Body

The Vulva & The Vagina

#anatomy #discharge #selfdiscovery

So many of us have grown up without the education that is crucial to our understanding of our sexual bodies, discouraged from any form of exploration or conversation. As a result, we grow up feeling disconnected from that part of ourselves, which can stop us from fully expressing ourselves sexually, enjoying intimacy with a partner, and even diagnosing life-threatening conditions.

It's time you got to know your vulva and your vagina.

What You'll Learn

Body

A Guide to Your Vulva and Vagina

#vulva #vagina #selfdiscovery

So many of us have grown up without the education that is crucial to our understanding of our sexual bodies, discouraged from any form of exploration or conversation. As a result, we grow up feeling disconnected from that part of ourselves, which can stop us from fully expressing ourselves sexually, enjoying intimacy with a partner, and even diagnosing life-threatening conditions. It's time you got to know your vulva and your vagina.

What You'll Learn

  • Why you've been using the word "vagina" wrong
  • What your discharge is trying to tell you
  • All the issues you've ever Googled
  • Making peace with that part of your body
Disclaimer

This guide does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on this website.

Introduction

In case you’re wondering whether this guide is for you, or if there’s anything more for you to learn about your vulva and vagina, start by taking this quick quiz.
Have you ever: 
  • Used a nickname for your vulva or vagina as a child?
  • Struggled to use the scientifically correct names in your adulthood?
  • Been discouraged, reprimanded, or distracted by your parents when, as a child, you showed interest in your sexual organs?
  • Felt embarrassed to go see a gynecologist and ask the questions you really wanted answers for?
  • Felt like your vulva was abnormal/ugly/too dark/too dangly?
  • Felt nervous about a partner seeing you naked?

If you’ve answered yes to some of these questions, guess what? So have most of us! Our relationship with our body – and its most intimate parts – is highly influenced by our upbringing, our education, and our society.

Allow us to explain how.

These are just some of the words that women in the Middle East have grown up using to describe vulvas and vaginas. Guided by our parents, we attributed nicknames to our private parts, lumping them all together under one cute name. What did you call yours?

In addition to that and very often, if young girls showed any curiosity or interest in their vulvas, they were quickly reprimanded or distracted, and taught to ignore the whole universe existing just below their navel.

The absence of sexual education programs in most Arab countries contributes to this lack of familiarity and understanding, and most of us grew up without even the most basic of sexual and reproductive knowledge.  

The result? We grew up not knowing the correct names for our sexual and reproductive organs, what they look like, how to care for them, and how to tell when something is wrong.

As we grew older, we often found it difficult to stop using these names and to start using the scientifically correct words to describe the various parts that make up our outer female anatomy. Throughout our adult life, we carry with us this stigma around our bodies, passing it on to future generations.

Why does this matter?

Taught to shut off from it for so long, we grow up to be disconnected from that part of our bodies and ourselves, to the point where many of us are too embarrassed to even look at our most intimate parts. This lack of awareness and connection can have lasting negative consequences that impact everything from our body image to our understanding of intimacy to our ability to have children.

Did you know that the Arab World has some of the highest rates of vaginismus in the world — a condition whereby intercourse is excruciatingly painful for the woman as a result of fear and anxiety around sex and intimacy? Vaginismus is the leading cause of unconsummated marriages in the Middle East, which means that it directly impacts a couple’s ability to have children.  

At the most basic of levels, this lack of information, conversation, and education negatively impacts our ability to look after our own health. Indeed, if women are not familiar with what their normal, healthy vulva looks like, how will they know to look out for changes that could potentially be signs that something is wrong?

If women are not familiar with the different parts of their vulva, how can they clearly explain to a doctor or parent where and what hurts?

If women are not comfortable discussing their sexual organs, how can they freely seek the help they need from healthcare professionals?

It’s time you got to know your vulva and your vagina.

Meet Your Vulva and Vagina

The Vulva
This is the name given to a woman’s external genitalia.
The anatomy of the vulva.

The vulva includes the mons pubis (the mound of flesh on top of a woman's pubic bone), the clitoral hood and the clitoris underneath that, the inner and outer labia (also known as the labia minora and majora), the vestibule (the space between the inner labia), the urethral opening (which carries urine out of the body), and the opening to the vagina. This diagram can help you understand that better.

Fun Fact: Origins
Do you know what a vulva is called in Arabic? It's "farj", which literally translates to "opening" and has shared origins with the term meaning relief, release, comfort, pleasure, and relaxation.

