In the past, we’ve discussed how there is no “normal” way for a vulva to look. Vaginas and vulvas come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, and it’s appearance can even change as you age. However, what happens when something really looks or feels wrong? There is so much stigma and fear surrounding reproductive healthcare, it can be difficult to ask for help.
As you’ve probably gathered from looking at our website, receiving our emails, or seeing our ads, we love using the word vagina. We say it loud, say it proud, and say it over and over again. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina, vagina, vagina! Why do we love using this word? Because being able to talk about vaginas as normally as we would talk about the weather can actually make a huge impact on our health.
65% of young women said they felt uncomfortable saying the words “vagina” or “vulva”.
According to a survey by women’s cancer research charity, The Eve Appeal, 65% of young women said they felt uncomfortable saying the words “vagina” or “vulva”. In a different study by the same organization, 34% of women said they would feel more comfortable going to their doctor about reproductive issues if gynecological health and sex were less stigmatized. Imagine feeling weird about seeking help for a broken leg because you were uncomfortable saying the word femur? It just doesn’t make sense! We talked with two women who needed medical help for gynecological issues to learn more about what it is like to seek healthcare for a stigmatized condition.
“I was always aware that there was something weird about my vagina,” Catherine*, a woman in her early 20s told us. “But when I got to college, something changed. After losing more than 40 pounds my freshman year and making yoga and exercise a part of my daily routine, my labia had grown… and not in a good way. In a way that hurt to walk, that became inflamed and burned at the end of an average day, in a way that literally required me to do physical rearrangement before I put on my clothes in the morning. It was no longer just a sight for sore eyes— it was a sight for sore everything.”
“I didn’t tell anyone. Instead I asked my mom if she could help me schedule an appointment with my OBGYN. I know it is my OB’s job to look at vaginas all day, and she had certainly seen mine before, but I felt so embarrassed to be acknowledging that there was something wrong. I asked her what she thought, and to my surprise she confirmed my suspicion that my misshapen labia was outside of the spectrum of normal. Every vagina is different, but even according to her, mine was indeed weird.”
“It took me 6 years to get up the courage to talk to someone.”
“It took me 6 years to get up the courage to talk to someone,” said Britney*, a woman in her late 20s. “I knew something was wrong with my vagina when I got my first period. I tried inserting a tampon, read the instructions over and over again, but there was just no place for it to go in. I was so confused and wanted help, but was too embarrassed to tell anyone. I thought my friends or a doctor would l think I was a complete idiot for not knowing how to put a tampon in.”
“After years of confusion, I finally got up the courage to tell a friend, and it was a huge relief. They were super supportive about my concerns, and even came with me to my doctor’s appointment. The doctor confirmed that there was an issue - tissue was almost completely covering the opening to my vagina. If I was ever going to be able to use a tampon, or have penetrative sex, the best option was surgery.”
For Catherine, her condition required surgery as well. “The doctor called my mom in to tell her the news, and I braced for the awkwardness as she informed my mother that my labia was severely misshapen. I was a candidate for a labiaplasty— a cosmetic surgery in which they would basically remove my inner labia entirely. Although this would normally cost thousands of dollars out of pocket, my doctor explained that she’d been recording notes about my misshapen labia for years. And because of that— I’d have a pretty good shot at having it covered by insurance. We scheduled my surgery for a few months later, and walking out of the office that day, I was floating on air. I wasn’t crazy— I was right.”
“The surgery itself was far better than I was expecting it to be. Since it was happening in the middle of the semester at school, I turned in my doctor’s note to get 5 days off from all my classes. I had to come up with some sort of cover for the fact that I couldn’t really walk, lift anything, or exercise for a month, so I told my professors and most of my peers that I was having hip surgery-- and it worked like a charm. Immediately after the surgery, I came home and laid on the couch for days on end, iced my labia with frozen peas for 5 hours a day, ate pho, watched Big Little Lies, and was treated like an actual princess for a week.”
“4 weeks after surgery, and with clearance from my doctor, I went skiing in Utah for spring break. Soon after I returned to my first love, yoga, and felt for the first time in years that I could move without any pain. It was an amazing feeling.”
“I found the surgery to be pretty scary - it was my first time using anesthesia,” Britney said. “But the healing process was quick and painless - the only weird part was I couldn’t stop queefing 😭. Because I had kept my condition a secret for so long, after the surgery I wanted to tell everyone! But people’s reactions weren’t always so open-minded. One guy told me I needed to stop talking about my vagina. He said it was gross and some things you should keep a secret. But I just wanted other people to know in case they were going through something similar.”
"For so long my concerns about my labia were cast aside and I felt crazy and horrible about myself."
Catherine also wanted to share her story: “Nearly all my friends and close coworkers know about my surgery. I don’t tell them in order to gloat or overshare or for any nefarious reason— I tell them in case they’re going through anything similar. For so long my concerns about my labia were cast aside and I felt crazy and horrible about myself.”
In the end, both women want to emphasize that there is nothing shameful about advocating for your health and talking with a medical professional. “As my mom and endless Cosmo articles told me— every vagina is different. But when ‘different’ stops you from living your life, talk to your doctor and buy some frozen peas, and if you’re like me— you won’t regret it.”
*names have been changed to protect privacy.