If you've never checked out your lady parts – that wouldn't be too unusual. A study from the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University says that only about only 26% of women have taken a close look. Additionally, another study found women with a positive view of their genitalia were more comfortable in their body, more like to be comfortable with sex and more likely to have orgasms – a plus if you ask me! Given that a lot of our parts are tucked under several layers, it does take a bit of curiosity – but once you do, you'll be amazed at how awesome your body really is! But don't worry – you don't have to do any peeking to learn more about your body if you're not ready for that step. Read on either way!
What's in a Name?
Let's start with our terminology.
Most women have a variety of terms for referring to our lady parts – one term when chatting with girlfriends, another for answering your kids’ questions, another for when you describe what’s going on ‘down there’ to your gynecologist, and yet another when it’s pleasure time with a partner.
Some women use a term from childhood, often colorful language: their “flower” (an iris seems to be a particularly popular choice), or “peach.” There are the common ‘polite’ terms like ‘down there,’ or ‘cool’ terms like “vajayjay,” “cooch,” or simply, “my box.” There’s also the more sexualized slang like pussy or muff, and of course, the raunchy or sometimes even insulting terms, more likely to be hurled at us than used by us.
Whether it’s a discussion about menstruation, vaginas, or sex, too many women learned at a young age to not speak about ‘certain things.’ So much so that most adult women actually do not know the correct anatomical names for all of their incredible body parts – or that some of their parts are even down there!
Some of you, like my grandmother who could never talk about lady parts, periods, or sex, might prefer to avoid talking about ‘down there’ altogether. But knowing your body parts- what they are, their names, and what they do when things are going right can be tremendously empowering- and can be life-saving when something is going wrong!
Not knowing the proper names for our anatomy can not only reinforce shame, it can also make it difficult for us to discuss important topics like menstruation, vaginal discharge and infections, sexual health, and possible lady part symptoms – even with our doctors! This can lead us to not get our health concerns properly addressed. I’ve had many patients over the past decades who had a diagnosis missed by a previous doctor because they were too uncomfortable to “use their words” or didn’t have the words to use and felt awkward bringing it up to their doctor – especially if that happened to be a man.
So let’s talk lady parts!
Wait, So My Vagina Isn’t Everything I Can See Down There?
A lot of women use the word vagina to refer to everything ‘south of the border.’ Bu that's incorrect. Your vagina is not everything that you’re able to see down there. Actually, your vagina is just one small part of what’s going on down there and it’s ‘hidden.’ What you see when you’re standing in front of the mirror naked – your external genitalia – is collectively called the vulva.
Some ancient cultures have worshipped the vulva as a symbol of sacred feminine power and the origin of life. In Hinduism, for example, the ‘yoni’ is represented as an inverted triangle, and is attributed to the female goddess of power, Shakti.
The vulva includes:
- The mons pubis, also erotically called the Mountain of Venus. This is the fleshy pad that you see about six inches, give or take, south of your belly button, when you're standing up and look down toward your feet. It’s covered in pubic hair unless you shave it.
- The labia majora, which literally means ‘outer lips,’ are exactly what they sound like, and create a protective covering for the sensitive parts beneath them.
You can see the above parts just standing in front of the mirror or sitting with your legs closed together and looking down. Both respond to stimulation, and moving them also stimulates the sensitive clitoris, which we'll talk more about in a minute.
Some women can see the inner lips like this as well, if they are more drapey and longer as some women's are. Other women will need to spread their legs a bit or even gently move the outer lips apart to see the labia minora.
- Labia minora means small lips. These are just inside the labia majora, and can either be hidden inside the outer lips, or may actually extend visibly below the outer labia. Contrary to their name, they are not always that small and are one of the parts that women (and teen young women) who have looked at their parts are most likely to think are ‘abnormal’ and even seek plastic surgery for! These lips have no hair, are pink and loaded with blood vessels and nerve endings, making them sensitive to touch and stimulation.
Each woman’s labia are remarkably unique – some are longer, some shorter, some thinner, some thicker, some more even, some more ‘ruffley.