At Mauj, we like to think of "farj" as an opening of the body, the mind, a new chapter, and your sexuality, just to name a few.

a. The Clitoris and Clitoral Hood

The clitoris is found at the uppermost part of the vulva, under what is called the clitoral hood. More accurately, however, that is the only visible part of the clitoris, also known as the glans, as most of it is hidden under the tissue of the vulva (refer to the next illustration to see what that looks like). Think of it more as an iceberg, with only a small portion peaking out. The glans, which is the most sensitive part of the clitoris with thousands of nerve endings, varies in size from person to person and can range from 0.5 to 3.5 centimeters.

We’ll be diving into the full anatomy of the clitoris, which incidentally was only discovered in 1969, in future guides.

b. The Labia

The labia come in two sets: the outer labia (or labia majora) and the inner labia (or labia minora). The outer sides of the outer labia are covered in regular skin and pubic hair, while the inner sides are covered in mucous membrane. The inner labia, on the other hand, are thinner and have no hair. In most cases, the inner labia are longer than the outer labia and often unsymmetrical, with one side longer than the other. Both the labia minora and the labia majora vary greatly in appearance from person to person.

These lips or flaps serve the important purpose of protecting your inner sexual organs.

c. The Urethral Opening

The urethral opening sits in front of the vaginal opening, within the inner labia. If you use a mirror to look at your vulva, it’s the first hole you will notice at the top of your vestibule. It connects through a tube called the urethra to the bladder to discharge urine outside the body. In other words, it’s where you pee from.

d. The Hymen

The hymen is a rim of tissue (thin skin) at the outer opening of the vagina. It usually has a doughnut or crescent shape with a large, central hole. However, this varies a lot, and sometimes hymens can have fringes or several holes or can consist of lobes. The most common forms of the hymen leaves enough space for blood to come out during a period and even to put a tampon in. Because of its partial tears and elasticity, the hymen can allow for the insertion of tampons or menstrual cups without necessarily causing major changes to its structure (this differs from person to person). Very rarely does the hymen cover the whole vagina.

In Arabic, it's called ghisha'a al-bikara, meaning the virgin membrane. "Ghisha'a" literally translates to a coating or covering layer, which connotes that the membrane is sealed, closing the opening of the vagina. Physiologically this is rarely the case, so the name just further perpetuates the notion that the hymen is something that can be teared open or broken.

Hymens are just as unique as you are. Just like vulvas come in different shapes and sizes, so do hymens. They look very different from vagina to vagina, and the shape, size, and flexibility of a hymen can change significantly across a woman’s lifespan due to changes in estrogen levels and physical activities. The elasticity of the hymen can also allow it to retain its shape even after penetrative activities, depending, again, on the person’s body. Therefore, the shape of the hymen is no indication of sexual activity.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

We have just described and illustrated the typical vulva. However, if you come from certain Arab countries, it’s possible that your vulva looks nothing like the one illustrated above as a result of female genital mutilation (FGM), which remains a part of many communities in Egypt, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and beyond. There are varying degrees of FGM, ranging from just a nip to the clitoris to the full removal of all external sexual organs.

The types of female genital mutilation (FGM).

If you suspect or know that you have been subjected to FGM, you are not alone, and there are resources and treatments that can help you overcome physical or psychological trauma.

Here are a few NGOs that will be able to assist you or point you in the right direction:

The Vagina
This is the muscular tube that extends from the vulva to the uterus.
It’s about 7 to 10 centimeters in length.
The anatomy of the female internal reproductive system.

The vagina’s walls, which are covered in mucous membrane, are squeezed against each other most of the time, but it expands when you’re aroused, both in terms of length and of width. If you were to feel inside using your finger, you would find that it feels bumpy or ridged.

The vagina has multiple functions. It is the passage through which menstrual blood is evacuated from the uterus and from which a child is born into the world. It is also the canal that receives the penis during intercourse and holds sperm until it has passed into the uterus.

In English, the word “vagina” finds its origins in the Latin word for “sheath”, which is the covering of a sword. In this case, the sword is the penis. Feminist groups have pointed out that this is etymologically problematic as it paints the female, once again, as a passive recipient of the male.

What Your Discharge Is Trying to Tell You

Your vagina secretes a liquid known as vaginal discharge, which is influenced by your hormones, meaning it’s different depending on where you are in your cycle. There is also a normal increase in the amount of discharge around mid-cycle.

Your discharge can tell you a lot about your vaginal health. To better understand it, here are four things you should look out for:

The types of discharge and what they mean.

Quick Tips to Keep Your Vulva and Vagina Healthy

Tip 01

Choose your lubricant carefully.

