Every day for the last year and a half, Hilde Atalanta has painted a picture of one vulva. At first, inspiration came from her imagination; then, from the internet; and, most recently, from women who send her photos of their goods.
For the Amsterdam-based illustrator who also paints full bodies and faces, vulvas are compelling portrait subjects. “You have some people who have big noses, some have small noses, but in all those standard sizes, you have a lot of these tiny differences in character—it’s the same with vulvas,” she says.
A vulva, by the way, is the name for the visible part of what most people just dub "vagina." It encompasses all the external parts of the female nether regions including the mons pubis (fatty patch perched atop your pubic bone), the labia (inner and outer lips framing the vaginal opening), the clitoris and its protective hood, and more.
Together, Atalanta's colourful sketches make up The Vulva Gallery, an Instagram phenomenon showcasing more than 550 vulva illustrations. Her gallery, she hopes, will help people celebrate their down-there diversity, whether or not they identify as women. “We seem to strive for some kind of normal or perfect, but normal doesn’t really exist, so every vulva is normal in its uniqueness,” she says.
So true. "Some are wrinkly, and some are really tout, and some sort of gape a little; some completely close up the entrance to the vagina, and all of that is variations of healthy and normal," says Lee Roosevelt, Ph.D., a midwife and clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing who just happens to see about 35 patients (and thus vulvas) per day.
Here's a sampling of some of Atalanta's awesome vulva illustrations, with expert commentary about what you're looking at, exactly. Full disclosure: After checking these out, you just may wind up deciding your vulva should be immortalized, too.
1. Bare down there
Researchers surveyed more than 3,000 U.S. women and found that 83.8 percent of them did at least some grooming, according to a 2016 JAMA Dermatology study. Young, white, and educated women, as well as women whose partners preferred it, were most likely to tend their gardens.
Perhaps that's why more women seem to be concerned about the size, shape, and colour of their vulvas these days. "If you've got a forest, you can't see the rocks," says Lauren Streicher, M.D., an ob-gyn in Chicago and the medical director of the Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause at Northwestern University Memorial Hospital, "and now everyone's looking."
2. Bold and bushy
Of course, not everyone's baring all. In her clinical practice, Roosevelt finds the bush is coming back. For some women, that's a good thing since it can mean avoiding shaving- and waxing-induced folliculitis (inflamed hair follicles), razor burn and other complications.
One study even found that the more frequently and completely folks groomed, the more likely they were to have STIs. (That may have to do with the little nicks hair removal can create in the skin, allowing bacteria and viruses to infect, but the study authors point out there's still no evidence that shaving causes the increased STI risk.)
While Roosevelt doesn't judge any grooming habits (or lack thereof), “the more we talk about vulva and its variations," she says, "the more accepting women are of their bodies and the more accepting they are of it in its natural state.”
3. Long and lovely
Do your labia minora hang low? Own it, advocates Atalanta, who started what turned into The Vulva Gallery after learning about the global rise in labiaplasties.
“Cutting away a body part that is so sensitive, a very important part of your erogenous zone, something so delicate, just because you are afraid that your partner might not like it really hit me,” she says. (She’s cool, by the way, with such surgeries for physical comfort or medical reasons.)
Women’s health experts concur: Labia minora that aren’t so, well, minor aren’t only totally normal; in Roosevelt’s words, “they’re these pretty little wings.”
4. The full mound-y
Roosevelt can make a good guess about a woman's BMI and age just based on the looks of her mons pubis—the patch beneath the pubes. "It may be rounder, it may be thinner, how far it extends down before the labia split varies," she says, but women with more body fat tend to have plumper patches.
Women who've gone through menopause, on the other hand, may find theirs slimming, thanks to hormonal changes. "After menopause, you lose fat in your external genitalia," Horton says. In Asia, fat grafting procedures to fluff that deflated pillow are trending, she adds.
5. Darker drapery
Vulvas don’t only differ in colour person by person, but they often sport various shades in and of themselves. One of the most common patterns? Inner lips that are a shade—or 50 shades—deeper than the outer lips.
“A lot of women complain that their labia minora are too dark—they’re picturing these teeny little pink things,” Streicher says. But darker inner lips are totally normal.
Attempting to bleach them (or any part of your vulva) is a bad idea, Horton says. "Creams and lasers can create harm," like burns or increased sensitivity, she says. And some can even cause more pigment to form.
6. The confident clitoris
This clit don't hide, and that's no big deal since the size and visibility of the clitoris varies as widely as the vulva's other parts, experts say. The clitoral hood can be large or small or in between, says Horton, who occasionally performs clitoral hood reduction surgeries.
"The hood is basically folds of drapery, and a lot of women feel like they have fold after fold after fold of skin there," she says. But none of that matters when it comes to pleasure, Roosevelt says.
Plus, most women’s clitorises look more or less the same during arousal, when it swells and emerges from under the hood. "There’s not sexual response difference in women who have a smaller clitoral hood," Roosevelt says.
7. Decorated down there
Whether the idea of a below-the-belt piercing arouses you or makes you cringe, “as long as they’re done by safe, experienced, clean piercers, there’s absolutely no risk,” says Roosevelt, who’s had patients who’ve loved their piercings, and others who’ve wanted them removed.
The key is understanding your anatomy. If, for example, your clitoral hood—the bit that’s often pierced—has always been fiercely protected by your labia, a jewel may be jarring, for better or worse. Some women, Roosevelt says, “don’t want their clitorises stimulated when they’re sitting in a meeting.”
As for this vulva owner: “I like how it shines and how it surprises everyone who sees it," she writes. "My vulva shines, I shine and this is an awesome feeling!”
Just like one boob is often bigger than the other, one side of the labia minora can be longer than the other. Nothing to worry about, experts say, although when both sides are super long, some women can experience issues like discomfort biking, embarrassment wearing yoga pants, or trouble peeing straight.
"There are some theoretical health concerns," of long or asymmetrical labia minora, says Karen Horton, M.D., a plastic surgeon in San Francisco who specializes in female cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, including labiaplasties. "But in the medical community, it’s normal and natural."
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health US.