These more fleshy structures I’ve just described do the job of protecting the structures ‘hidden’ behind them. These more hidden structures that are also part of the vulva include:
- Your clitoris, which is located just below where the outer labia meet at the top and is covered by a hood; it's about the size of a pencil eraser on the surface, but don't let that small hidden appearance mislead you. She's a sensation powerhouse that runs below the surface and has over 15,000 nerve endings! This is the only body part with the sole job of providing pleasure. It actually swells with pleasurable stimulation and it connects with all of the other structures in the genitals.
- The urethral opening, or your pee-hole – the little hole where urine is expelled – is located just below the clitoris and above the vaginal opening.
- The introitus, or vaginal opening is the next hole down, between your pee hole and anus; if you’ve used a tampon, that’s the hole it’s going into.
- Small secretory glands (named after people called Bartholin and Skene – what a legacy!) keep the whole area well lubricated and help fight infection.
Then Where is My Vagina?
The word vagina has an interesting origin – it’s Latin for “a sheath” as in the kind where you park a sword. I probably don’t have to spell that one out. So while it’s the anatomically correct term, it’s not my favorite word because of this etymology. I don’t think of my vagina as a sword holder! Though I do use that term medically so everyone knows what I’m talking about, at home I prefer the term yoni. But medically, vagina is it. It’s unlikely your gynecologist is gonna’ have a clue if you start talking about your yoni!
The vagina is a muscular tube varying in length of women from about 4 to 7 inches (think – the size of a tube of lip balm to a mascara) that starts at the introitus and ends in a cul-de-sac for the uterus (womb). It’s where tampons (and perhaps other things you use or enjoy) go into, and where menstrual blood and babies come out. Its does the seemingly miraculous job of going from a flat tube most of the time to one that can stretch to accommodate a baby’s head when it’s serving as the birth canal.
But don't let this “task oriented” description fool you. She's also made for pleasure. The first few inches of the vagina toward the outer end are also filled with hundreds of nerve endings, sensitive to movement and pressure. Then there's the G-spot – a cluster of nerves about 2 inches up inside the vagina on the front surface that's also super sensitive to stimulation, especially stroking and pressure (it is responsible for a deeper orgasm sensation than clitoral stimulation alone).
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At Your Cervix (and Uterus)
At the upper/inner end of the vagina, your body does this nice transition into a sort of cul-de-sac, in which you find the cervix, which is the lower end of the uterus. Imagine a balloon. The lower end that has that neck shape is very similar to the shape of the cervix, the hole for air similar to the opening of the cervix – or the “os,” and the balloon itself, the uterus. It’s all one continuous organ – it just has different names for each section. If for some reason you had your uterus removed (a hysterectomy), then at the end of the vagina you might still find your cervix if it was left in place, or the vagina simply ends a few inches up where it was surgically closed.
The cervix is fascinating. It actually changes height, shape, and quality quite a bit throughout the menstrual cycle. During the first half of the cycle – called the follicular phase – when estrogen levels are building up, the vagina and cervix are usually more lubricated, and the cervix is both higher up inside your vagina, and much softer – sort of the consistency of your lips when they are relaxed. During the second half of the cycle, following ovulation, the cervix descends slightly down lower the vagina (biologically designed for closer access by sperm for conception), and becomes firmer – more like the tip of your nose.
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Wanna’ Take a Peek? Be Your Own “Private” Eye!
Once, at a birth, as a woman was about to push her baby out, my midwife assistant said to the laboring mom, “Wow, you have a gorgeous vulva.” She said it as if she were admiring a perfect sunset. It was one of those statements that one just doesn’t expect to ever hear, and so earnest and kind, that the mom, who was between contractions, and I, both burst out laughing. And it was so true. She did have a beautiful vulva. But then again, midwives think all vulvas are particularly amazing.