Certain ingredients found in commercial lubes can be harmful to the health of your vulva and vagina. Glycerin, for instance, can contribute to bacteria growth in the vagina, while parabens, scents, flavors, and dyes can cause irritation. Petroleum can also affect the delicate pH balance of your sexual organs.

Tip 02

Practice safe sex.

Use protection and get checked regularly for STIs.
Tip 03

Pee after sex.

The truth is that intercourse can increase your chances of having an infection because of micro tears in the vagina and urethra that can result from sex. These can accumulate bacteria and impurities, leading to infection. Peeing after sex washes the urethra of any bacteria or impurities, which can help prevent UTIs.

Tip 04

Wipe from the front to the back.

This will help stop the spread of bacteria from the anal area to your vulva and will reduce the chances of infections.

Tip 05

Wear breathable underwear and clothing.

Synthetic or non-breathable fabrics can cause an accumulation of moisture that promotes bacterial growth. Cotton underwear is ideal.

Tip 06

Do not use soaps to wash your vagina.

Your vagina is self-cleaning. Its mucous membrane and bacteria (also known as vaginal flora) keep it healthy and clean.

Tip 07

Don’t douche.

Douching actually eliminates some of that healthy bacteria, which changes the pH and makes you more susceptible to infections.

Your Most Googled Concerns

Disclaimer
This list is not intended to replace a visit to the doctor and a medical diagnosis.

However, it might help you narrow down what’s going on based on your symptoms and could help you better explain to your gynecologist what’s bothering you.
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
Yeast Infections
Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
Vulvar Cysts
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
Other Lumps and Bumps

The golden rule is this: If you’re worried about a symptom, listen to your body and go see a gynecologist.

Painful Sex
If you’re experiencing painful sex, there may be a number of reasons at play, ranging from the physical to the psychological. These could include STIs, endometriosis, or vaginismus. We’ll be diving deeper into this in future guides, and we recommend that you start by visiting a gynecologist to rule out any physical causes. If the root doesn’t seem to be physiological, a psychologist or sex therapist will be able to diagnose you.

Myth Busting

Because of the stigma, fear, and misinformation around the female body, a number of myths and misconceptions have made their way into our cultural discourse. We're here to bust them, once and for all.

Myth 01

Your vulva should look a certain way.

As women, we've been made to feel like something is wrong with our bodies by various industries, from plastic surgery to porn. The ideal vulva we see portrayed over and over again is one that is often without any pubic hair, or with a very neatly arranged strip of pubes, that has the complexion of a Hollywood star, and with inner labia that tuck perfectly inside the outer labia without protruding.

The truth of the matter is, however, that very, very few vulvas look like this, and that even fewer look like this without the help of photoshopping or expensive, potentially dangerous treatments.

On the hunt for this “ideal” vulva, women across the Middle East – and indeed across the world – are turning to female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) to achieve this ideal. Labiaplasty, surgery for reshaping or resizing the inner labia, is the fastest-growing type of plastic surgery in the world. In 2016, 45 percent more labiaplasty procedures were carried out than in 2015, according to data gathered by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

The reality is that no two bodies are alike and very few bodies look like the ideal we've been sold. It's the same case with our vulvas.

Some blossom outwards, some are symmetrical, and some are a bit darker. Indeed, it is entirely normal and common for your vulva to be darker in color than the skin in other parts of your body. There is nothing to be "fixed". Your vulva is beautiful, and we want you to take pride (and pleasure) in that.

Disclaimer
Unless you are experiencing pain or discomfort, it is likely that your vulva is completely normal. Physiological changes, pain, or a sudden lack of pleasure are all signs that something could be wrong and that you should see a doctor.

Myth 02

Your vagina is dirty.

As we explained earlier in this guide, your vagina is self-cleaning. This is the result of an incredibly delicate and precise ecosystem that stops harmful bacteria from spreading and uses discharge to carry dead skin cells out of your body and avoid infection. Trying to clean your vagina can actually cause a number of health issues.

Myth 03

Your vagina should be tight.

Women have been fed this myth that their vaginas should be tight, or that there is such a thing as a “loose” vagina to be avoided. As a result, a number of procedures like laser vaginal tightening have become available in many cities.

Sexual intercourse will not cause your vagina to “loosen”. Childbirth can cause it to lose some of its elasticity, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, it won’t be stretched out permanently and, with correct attention and care, will return to its original form.

This myth of the “loose vagina” is actually so harmful that it is often cited as one of the main causes for women electing to have a C-section over a natural birth. The Cesarean birth, like any other operation, carries with it a number of risks, but these moms-to-be would rather brave those than chance a loose vagina.

