What is your relationship like with your vagina? Are you proud of it? Feel embarrassed or ashamed of it? Not really understand it? How comfortable are you when it comes to talking about it? Talking about vaginas is often considered taboo. Just think of all the “cutesy” names we have for them instead of using the proper names! Today we are going to answer some common questions about vaginas and debunk some myths.
Vulva vs. vagina – what’s the difference?
First things first: what is your vagina and what is the vulva? Are they different?
The vagina is on the inside. It is the internal canal that connects the outside of your body to the uterus (womb). At the top of the vagina is the cervix which opens into the uterus.
The vulva is on the outside. It includes the labia and everything from the front where your pubic hair is (if you have it) right back to your anus. The labia are the folds of skin that are on either side of the vagina. They are sometimes called “flaps” or “lips”. They look different on everyone. Check out the Labia Library if you don’t believe me.
Let’s quickly go over what all the bits are called and where they are.
The clitoris sits at the “top” of the vulva (on a diagram, or the front if you were standing up). It is covered by the clitoral hood which is a fold of skin over the clitoris. The clitoris is actually much bigger than what you can see on the outside and extends internally, around either side of the vaginal opening. The diagram below shows the internal parts of the clitoris. The black lines over the top are the labia and the clitoral hood. This gives you an idea of how big the clitoris actually is. The clitoris is the most sensitive part of the vulva and contains over 15,000 nerve endings!
The urethra is the tube that joins the bladder to the outside world. It is where you urinate (wee) from and the opening sits just in front of (or above, on a diagram) the vaginal opening.
Labia majora and minora
The labia are the folds of skin around the vaginal opening. There are two sets of them – the labia majora (outer labia) and the labia minora (inner labia). The labia majora sit outside the labia minora. The labia minora sit between the vaginal opening and the labia minora. These folds of skin are important for protecting the vagina.
50% of women have labia minora that are longer than their labia majora. This is often what women are self-conscious about – so much so that there are increasing numbers of women having labiaplasties (operations to trim their labia minora and make them shorter).
The vagina is the internal canal between the outside and the uterus. The cervix is at the top of the vagina, where it opens into the uterus (womb). It is only the vaginal opening that is visible from the outside.
What should my vulva look like?
There are a lot of social pressures and expectations that relate to vulvas and vaginas – what they “should” look like, what they “should” smell like, how “tight” they should be. The porn industry has made a lot of women feel like there is something wrong with the way their body looks. These expectations can create a lot of anxiety which can undermine our confidence and self-esteem. This can have negative consequences for our health, our sex lives and our general relationship with our body.
As someone who worked in gynaecology, I have seen a lot of vulvas and vaginas as part of my job and I can tell you that everyone looks different. And it is all normal. Just like everyone’s eyes or hands, or face are different, everyone’s vulva is different too. As long as you are not experiencing pain, then you are normal and beautiful just the way you are. And if anyone has said something to make you feel there is something wrong with the way your vulva or vagina looks/smells/tastes then that is their problem, not yours!
Lydia Reeves is an artist based in the UK who makes casts of women’s vulvas and breasts. Check out her work if you want to see how different we all are.
Does my vagina get “loose” if I have sex with “too many” people?
This is a myth perpetuated by society’s expectations of women when it comes to their sexuality (and porn and gender inequality, but let’s not get started on that). What actually happens is, when you have sex (if you are in the mood) your vagina expands to make more space. It then shrinks down to its normal size again. Having babies can cause the vagina to stretch slightly, as can ageing, but not nearly as much as pop culture would have us believe.
What should my vagina smell like?
It is normal for the vulva/vagina to have its own smell. The smell might also change at different stages of your menstrual cycle. Some women find that their vulva smells a bit metallic when they have their period. Sometimes it might smell a bit like sweat which is normal. Just as everyone’s vulva looks different, everyone’s vulva smells different too! And that’s ok! The smell is a good sign, it means that the bacteria that live in your vagina are doing their job properly. The bacteria that live in your vagina are supposed to be there. They keep the area clean and healthy.
Keeping the vulva and vagina healthy
There are a lot of unhelpful myths about how your vulva/vagina needs to be cleaned. You should never wash inside your vagina. Your vagina cleans itself and does not need your help. The marketing companies that tell you it is necessary for you to wash inside your vagina are lying to you. They are also lying when they try to convince you that your vagina should smell like roses or some sort of perfume. If you wash inside your vagina you can actually create unpleasant smells by disrupting the bacteria that live there.
This is a good example of cosmetic companies and their marketing and how it can be harmful to women:
- They convince you your vagina should smell like roses
- They sell you products to wash inside the vagina
- This disrupts the bacteria in the vagina
- This can lead to unpleasant smells
- You think you aren’t cleaning well enough
- You “clean” your vagina more thoroughly
- The problem gets worse
It is a vicious cycle that we can stop by accepting that the way our vagina smells is the way it is meant to smell.
The vulva also doesn’t like hygiene products very much. Washing with plain water is the best way to keep your vulva healthy (yes those “feminine hygiene” products are, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, harmful).
This being said, if the smell changes or becomes particularly unpleasant it might be a sign of an infection and you should see a doctor. This article about vaginal discharge might also be helpful if you think you might have an infection.
Can a tampon get lost inside my body?
Well, it can get stuck in your vagina (if the string breaks for example) but it can’t move anywhere else in your body and “get lost”. The cervix sits at the top of the vagina and has a small opening in it that leads to the uterus (womb). This opening is too small for a tampon to fit through.
Tampons left behind can cause infections and often cause a bad smell. It is important to make sure you remove your tampon at the end of your period, however, sometimes it gets forgotten. If you have forgotten a tampon or you can’t get it out, see your doctor. It is easy for them to remove but difficult for you to get out by yourself.
Is vaginal discharge normal?
Discharge is normal. But if it has changed or you are worried then you can always check with your doctor. Check out this article for more information about vaginal discharge.
What is my hymen?
The hymen itself is not a myth. It is real but doesn’t really serve any function in the body. The myth about the hymen is that it can tell you if someone is a virgin or not – it can’t. The hymen is just a thin membrane that sits inside the entrance to the vagina. It usually partially covers the entrance in children but in some people, it completely covers it (this is called an imperforate hymen, and is usually noticed when girls don’t start getting their periods at the expected age).
The hymen can be torn or stretched during sex. However, this can also happen with exercise, using tampons or medical procedures. The state of a person’s hymen says nothing about whether or not they have had sex.
Do I need to remove my pubic hair to be “clean”?
What you do with your pubic hair is entirely up to you. There is nothing “dirty” about having hair on your vulva.
But I’m really worried about my vulva or vagina
If you’re worried that something is wrong – if you have itching/pain/irritation that won’t go away. Or if you have a new spot or lump that you haven’t noticed before then it is important to ask a doctor about it. Just because we are all different doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that warrant a doctor’s opinion. Ask your GP for help and if they think you should see a gynaecologist then they can refer you for an appointment.
It is also important to make sure you get cervical smears according to the guidelines of the country you live in.
For more information check out the Vagina Museum, if you are in London, or have a look at their website.
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