If you’re adventurous, you might even want to have a look and feel what’s going on down there. It’s totally safe to, and you might be amazed at how really cool it all is! (If you’re not ready for this step, that’s totally okay!) Pour yourself a 1/2 glass of wine or make some tea, turn down the lights, light some candles, and grab a flashlight – the one on your smart phone will work just fine.
Make sure that you have privacy so you can relax. Kick off your shoes, hop up on your bed and have a hand mirror nearby. Or if you have a floor length mirror, create a cozy nest of pillows in front of it for your viewing ease. Optionally have a journal and pen to write down your feeling after.
Start with your legs closed and gradually open them – sitting up and leaning slightly back, while bringing your feet toward each other on the floor is the easiest position for best viewing and exploring.
Squatting works well, too. You can choose whether you want to have brighter or more dim lighting – the latter creates a softer, more artistic vibe – the former more of an exam feeling. Totally up to you. You can also do this in the shower if that feels more comfortable to you. Take as much time as you need or want to – 1 minute or a longer time to check things out.
If you’ve never seen a vulva – yours or any other – in my opinion, you’re in for a big treat. Because they are amazing.
If you’re even more adventurous, you can feel for your cervix. One of the most empowering steps for me in becoming a midwife was to learn to be comfortable with my own body, including learning to feel my cervix. It’s been a great gift that has allowed me to guide hundreds of women safely through birth because they too, learned to become more comfortable with their own bodies, and has allowed me to educate thousands of women during pelvic exams to love their bodies.
Finding your cervix is simple – but doesn’t always happen with certainty on the first try. All you have to do is insert your index finger into your vaginal opening and reach inward, following the path of the tube, until you feel a small almost donut-like structure, or small Life-Saver candy kind of shape, stopping you from reaching any further. It’s not always obvious at first, especially when it’s at the time of your cycle when it’s super soft and mushy – but if you look at pictures ahead of time, your brain will tell your fingers when you’ve found it. When it’s at its firmest, it’s often more obvious. You can use some oil or vaginal lubricant to make this more comfortable if you’re dry.
We Are Works of Art!
Vaginas and vulvas do not have one set appearance or size. There is a wide range of variation in shapes, sizes, and of course, skin colors, that can be perfectly normal and healthy. This awareness has been growing among women of all ages as body empowerment and self-knowledge becomes more and more popular and socially acceptable. There are now websites that offer complete galleries of pictures of vulvas, and even cervixes too!
The Labia Library is one such website that features pictures of vulvas from women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, from different angles. The website also contains anatomical drawings and information about reproductive health. There’s also the book I first learned from – A New View of a Woman’s Body – which contains great photos that show the wide variety of shapes of women’s lady parts.
Looking at galleries of vulvas one quickly realizes that the variation of what is normal is tremendous – colors ranging from dark red, brown to light pink, lots of hair to almost no hair, big thick labia that stick out to tiny labia that hide quietly. It’s all normal, and beautiful, and this awareness can go a long way to help women accept and embrace the uniqueness of their body.
When it Comes To Your Lady Parts, Knowledge is Power
Knowledge is power. Body literacy – knowing the correct names for all our body parts – has the power to bring us to greater self-acceptance and appreciation of our bodies, and can help to normalize this language – and with it, women’s sexual and reproductive health.
Of note, body-hating is a big deal, including not liking our vulvas. There has been a sharp rise in the popularity of genital cosmetic surgery in the last decade – including amongst teens who want this or that to look differently. These surgeries are expensive and carry serious risks.
Because real images and conversations about women’s bodies are mostly kept out of public discourse, many people never see what a vulva looks like, or if they do, it’s in pornography, which presents a very skewed, manicured appearance. This can lead to women feeling inadequate, or like their bodies need to be modified.
I hope that as we dismantle the taboos in this culture by encouraging a broader and more in-depth conversation about women’s bodies that we may be able to reverse this trend, and instill more self-love in women of all ages.
Herbenick, D. et al. Women’s Experiences With Genital Touching, Sexual Pleasure, and Orgasm: Results From a U.S. Probability Sample of Women Ages 18 to 94. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. Volume 44, 2018 – Issue 2