needs.

Mary’s advice

Vulvas still feel like a taboo subject and it's ingrained in us to feel uncomfortable talking about vulvas. It’s about opening up that conversation and normalising it, which is starting to happen.

Speaking to people made me get help. If you’ve got a niggle it's always worth speaking to someone, doing your research, and really just pushing to find that right person.

Labiaplasty

Steph
Steph

Steph always felt uncomfortable with her vulva growing up, and through her teenage years considered getting surgery when she turned 18. Steph felt alone in her shame for years, believing she wasn’t good enough because her vulva wasn’t ‘perfect’. Speaking to friends has allowed Steph to create a positive relationship with her vulva.

Steph’s advice

We should start talking about vulvas before we reach the age where we can access content online, to stop people feeling alone or like their vulva isn’t normal.

I’d look at my vulva and go through those uncomfortable emotions, touch myself and tell myself that there was nothing to be ashamed of. With time, I started to mean it.

Learning how other people feel about their own vulvas has really helped.

Thrush

Lily
Lily

Lily has felt very uncomfortable with her vulva since the age of 11; so much so that she almost cut it with nail scissors. Lily suffers from recurrent thrush, which made her feel even more bothered by her vulva. While she now feels more neutral and accepting of her vulva, Lily is still sometimes affected by difficult feelings.

Lily’s advice

Social media is a great place to see vulva artwork, drawings, and different vulvas.

Some influencers share a lot of information about vulvas, and you can learn a lot from those platforms and resources.

I genuinely thought I was the only person who had a vulva like this but remembering there are billions of different vulvas reminds you there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Guides

How to love your vulva

A guide by Ungirl for Callaly

How to love your Vulva

Vulva and vagina: which is which?

The vulva is one of the hardest-working and most wonderful parts of the body. It’s been misrepresented for a long time so many of us don’t understand the difference between the vulva and the vagina. The word vulva refers to:

  • The mons pubis
  • The labia minora and majora
  • The clitoris
  • The urethra
  • The Skene’s glands
  • The Bartholin’s glands
  • The opening to the vagina

The vagina is everything from the opening in the vulva up to the uterus, including the vaginal canal – basically, everything that’s inside the body.
It’s important to name the vulva correctly as it helps reduce the shame and taboo around talking about genitals.

The vulva is the gateway to the genitals

The vulva is responsible for sexual arousal, urination and protecting the sexual organs. This is why it’s so important to take care of our vulva and show it some love!

It’s working hardest during sexual activity; this is when many parts of the vulva come into function. During arousal, blood rushes to the clitoris and the labia, which changes the shape and size of the vulva. The clitoris will become harder and larger, and the Skene’s glands begin to produce lubrication.

The presence of the urethra means that not only does our vulva help us pee, it also means we have to take extra care to keep this area clean to avoid bladder infections. Tip: remember to pee after sex and masturbation.

I’m worried my vulva doesn’t look normal…

We’ve probably all worried whether our vulva looks normal at some point. This is a totally natural feeling and it’s a good question, because vulvas show an incredible level of diversity. From labia length to skin colour and texture, each one is uniquely beautiful. Think of vulvas as being like snowflakes: no two are completely alike!

The appearance of the vulva can change depending on oestrogen levels during puberty but, apart from a few rare conditions, the size, colour, texture and appearance of the vulva does not affect sexual function or ability.

So now we know there’s no ‘normal’ vulva, what features can we look out for as ‘regular’?

Let’s start with skin colour. The skin on the genitals acts a little differently from the skin on the rest of our body and it’s very common for this skin to look darker. This is because of hyperpigmentation, which starts in puberty and can increase with age. This is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s just another feature that makes your vulva special.

Labia vary A LOT! The labia can be longer, shorter, asymmetrical, frilly and curved, so they might look very different from others you’ve seen. The labia do a really important job of keeping your genitals safe so, no matter what they look like, they keep you healthy and help you experience pleasure.

Talking of pleasure, let’s move to the clitoris. The part of the clitoris we see outside the body is called the glans clitoris and the average size is 1-1.5cm but your mileage may vary. For some it can hide under the clitoral hood and only pop out during arousal, and for others it will pop out more.