Similarly, we’ve been told by a number of leading OB-GYNs in the region about something called “the husband stitch”. If you’re not familiar with it, allow us to explain this to you: During natural childbirth, there is a chance of tearing that happens when the baby’s head is too big for the vaginal canal. The tears may happen naturally, or your doctor may choose to do something called an “episiotomy” and make small cuts to avoid bigger tears. These are totally common, and the doctor will normally just stitch up those cuts or tears as soon as the baby’s out. In some cases, however, patients or their families will ask for an additional stitch or two to be added to make the vaginal opening even smaller than it was before the delivery. This in no way serves to tighten the vagina itself, which naturally expands to deliver the baby, and there is evidence of it resulting in extremely painful sex for both partners.

Finally, it’s also natural for your vagina to change over the course of your life, and this is mostly attributed to age.

Myth 04

You can lose a tampon or object in your vagina.

The vagina is actually fully inclosed. It would be impossible to lose anything in your vagina or for an object, like a tampon, to migrate deeper into your body.

If you place your index finger inside your vagina, you’ll find that it can only go so far. You should be able to feel the top, or cervix, which acts as somewhat of a gatekeeper for your uterus.

Myth 05

Your hymen is a sign of virginity.

The hymen is not a sign of virginity. Given the variety in hymens, they simply cannot be used as proof of sexual activity.

It stretches, is incredibly elastic, and can tear naturally from activity or sports. In fact, many women won't have an intact hymen long before having sex.

In some cases, the elasticity of the hymen can allow it to retain its shape even after penetrative activities, depending, again, on the person’s body. Hymens can tear during sex or they might rip a bit to make room for the penis, but they can also be elastic enough to handle vaginal intercourse without sustaining any damage. So, in many cases, while sex may alter the appearance of the hymen, it won’t make it disappear.

There is simply no medical way to tell if someone has had sex by looking at their hymen.

Myth 06

Women bleed the first time they have sex.

The hymen has relatively few blood vessels that – even if torn – may not bleed significantly. Forced penetration and lack of lubrication may cause lacerations to the vaginal wall, which are most likely to be responsible for the “blood-stained bed sheets,” rather than trauma to the hymen. In fact, several studies have documented that bleeding is not routinely observed after a woman’s first sexual intercourse.

Try This at Home

A woman examining her vulva. Artwork by @lynne.on.paper.
Artwork by @lynne.on.paper

Have you ever used a mirror to see what your vulva looks like?

Some of us shy away from this because we’re worried about what we’ll see. Others shy away from this because they feel like they’re doing something wrong. Neither of these fears should keep us from discovering this part of ourselves.

Get to know your unique shape and color, and familiarize yourself with your most intimate parts. If you don't know what your vulva looks like when it's healthy, how will you be able to tell when there is something wrong?

Why you should look at your vulva:
  • Self-love: Observing and discovering your vulva with appreciation is more powerful than you think and can start to mend the connection between yourself and your body.
  • Acceptance: The media and porn expose us to a very limited range of vulvas, many of which are retouched or have undergone surgery to look the way they do. This exercise helps you accept your body by familiarizing yourself with how your own vulva looks.
  • Sexual confidence: A common insecurity around sex is what our vulva looks and smells like. You can begin to overcome that by spending some time looking at your vulva. This will help normalize it for you and can hopefully start to make you see it for the wonderful, magical landscape that it is.
  • Health: Do you know what a healthy vulva looks like? Do you know what your healthy vulva looks like? How would you notice a rash, a redness, or a lump if you didn’t look? Looking at your vulva is important for your health and can provide early warning signs that something is wrong.
  • Pleasure: Looking at your vulva and understanding its anatomy is key for expanding your understanding of pleasure. It will also help you communicate better in bed with a partner.

Sources

Jen Gunter, MD, The Vagina Bible, Citadel Press Books, 2019.

Lynn Enright, Vagina: A Re-Education, Allen & Unwin, 2019.

"Sexually Transmitted Infections," The World Health Organization,  June 14, 2019.

Susan York Morris, "Guide to Vaginal Lumps and Bumps," last updated on August 28, 2020.

"Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Cervical Cancer," The World Health Organization, November 11, 2020.

"The American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Cancer," the American Cancer Society, last revised November 2020.

Kathleen Davis, "Husband Stitch: Myths and Facts," June 23, 2020.

"Sexually Transmitted Infections," NHS, last updated on April 9, 2018.

Special thanks to Dr. Deemah Salem for her guidance and support.