'Normal' Vulva Doesn't Exist, New Study Claims

A feminist protester wears underwear and little else in Kiev, Ukraine, in November 2009. A new study found that the size of women’s vulvas varied widely, disproving what a “normal” vagina should look like. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

A June study in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology found there's a "wide range" of what constitutes a "normal" vulva—and no two female genitalia are exactly alike.

In an analysis of more than 650 women ages 15 to 84, Swiss researchers measured various genitalia, including the clitoris, labia majora and labia minora, and found that vulval appearance differed significantly woman to woman. While the average labia minora, or inner labia, was about an inch long, lengths varied from one-tenth of an inch to more than 3 inches.

Labia length decreases as women age, lead author Anne Kreklau wrote. In vulvovaginal atrophy, the vulva and labia slim as estrogen levels dip during menopause, a process that affects more than half of menopausal women, according to a Mayo Clinic study. Labia minora also darken and can dry out with age, though neither signify an unhealthy vagina.

It's not the first study to assert female genitalia are unique: A 2004 study of women found sizes, colors and smoothness varied widely, though researchers noted women increasingly seek cosmetic surgery to change the appearance of their external genitals to fit what they believe is "normal."

"Although representations of female nudity are common, detailed accurate representations of female genitalia are rare," lead author Jillian Lloyd wrote. Through pornography, she said, "women and their sexual partners are increasingly exposed to idealized, highly selective images of the female genital anatomy."

The number of labiaplasties, or vaginal reshaping surgeries, shot up 200 percent since 2013, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported. While one cosmetic surgeon credited the uptick to a "sexual revolution," gynecologist Naomi Crouch told BBC that more than 200 underage girls received the procedure in 2015 and 2016, and the majority were under 15.

"Girls will sometimes come out with comments like, 'I just hate it, I just want it removed,'" she said. "And for a girl to feel that way about any part of her body—especially a part that's intimate—is very upsetting."

Women under 18 aren't recommended for the surgery unless they have painful abnormalities per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' guidelines, and underage labiaplasties performed for purely cosmetic purposes violate federal criminal law.