Let’s start with the basics, because really and truly knowing the parts that make up your body is beyond valuable. Everyone has different shaped noses, varying shades of eye colour, non-symmetrical faces (the list goes on…), and our genitals are no different. All bodies are unique and beautiful. The best way to get to know yourself is with a hand mirror. Here are some examples of lovely, normal vulvas:
The vulva is the name to the external area of female genitals, including the clitoral hood and clitoris, labia minora (inner lips) and majora (outer lips), the urethra and the vaginal opening. Most people refer to their ‘vagina’ when they actually mean their vulva, as this is the external area of the female genitals. You may need to part the labia to reveal the inner features of the vulva:
The Mons Pubis is the spongy mound where your pubic hair grows at the top (unless you’ve removed it!)
Below this is the clitoral hood and clitoris. The bit of the clitoris that you can actually see is called the glans clitoris. The glans clitoris varies in size between individuals, all shapes and sizes are healthy and normal. The majority of the clitoris is largely internal and extends into the body and around the vagina. The clitoris has one job: sensation.
The outer and inner labia have the job of protecting your clitoris, urethra and vagina. The outer ‘lips’ are usually darker in colour and have pubic hair. The inner lips are smooth, hairless and more delicate skin. The size and shape of the labia vary greatly. It is completely normal for the inner labia to be completely hidden by the outer labia when the legs are together, and equally normal for them to still be visible. The labia are not necessarily symmetrical either. All variations are normal and beautiful!
The urethra is the tube connecting the bladder to the urinary meatus (the opening that can be seen) and allows urine to leave the body.
The vagina is the tubular muscle leading to your uterus. When nothing is inside the vagina its walls touch, it is not open like a tunnel! There are folds of stretchy muscle called rugae. These allow the vagina to stretch when something is inserted into the vagina (a finger, tampon/ menstrual cup, a penis, sex toy etc) or when a baby leaves the body during childbirth.
The vagina is able to self-lubricate and the lubrication comes from glands just inside the vagina called the Bartholins glands. Skene’s glands are nearer the urethral opening and form part of the tissue that swells during sexual arousal, which also includes the clitoris. It is thought that they are the gland responsible for female ejaculation.
The hymen – most people think they know what a hymen is…. it’s the membrane that breaks when you have sex right? That’s why a woman may bleed when she has penetrative sex for the first time. I definitely imagined the hymen as a ‘seal’ to my virginal vagina as a teenager… But this is all wrong! The hymen is indeed a thin membrane that surrounds the opening of the vagina. It actually has no function but is taken by many cultures as a significant marker of virginity. However, as with all other aspects of genitalia it varies greatly between women. Some women will have a thick, rigid hymen; others will have no hymen at all. The size and appearance of the hymen will not necessarily be altered by penetration but may become more flexible if stretched regularly. There is no way of definitively knowing a woman has had intercourse by examining her hymen and that is that.
If you have never looked at your vulva in the mirror I hope this has made it all seem a bit less scary or a more interesting prospect! If you know what is normal for you, you will feel confident in knowing when something isn’t right and seeking advice.