So as you can see, there’s no ‘perfect’ vulva – just millions of perfectly unique ones!

How do I know if my vulva is healthy?

It’s so important to get to know your vulva. Because the vulva does such an important set of jobs, it also can be one of the indicators of illness or infection, so let’s look at what’s healthy and what’s not. Tip: make a habit of regularly checking your vulva so you know what’s normal for you.

First, let’s get one thing straight. Vulvas have a natural smell, produce discharge and lubrication, have pubic hair and can have moles, skin tags and darker skin than the rest of the body.

We need to normalise pubic hair. It serves a really important function, keeping your genitals safe and warm, which helps sexual function. It also transmits pheromones, meaning your partner might become more sexually aroused if you have pubes.

The smell of the vulva changes during your menstrual cycle and again during menopause. This is because discharge passes through the vaginal canal as the vagina cleans itself. You can often tell what stage of your cycle you’re at or whether you have an infection just by looking at and smelling your discharge.

What is healthy discharge?

Healthy discharge can be clear and thin, or thicker and white. It can change a little after your period as the old blood is removed. A natural smell is absolutely normal, and changes based on what you eat, when you last had a shower and where you’re at in your cycle. It’s also completely normal for the discharge to stain your underwear!

When should I visit the doctor?

If the discharge is green, foamy, grey or thick and cottage cheese like, or if the smell is very strong and foul, like fish or old meat, please visit a doctor.

How can I clean my vulva?

Luckily, your vulva is very easy to clean. The vagina needs nothing as it’s self-cleaning, and the vulva only needs water. Don’t be tempted by the scented intimate washes on the market; they’re unnecessary and can alter your natural, healthy pH.

If you notice a new spot, bump or cyst, a patch of skin changing colour or texture, or pain, burning or itching in your vulva and/or vagina, it’s always best to visit the doctor.

How can I have a better relationship with my vulva?

Your vulva is such a beautiful and important part of your body. It keeps you healthy and gives you pleasure. But it can be really hard to love your vulva when society puts so much body shame on us. Here are some easy tips to start building a beautiful relationship with your vulva:

  1. Stop looking at porn for sex and body education.
  2. Start following accounts like The Vulva Gallery, or buy their book. They showcase hundreds of drawings of people’s vulvas. Everyone looks different, but you quickly see that they are all beautiful.
  3. Have an honest look at yourself, with or without hair. It will be awkward at first, but often the fear we have in our minds is worse than the reality.
  4. Keep looking at your vulva – make a note to check yourself out once a week, for example. The more you see it, the more it becomes normal, trust me!
  5. Give yourself some love. That could be a vulva massage, a bit of solo-sex, or even a fun haircut for your pubes!
  6. Surround yourself with photos and artwork of vulvas. Honestly, the vulva is probably one of the most wonderful designs in nature. When you start seeing it as art, you can appreciate the uniqueness of each one.
  7. Turn your vulva into a literal piece of art. Draw your vulva or make a cast of it! Reclaim its beauty and be proud of it.
  8. Repeat these steps. Loving your vulva is an ongoing process and you might have days or weeks when you dislike it, but that’s okay. Just know that you and your body deserve love: that’s fundamental.

The T on Vulvas on T

An Inclusive Guide to Bottom Growth by Vic Jouvert for Callaly

@mrleomateusart

Before we begin
A note on terminology: each person should refer to their genitals using whatever words they feel comfortable with. For the sake of clarity I’ll be using common medical terms to describe vulvas, but these words might not resonate with everyone (they certainly don’t with me).

What is bottom growth?

Testosterone changes the look and feel of your vulva.

Bottom growth refers to the changes in the vulvas of assigned female at birth (AFAB) transgender and nonbinary people who take testosterone as a form of gender affirmative healthcare. The most visible change is in the clitoris, which can grow by 1-3 inches during the first three years on T. It’s usually one of the first changes that occurs within the first few weeks of starting testosterone, and for some that happens within a few days!

Any growth can be uncomfortable, but even more so in a body part charged with more than 8,000 sensitive nerve endings! Your clitoris will feel tight, itchy and maybe even a little painful at times. Wearing loose-fitting underwear can help. The heightened sensitivity will eventually fade away as your body adjusts and the rate of growth slows.

