For guys, there is often a lot more openness when it comes to their external genitalia. Unfortunately for women, we too often hear the message that that area is private, or even dirty or shameful. And so, a lot of anxiety can exist when it comes to a female’s external genitalia. With so many things in life, we all want to be normal, look normal, and not have anything funny going on with us. It’s not uncommon for a teenage girl going to her first gynecologist appointment or a woman going to get a wax to think, “Is mine normal?” In fact, we often have ladies ask us this very question when they start seeing us in Pelvic PT.
So, when it comes to your private parts/lady parts/vagina/vajayjay/coochie/hoo-hoo/hoo-ha/flower, how well do you know yours?
Some women may look at their genitals regularly, while others would never dare to grab a mirror and look. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of your comfort level with looking at your own “vagina,” if it’s news to you that what is commonly referred to as the “vagina” is technically the vulva, keep reading!
So, when it comes to your private parts/lady parts/vagina/vajayjay/coochie/hoo-hoo/hoo-ha/flower, how well do you know yours? Some women may look at their genitals regularly, while others would never dare to grab a mirror and look. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of your comfort level with looking at your own “vagina,” if it’s news to you that what is commonly referred to as the “vagina” is technically the vulva, keep reading!
As Dr. Lindsey Doe illustrates in her YouTube video (you will never look at a hooded sweatshirt the same after watching) the vulva refers to the external female genitalia and can be thought of as the vagina’s neighborhood. So what all is in this neighborhood?
Mons pubis – the fat pad over the pubic bone that is normally covered in hair
Labia majora – the outer folds or “lips”
- Run from the mons pubis in the front to the perineum in the back
- Composed of thicker skin, fat, and connective tissue
- Normally covered in hair
Labia minora – the inner folds or “lips”
- Run from the fourchette (frenulum of the labia) in the back and then split at the front to form both the prepuce and the frenulum of the clitoris
- Composed of thin skin
- Not covered in hair
- Lots of variation in size, shape, and coloration (even in the same woman)
Clitoris – the main erectile tissue in the female (from the same embryological tissue as the penis)
- Plays a role in sexual function only
- Glans – the head of the clitoris (the clitoris has a body, and legs on either side, too, but they are internal); can vary in size and shape
- Prepuce – the “hood” of tissue that covers the glans to protect it; formed by the labia minora
Frenulum – where the labia minora meet at the front, right below the clitoris
External urethral meatus – the opening to the urethra which is the tube emptying your bladder
Vestibule – the area inside the labia minora (the “porch”), between Hart’s line and the hymen
Hart’s line – separates the labia minor from the vestibule; marked by a change in coloration (this is an imaginary line)
Glands (you won’t see these) – secrete fluids important for lubrication with intimacy; may become clogged
- Bartholin’s glands – inside the vestibule
- Skene’s glands – on either side of the urethral opening
Hymen – the mucosal tissue that partially or entirely covers the vaginal opening at birth; may be disrupted by various means (vaginal penetration whether through sexual intercourse, masturbation, use of a tampon; surgery; trauma; vigorous sports). Remnants of the hymen will vary significantly between women. Talli Rosenbaum, physical therapist and sex therapist, has a fantastic article about the hymen here.
Introitus – the opening to the vagina; normally closed when legs are not spread
Posterior Fourchette – where the labia minora meet in the back, behind the introitus
But while a cartoon can be a great way to visualize and learn anatomy, we are not cartoons! So if you’re worried that your labia are too big or that you have funny wrinkles somewhere, remember that your vulva is just like your face – everyone shares common features, but the details are different.
If you’re still worried, check out British artist Jamie McCartney’s installation “The Great Wall of Vagina.” He has cast hundreds of vulvas, and through art has made “the sexual nonsexual.” No two look the same. Included in the collection are several male-to-female and female-to-male transgendered individuals, but chances are you couldn’t pick them out because of the vast differences among all vulvas.
So don’t fret, your vulva is normal, just the way it is.
Note: Please know that this post is not meant to imply that ALL variations are normal. Knowing what your vulva looks like when it’s healthy can be helpful so that you can recognize any changes that may occur. Dermatological conditions and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may change the appearance of your vulva or cause pain, itchiness, or burning in this area. If you are concerned about a potential disease process, please consult your physician.
*For more resources on pelvic anatomy, check out this excellent post by our friend and colleague, Tracy Sher, on Pelvic Guru!
This guest post is written by Leigh Welsh, a third year Doctor of Physical Therapy student from Duke University, currently completing a 12-week rotation with Proaxis Therapy in Pelvic Health with Jessica Powley, PT, DPT, WCS. Leigh has been an excellent addition to our team, and we are confident that she will make a fantastic clinician.