The labia minora are the thin folds of skin within the labia majora; they surround the vagina and urethral opening. Towards the front, they join with the prepuce, or clitoral hood, and towards the back, they fuse just before the fusion of the labia majora. During the development of the fetus, the labia minora develop out of the urethral folds; in the male, the urethral folds join together to form the urethra.

That's what the anatomy book says, anyway, but that doesn't get at the delicate beauty and surprising variability of this part of the female anatomy. As any porn hound or frequent cunnilinguist knows, women's inner lips come in a wide range of shapes and colors and sizes. There are big ones and small ones, thick ones and thin ones, orchids and jack-in-the-pulpits. No two--or perhaps I mean no four--look alike.

In fact, I've often suspected that men are, on average, more aware of this diversity than women are. Most women tend not to go in for cunnilingus or split beaver shots, and if they look at another woman in the shower or the gym, the details are usually partially concealed behind the outer lips and the pubic hair. Sure, they have access to their own nether regions, but a full view is visible only with some awkward finagling with a mirror or a digital camera.

Unfortunately, because of this unfamiliarity, many women are embarrassed and repulsed by this part of their body. Sex-advice magazines and websites field dozens of questions from women wondering if they're somehow abnormal, if guys are going to laugh. Teenage girls wonder if they have some sort of disease (the inner labia can grow quite a bit during puberty, which can be a shock). Some women even consider surgery (ouch).

These concerns are almost always unfounded. The advice columnists always give the same answer: "Check with a doctor if you're worried, or if it's causing you pain, but you're probably fine." As for the opinions of guys, I frankly think that the crude male sex drive is an advantage here--aside from the inevitable fetishists, most of us aren't going to have much of a problem with it as long as it's healthy and we can find everything. In her book Sex for One, Betty Dodson goes even further, describing her efforts to get women to realize the sheer beauty of the area between their legs (what she calls "being cunt-positive"). She invited a few of her friends to come over and display themselves for the camera. As the women posed, they began to feel better about themselves:

There were "oohs" and "ahhs" and other comments such as, "How beautiful," "Look at the pretty mother-of-pearl texture," and "What exquisite coloring." Occasionally there would be a spontaneous round of applause when a woman displayed herself artfully. We began to see designs, shapes, patterns, and made associations with nature: a shell, a flower, a fig, an orchid, and yes, even those dangling wattles (I now think chickens are sexy). I saw styles emerging: there was a Classical Cunt with symmetry, a Baroque style with complex folds and drapery, a Gothic Cunt with archways, and a Danish Modern with clean lines. There were many Valentine Cunts. When we realized the heart design was the shape of a woman's genitals when she held her outer vaginal lips open, St. Valentine's Day suddenly had a new meaning. (Dodson, 1996, pp. 60-61)

It's hard to describe the full range of appearances without pictures (Dodson's book has them and I recommend it if you want images without the lewdness of porn). But we can try.

First, there's the shape. When a woman is standing normally, the clitoral hood and inner labia may be virtually invisible, concealed behind the thick outer lips. In other women, they appear as a thin line, visible only as a faint ridge, and in still others, they're much thicker and more prominent than the labia majora. Along the same lines, the length varies tremendously--sometimes they're shorter than the outer lips, sometimes they're the same length, and sometimes they're longer, much longer, folding inward over themselves or outward over the outer labia. The two lips aren't necessarily the same length, either--many women have one side that's longer than the other.

The real beauty and variety, though, can only be appreciated when a woman spreads herself wide. Sometimes the inner lips appear as a thin ridge; other times, they're thick folds of skin. They can run nearly vertical, or can swing wide around the vaginal opening before fusing again at the bottom. Nor are the labia always of uniform length from top to bottom--many women have longer folds, like petals, somewhere along the way. They can run parallel to the outer labia, or chart their own course. The edges can be smooth or wrinkly. The clitoral hood may appear to be part and parcel of the inner labia, or it may poke out more, pointing in a different direction. Sometimes the hood is short, and the inner lips open right near the top of the outer labia; other times, the clitoral hood will extend further and the lips won't really begin till halfway down or more.

And then there's the color. A woman's inner labia can be a luscious watermelon red, especially if she's turned on. Or they can be hot pink, coral, light salmon, rose. Other times, the pinkness is blended with a touch of tan, producing a delicate rosy brown. In others, the color is wheat, cornsilk, or almond. Other women (of all races) have inner lips that are a rich, chocolate brown. The color is not necessarily uniform, either--for example, some women have lips that are peach or pink near the center, then darken to a deep brown at the edges.

The inner labia-and, for that matter, all of the female private parts are nothing to be ashamed of; on the contrary, they're beautiful and intriguing and enticing and alluring. For the most part, men understand this; I only wish most women did. Ladies, I can only echo the recommendation of the advice columnists: If you want, check with a doctor, but odds are nothing's wrong. And if I may make another suggestion--trust the guys on this one. We are, in a way, experts in the matter.


Note: A few people have asked me whether the labia minora turn dark brown or purple only after childbirth. The answer is no: some women have brown or purple labia minora even though they've never had kids. Can childbirth make pink labia turn darker? That's a different question, and I've been investigating it, but I haven't been able to find a clear answer. The color of the labia minora is supposedly related to blood flow and thereby vascularization. I'm assuming that decreased blood flow would lead to a browner color (I don't know about the purple). During childbirth, the labia minora have to stretch (obviously). It seems possible that stretching could damage blood vessels or perhaps decrease their density (if the same number of blood vessels are feeding an area that's now much larger). But that's pure speculation on my part--as I said, I haven't been able to find anything conclusive. Please /msg me if you can provide a source with more information.

Sources:

Vander, A. J., Sherman, J. H., Luciano, D. S. (1994). Human physiology: the mechanisms of body function, 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dodson, B. (1996). Sex for one. New York: Crown Publishers.

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