Your clitoris will start to look more like a small penis. This is because all genitals start out exactly the same until 12 weeks in utero – so a penis is actually just an enlarged clitoris! The clitoral hood will take on the appearance of a foreskin and the growth of the clit when aroused will become more evident (aka a boner). As well as the enlarged clitoris, the texture of the vulva might feel thicker, and the inner and outer labia might change shape to accommodate the growing clitoris. Every vulva is wonderfully unique, so bottom growth will look different from person to person.

How can I adjust to my new genitals?

Adjusting to your new anatomy is a process.

It can be a bit strange – and even full-on awkward – to have your genitals change as an adult. With the physical changes of bottom growth come new sensations, too. Experimenting with new genitalia might feel frightening at first but can open up a whole new realm of sexual possibilities; growth is also exciting!

Orgasms might change. It may feel like climax is more centralised around the clitoral growth, instead of a full body experience. This will differ individually but some changes should be expected. Taking testosterone can also lead to dryness and thinning of the vaginal lining. This can be treated with a topical oestrogen cream and navigated by using lots of lube.

Be patient with yourself while figuring out your new anatomy. If you had a preexisting blueprint of your likes and dislikes, you might have to return to the drawing board. There are a range of toys specifically designed for bottom growth, so give them a go and try out different touches – focus on feeling rather than memory, and explore what feels good and what doesn't.

The prospect of having genitals that might be perceived as ‘other’ can invoke a lot of internalised transphobia. We are indoctrinated into a cishet society, where we’re taught that genitals are meant to look a certain way. But genitals are unique from person to person and entirely ungendered! Vulvas are for everybody and can be referred to using whatever words work for you.

What should I know about getting intimate?

Communication is key.
Becoming comfortable with your new anatomy while on your own will give you a lot more confidence when being intimate with others. But it's also OK if you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing when you get back into bed with new people while parts of yourself still feel novel. Having a chat beforehand can be really useful, and communication throughout will make everyone feel listened to, leading to a better experience for everyone.

Start out by asking about the other person’s (or people’s) preferences, as this gives a good bridge into expressing uncertainty over what you like. Clear and consistent consent throughout is key. It’s OK to try something and not like it, then stop for a minute and try something else. We were fed false information about sexual interactions being mind-reading exercises. Asking questions and chatting about likes, dislikes and fantasies is super hot, and also creates a trusting, secure environment that ultimately leads to great sex.

Dos and Don’ts for the Cis:

Do:
  • Ask how to refer to our genitals, our likes and dislikes, and whether we want to keep any clothes on
  • Check in! (“Does this feel good?” “Can I do this?” “Do you like that?”)
Don’t:
  • Fetishize us. We’re not an experiment or something to try out. Trans bodies are no more or less sexual than cis bodies.
  • Assume that we enjoy certain sexual acts based on our anatomies.

How can I figure out what works for me – and tell others?

Gender dysphoria can kill the vibe, but it doesn’t have to.

Nothing ruins the mood quite like an unexpected and sudden onset of gender dysphoria. But there are ways to navigate around the distress that some trans and nonbinary individuals experience when there’s a disconnect between one’s gender identity and our physical biology.

Communicating how you want your body to be referred to and touched can be a really useful starting point for navigating dysphoria in a sexual context. For example if your hips make you dysphoric, it might not feel so great to have someone grabbing on to them. Also, the predetermined names for your genitals aren’t set in stone! A dick can be a clit, a clit can be a dick and a vagina can be a front hole. It’s your body and you make the rules about how it’s referred to.

It’s also OK to explain these things as you go along. By sharing what you’re comfortable and uncomfortable with, you’re opening the door for the other person(s) to do the same. That will lead to feelings of safety and trust, all of which adds up to a grand experience!

My tips for navigating gender dysphoria as a transmasc enby:
  • Wearing a binder or T-shirt
  • Realistic dildos with boxer short harnesses
  • Explaining how I want my body to be referred to (eg chest not breasts, dick not clit, hard not wet, etc)
  • Taking regular water, chat and cuddle breaks

Call it by its name

A guide to language and vulvas by The Two Sexologists for Callaly

Language and our body

Language is an important aspect of how we see, interpret and understand things.

