If you’ve ever wondered if your labia minora (the inner lips) and labia majora (the outer lips) are normal, you’re not alone. We all occasionally wonder whether what’s under our clothes looks like what’s under other people’s clothes, especially when it comes to things like our nipples and vulvas.
“There’s so much misinformation and so many women feeling terrible about themselves and their genitals,” Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF.
Here’s why that’s so unfortunate: It’s exceedingly unlikely that your labia minora and labia majora are too long, too uneven, or abnormal in any other way. Here, ob/gyns explain why you can stop stressing about this frankly magical part of your body.
What exactly are the labia minora and labia majora?
First, a quick lesson on your parts. The vulva is the external genitalia, not to be confused with the vagina, which is the internal genitalia. “Labia majora are the large lips you see first if you look at yourself with a mirror,” says Dr. Hutcherson, who’s also the author of Pleasure. They usually have hair unless you shave or wax, and their main purpose is to protect all the fun stuff in between them: your inner lips, known as your labia minora, your clitoris, your urethra, and your vaginal opening. Those labia minora serve a similar protective purpose. The two sets of lips are basically like bouncers for your most vulnerable parts.
That’s not all they do, though. “They’re often ignored sexually, but for some women, those inner lips are as sensitive as the clitoris,” says Dr. Hutcherson. The outer ones also have a ton of nerve endings and can feel seriously good during sex. Basically, they’re fun and functional.
What should labia minora and labia majora look like?
Labia can come in a variety of shapes and colours. Sometimes they match and sometimes they don’t—whether we’re talking shape or colour. Your labia can be tiny and tight, long and loose, plump, thin, smooth, wrinkly, dark, light, or a couple different colours. The combinations are endless and pretty much all are “normal”.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen something I would say is an abnormal labia,” Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Yale Medical School, tells SELF. She’s been practicing for over 35 years, so she’s an excellent authority on the subject.
Most people are usually more concerned with the appearance of their labia minora, because they can be incredibly diverse and sometimes extend past the labia majora. Sometimes the inner labia stay tucked in, sometimes they stick out past the outer ones. Sometimes one side hangs a bit lower than the other.
Dr. Minkin says labia minora are generally between 1 and 2 inches long, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. Having labia that are longer or shorter than that doesn’t mean you’re abnormal. All that really matters is that they’re not causing you physical discomfort (like getting stuck in your clothes or getting in the way during sex).
Dr. Hutcherson says there’s this sense that labia minora are supposed to be pink, symmetrical, smooth instead of textured, and tucked away neatly between the labia majora. And, sure, labia that look that way are wonderful, but so are all the ones that don’t! “Long, luscious, fluffy labia are perfectly normal and beautiful,” says Dr. Hutcherson.
FYI: If you’d like to see how much labia can really vary, check out the NSFW Labia Library.
So why do people think their labia minora need to look a certain way?
Is the patriarchy too short and simple of an answer? Kidding…kind of. But really, it’s ridiculous that even labia are supposed to live up to certain conventional standards of beauty. There are a few potential reasons why that pressure exists. As opposed to people with penises, it’s often harder for people with vaginas to see how their vulvas compare to another person’s vulva, says Dr. Hutcherson. That makes it tougher to realize that there’s a huge variety out there, which can make you feel self conscious when you do catch a glimpse of one that doesn’t look exactly like your own.
But the rise in hair removal may also be involved. “Labia come in all shapes and sizes—they always have, always will, and are basically all normal—but today [some] young women wax their vulvas, so now they can see their labia,” says Dr. Minkin. If all your life you’ve absorbed the message that long labia are unacceptable, you might rightfully feel freaked out if the first time you get a good look, you realize you’ve got them.
Pornography could also have something to do with it, especially when it comes to hurtful comments from male partners. Dr. Hutcherson recalls one patient whose boyfriend told her she had “things hanging down there.” (Dude, you have balls, so???) “Pornography is how many young men get introduced to the way a woman looks, but women in pornography are chosen specifically for a certain type of [labial] look,” says Dr. Hutcherson. “When you think about it, if you’ve got very small labia, it’s much easier to see what’s going on.”
There’s also the fact that a lot of porn often isn’t racially diverse, so women of colour may feel extra self-conscious about the colour of their labia not necessarily matching what they see on screen. But, let’s be clear, labia come in all different colours and all are normal!
OK, but what if you just don’t like your labia?
Hey, not everyone loves every part of their body all the time, and that’s totally fine. So if you’re not thrilled with the look of your labia, that’s OK. But first, we’d urge you to consider why you don’t like it—is it because of external pressure to look a certain way? Is it because a partner said something that made you feel insecure? Before you look into ways to medically change your (probably already perfect) body, consider if this is something that you really want, or if it’s something you’re being told you should want.
In reality, there are very few medical reasons to have a labiaplasty, which is a surgery that shortens the length of the labia minora, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. This could be medically helpful for people who have labia minora that are long enough that they cause discomfort—like twisting and tugging when working out or having sex. But some people do choose to do it for aesthetic reasons.
What exactly does a labiaplasty procedure entail?
Often it would mean a surgeon reduces the labia minora so it stays inside the labia majora and doesn’t protrude out of it. Most women get the trim procedure which is when the extra tissue is trimmed and the raw edges are sewn up with dissolvable sutures, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The next most common type of labiaplasty is the wedge procedure, which maintains the edges of the labia and instead takes pie-shaped pieces of tissue from other parts of the labia. Recovery usually means a week off of work so you can reduce the pain and swelling with ice packs. After four to six weeks, most women can go back to using tampons and having sex.
Here’s what you should know if you’re considering labiaplasty.
It can be dismaying to feel like part of your body isn’t normal, but many experts advise against labiaplasty for looks alone. To be clear, some women’s lives are vastly improved by labiaplasty. Take the ice hockey player Dr. Minkin performed the surgery on because her labia kept getting caught in her underwear, making it uncomfortable to play her sport. But if you’re intrigued by labiaplasty solely for looks’ sake, the problem isn’t with your body, it’s with the false societal message telling you to get surgery in an area that most people won’t even see in the first place. Those who do should feel enormously excited, and basically fall in love with how individually beautiful your vulva is.
Also, undergoing surgery can be risky, with Dr. Hutcherson noting that complications like scarring, pain, uncomfortable intercourse, and decreased sexual pleasure can occur post-labiaplasty. And Dr. Minkin notes that there’s also the chance of infection. “You’re an inch away from the rectum, so there’s a bundle of bacteria down there. Why risk a significant infection for something that’s not medically indicated?”
With that said, if anything about your labia bothers you, you shouldn’t just ignore it. Whether your labia make you physically or emotionally uncomfortable, it’s worth checking in with your gynaecologist. If there’s a physical reason to consider labiaplasty, they can walk you through your options. And in the more likely result that there isn’t, they can reassure you that your parts are perfect just the way they are.