*First published in the Gratefull Company’s September 2021 Digital Newsletter
You have probably heard about body image – people’s attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions about their own body. But have you heard of genital self-image?
Genital self-image is the same sort of thing, but for your genitals. It’s how you think and feel about your genitals and how you perceive your genitals.
There are many factors that can impact genital self-image, but for many people with vulvas and vaginas, feedback from partners can be particularly impactful. As Dr. Jen Gunter said in the dedication of her book The Vagina Bible, “to every woman who has ever been told – usually by some dude – that she is too wet, too dry, too gross, too loose, too tight, too bloody, or too smelly” – many vulva and vagina owners have received negative feedback or comments about their genitals.
In addition to negative message from partners, unrealistic portrayals of genitals in pornography don’t help. Pornography often depict pink, hairless, symmetrical vulvas with small labia minora (inner lips) which are not the norm and do not represent the diversity of what most real genitals actually look like. On top of this, there are products available to “improve” vaginas, such as douching solutions, scented wipes, and even labiaplasty (cosmetic genital surgery) which imply that vaginas are dirty or smelly (not true!).
It’s no wonder that about 18% of cisgender women report some level of negative feelings toward their genitals1. Unfortunately, these negative feelings can be linked to lower sexual pleasure and lower sexual functioning2. This may be due to distractions and negative thoughts about one’s genitals during sex.
So how can you improve your genital self-image?
First, exposure to the diversity of vulvas can help! Check out the Vulva Gallery or the Great Wall of Vagina to explore and celebrate diversity in the appearance of vulvas. Second, a mindfulness practice can help you practice staying in the moment during sexual activity, paying attention to pleasurable sensations, your connection with your partner, and the erotic cues unfolding rather than distractions about what your genitals looks like.
1Fudge, M. C., & Byers, E. S. (2019). An exploration of the prevalence of global, categorical, and specific female genital dissatisfaction. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 26, 112-121.
2Vigil, K. E., de Jong, D. C., & Poovey, K. N. (2021). Roles of genital self-image, distraction, and anxiety in women’s sexual pleasure: A preregistered study. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 47, 325-340.