Words can be hard, soft, playful or stiff. Language is always changing over time. We’re often unaware of the big influence language has on us, let alone how words affect how we view our own body and sexuality. The genitals and anything remotely connected with sex have dozens of nicknames in most languages. It’s actually quite strange that there are so many words for the vulva, yet not for another body part such as the shoulder.

Let’s go back in time, by about 50-70 years. Back in those days, sex was considered to be even less about pleasure and more about procreation. At that time, there was a lot of shame and fear surrounding sexuality and pleasure, because of culture and belief systems. Many people didn’t dare to talk openly about sexual pleasure and how much joy it could bring. When people did speak about sex, they often used unofficial and slang words. While culture varies enormously across the world (more on this later), many languages reflect this attitude towards sex.

In the UK we’re all familiar with phrases like ‘down below’ and ‘privates’. In the Netherlands labia are called ‘shame lips’ and pubic hair is called ‘shame hair’. The pelvic muscles are known as the ‘shame area’. WHAT?! Unfortunately, even though our society has generally become freer and more open-minded, these words still bring shame and fear.

When children are taught from an early age that they have ‘private parts’ or ‘shame lips’ instead of labia or a vulva, this makes them feel subconsciously ashamed of their vulva and everything around it. So let’s start by using the right names and stop hiding behind nicknames or shaming!

The vulva and all its names

Where does the word vulva actually come from?

Vulva is Latin for womb, and the term was first used around 1540. Terms were defined for the uterus and genitalia first, and later this was divided into external and internal genitalia. The vulva and vagina were given a new name in the 17th century, pudenda membra, which literally means ‘parts to be ashamed of’. This attitude was reflected in the medical world: when examining the vulva or vagina, the doctor never looked at what they were doing, relying only on touch. Ever since the vulva has existed in language, nicknames have been coined for it.

These slang terms are used all over the world. In English, ‘cunt’, ‘pussy’ and ‘fanny’ were already used to describe the vulva in the Middle Ages. In Nicaragua they use ‘bicho’ for vulva, which means bug or plague (HUH?!). In Argentina they appreciate the vulva a bit more, naming it after a dance or hat: ‘cachucha’. Vulvas are often described using animal names. In Spain, for example, they call the vulva ‘conejo’, which is a small rabbit. In France, they name it after a mussel. Fruits and other foods are also in high demand. In Serbia they name the vulva after pizza, and in El Salvador it takes its name from a tortilla filled with cheese: pupusa.

There are hundreds of nicknames around the world, but if you’re an English speaker there is only one accurate name for the external parts of the genitals: the vulva. The word ‘vagina’ describes the internal part (the birth canal).

How to talk about vulvas

Talking about sexuality, pleasure, vulvas and vaginas can be difficult …

… and that’s understandable. As we mentioned before, shame has taken centuries to create, meaning vulvas have been kept away from everyday conversations. But we can start to change this! Here are some tips to help you learn to talk about vulvas more easily, using the right words.

  1. Awareness is step one. Become aware of the incorrect words you’re using to describe vulvas or vaginas. Check which of those words make you feel shame or discomfort. If you’re not aware of how you’re speaking at the moment, you won’t be able to change anything.
  2. See if you can remember when you started to use these terms. You might realise you’ve been using them all your life and have simply become used to it. This insight might motivate you to start using the right terms, passing more accurate words on to future generations and your social circle.
  3. Write down the words you currently use, then note down the terms you want to use next to them. Read this list regularly so that you stay aware of your language. You could also discuss the words you use with friends, partners or family.
  4. Start to pay attention to the words that are used in the environment around you. Watch TV programmes more consciously and listen more carefully to the way your friends talk about sexuality and genitals.
  5. Speak to others, in a non-judgmental way, if they use shaming language for the vulva. Explain to them the impact these words can have on how you view yourself, sexuality and vulvas, and suggest more accurate, less damaging, alternatives.

The future of the vulva

We’re sure the future of the vulva is bright.

If we start using the right terms and learn to have conversations without shame, discomfort or fear, we believe the vulva will finally be released after decades of being put in the damn corner!

Share this guide with everyone around you. People with or without a vulva. People with or without a penis. People with or without a vagina. People who may or may not be sexually active. Everyone! Language has so much influence – that’s why by adjusting our language, we have the power to change so much.

Lots of Love,
Anne and Leila
The Two Sexologists
(De Seksuologen met Twee)

Ask the expert

FAQs with Dr Tania

It’s normal to worry sometimes. Here’s our resident gynaecologist Dr Tania to answer a few of your most frequently asked questions about vulvas.

What is my vulva supposed to look like?

The vulva is the outer lips which are visible on the outside. Everyone’s vulva looks different so there is no “normal” looking vulva. The inner and outer labia come in all different shapes, colours and sizes.

Is it normal to have one labia longer than the other?

The length of the labia varies greatly, and it is very common for one side to be longer than the other.

What colour should my vulva be?

The colour of vulvas varies greatly from person to person – it may be pink or more purple, or may be more red or brown. You may also find that your vulva is darker than the surrounding skin.

What kind of texture should my labia be?

The inner labia may be smooth to the touch but can also be frilly or wrinkly in texture. The outer labia are fleshier and have pubic hair.

I have a mole on my vulva, should I be worried?

Moles on the vulva are very common. However, if you notice a new mole or if it itches, then you should go and see your doctor.

My vulva gets painful sometimes, what should I do?

There are many reasons why the vulva may be painful. It may be that they are dry, or you have an infection, or a condition called vulvodynia. If the pain persists, or becomes a problem, then it is a good idea to see your doctor.

Are vulvas meant to smell?

It is actually the vagina which smells. It has its own unique scent, which reflects the bacteria which naturally live in the vagina and keep it clean (by producing normal healthy discharge), what you eat, the balance of your hormones, the clothes you wear, what you use to wash, and your hygiene. This smell is completely normal, but if it becomes unusually strong you should check with a doctor.

Thanks Dr Tania!

You’re welcome! I’m here to chat any time!

Make a change

One big problem, three simple solutions

01

Pledge to call a vulva a vulva, so the words we use are accurate instead of creating shame and confusion.

02

Create better educational content so that young people are aware of the huge diversity that exists among normal, healthy vulvas.

03

Promote accurate and diverse imagery of vulvas, helping to challenge the idea that symmetrical, hairless, ‘neat’ and/or pink vulvas are somehow more normal or preferable.

Pledge #1

Call a vulva a vulva

Vulva Talk sticker
Callaly sticker
'You say vagina, I say vulva' sticker
Vulva sticker

I pledge to call a vulva a vulva

*We’ll only email you about periods, bodies and things we think you’ll like. Strictly no spam. And absolutely no sharing your data with anyone else.

Supporters

Show all pledges
Pledge #2

Teach the truth about vulvas

Vulva Talk sticker
Callaly sticker
'Love your labia!' sticker
'Vulvapedia' book illustration sticker

Download the resources

Download our learning resources for parents and educators (or anyone who’s interested!)

Pledge #3

Show vulvas in all their diversity

Vulva Talk sticker
Callaly sticker
'Team innie' sticker
'Team outie' sticker

Get on board

Make your brand, school, publisher or organisation part of the solution. Contact us at vulvatalk@calla.ly to get involved.

Join us for a week of taboo busting

Monday 7 June at 6pm

Instagram live with Vic Jouvert and The Happy Vagina

Tuesday 8 June at 5pm

Instagram live with Callaly and Kama

Thursday 10 June at 6pm

Instagram live with Callaly and Ungirl

Friday 11 June

The Happy Vagina podcast episode with Poppy and Rubina

All month

We’ll be updating this page and our social channels with loads more vulva-related content, so stay tuned!

With special thanks

Catch Comms
Lydia Reeves
Vic Jouvert
Catriona Lygate
Poppy Jay
Rubina Pabani
Dr Tania Adib
Sexuologen Met Twee
Kama
The Happy Vagina
Rina Salee (illustration)
Leo Mateus (illustration)
Claire Harrison
(photography)
Carolina Mizrahi
(set design & art direction)

Do you want to show your own vulva some love? Get 30% off a box of organic cotton period products using code VULVATALK at checkout.

Each Callaly box sent out in June will contain a pack of snazzy, eco-friendly #VulvaTalk campaign stickers.

Yes please