Ask Ella: Is My Vagina Normal?
When was the last time you had a good long look at your vagina? While over half the population has female genitalia, it’s still something society doesn’t really like to talk about.
This is starting to change. On 19th February, Laura Dodsworth’s documentary 100 Vaginas aired on Channel 4. Through photographing this intimate body part and interviewing the owners afterwards, her film has opened up a conversation about all the different ways our vagina can impact our lives.
How Well Do You Know Your Vagina?
100 Vaginas also gave us the opportunity to look at a diverse range of fannys, which is something that doesn’t happen very often. Almost half of British women cannot correctly label the female reproductive organs, according to a study conducted by gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal in 2016. The same research found that 70% of those women could correctly label the penis.
Why is that? Hilde Atalanta, illustrator and creator of The Vulva Gallery, says that the female reproductive system is not given enough attention at school: “I hear the same thing over and over again,” Hilde says, “ I never learned anything about my own anatomy at school. In sexual health education class, we spoke about reproduction, STIs and about how not to get pregnant - but our anatomy didn’t receive any attention.”
The penis is easier to physically see, which could be why we are more familiar with it, but that doesn’t explain why people with vaginas often don’t feel comfortable about it:
“Many individuals with vulvas learn from a young age to hide their vulva, to not speak about it openly, and they aren’t encouraged at all to explore what there vulva looks and feels like,” says Hilde.
With such a lack of awareness about the female genitals, it’s not surprising that some people worry their muff isn’t normal. We spoke to two experts to find out whether there is such a thing as a ‘normal vagina’.
Is My Vagina Normal?
While we have been using the word ‘vagina’ to describe our external genitalia, that term is actually incorrect.
“Most people use the word vagina when referring to external and internal genitalia, but the external structure (including the labia majora, labia minora and clitoris) is actually called the vulva,” says Becky Lund-Harket, Sex and Relationships Educator at Sexplain.
Is My Vulva Normal?
If you only see vulvas in porn, you may be worried that yours doesn’t look like that. Maybe one of your vaginal lips is longer than the other, or perhaps your clitoris is larger than you think it should be.
“While some people's vulva will have protruding labia minora (also known as inner lips) others will have vulvas with hidden labia minora. The labia minora vary in shape, size and are often asymmetrical,” says Becky, “mainstream porn often show very small vulvas with hidden labia minor.”
“This is often because the actresses have had cosmetic surgery called 'labiaplasty',” she continues, “which can involve cutting away the labia minora. This can leave someone with lessened sensitivity.”
Is there such a thing as a normal vulva? “Nope, the ‘normal’ vulva doesn’t exist” says Hilde, “there are so many different variations in shapes and sizes, as many as there are faces and no two vulvas are exactly alike. All vulvas are part of a wonderful diversity in shapes and colours, and they are all equally amazing.”
We know the clitoris is a lot of fun - it’s only function is literally just to make you feel good - but how much do you really know about it?
“The clitoris has roughly 8,000 nerves ending in the glans clitoris alone and is the only part of the human body which sole purpose is pleasure,” says Becky, “and it is actually much larger than just the external head (or glans), but most of it is internal.”
Where is the vagina?
If the vagina isn’t part of the vulva, where is it? “The entrance of the vagina is part of the vulva, but the vagina itself is not,” says Hilde, “the vagina is one part of the internal genitalia; it’s the passage between the vulva, the cervix, and the womb, although it’s important to keep in mind that not all of us with a vulva and vagina have a uterus.”
Think of the vagina as a tunnel, or passageway, where tampons and penises can go in and babies can come out.
The myth of the loose vagina
Despite the untrue and frankly harmful myth that women who have had a lot of sex have looser vaginas than those who have had less sex, the vaginal tunnel will widen naturally when you are aroused (or if it needs to push out a baby). If a woman feels ‘tight’ during sex, she probably isn’t that turned on.
“The vagina changes in size and shape during arousal. It gets more relaxed and wider, allowing the vagina to become longer . This is called ‘vaginal tenting’ and it is your body readying for intercourse,” says Becky.
Get To Know Your Vulva
It’s important to know what your vulva looks and feels like, both in terms of your own pleasure and also so you can quickly identify any changes which may need to be checked out by a medical professional.
How can you get to know your own vulva? “An easy way to find out what your vulva looks like is to take a look using a hand mirror,” says Hilde, “ Not only can it be very enlightening to see it and get to know all its parts, but knowing your vulva is also very useful as you’ll be able to observe possible changes throughout your life.”
“You can explore your vulva with your eyes and fingers to get to know its shape, and even smell your own scent,” she continues, “this way you will be aware if anything changes: sudden skin discolouration or moles, lumps or a change in the smell or structure of your discharge.”
If you are experiencing any discomfort on or around your vulva, it’s best to get a doctors opinion. “Mildly swollen vaginal lips (labia) is often caused by severe thrush (candida / yeast) infection or sometimes allergic reaction to sanitary products or even fabric softener,” says Pradnya Pisal, consultant gynaecologist at London Gynaecology, “if there is itching and unusual discharge, it is more likely to be thrush. If there is more redness, it may be allergic reaction.”
It’s not a sexy subject, but you should also get familiar with your vaginal discharge so you can keep an eye out for anything abnormal. “When it comes to vaginal discharge, everybody is different,” says Pradnya, “some women don’t have any, whilst others always have to wear a panty-liner. It can be there at certain times of the cycle or all the time.”
“One rule doesn’t fit all,” she continues, “you should consider seeing a doctor or gynaecologist if discharge changes in colour (yellow, green or even pinkish or red), if there is a strong odour associated with discharge, if it is a significant change from your ‘normal’ pattern or if it is associated with pelvic pain, itching or a change in temperature.”
Learn To Love Your Vulva
Whether you choose to call it your vulva, woowoo, fanny, floof, muff, minge or something far more creative, don’t be ashamed of your genitals. Your vulva is perfectly normal and it deserves respect.
At My Morning After, we want to encourage open and honest conversations about sex, bodies and contraception. We want to end the judgment, shame and embarrassment that society has put on female bodies. This is the same societal stigma that still surrounds the morning after pill: if the condom breaks, or you miss a pill, or you get caught up in the moment, you should be able to lessen your risk of unwanted pregnancy without others judging you for it.
If you agree, help us stamp out the stigma by joining the conversation. Share your own experience if you feel comfortable doing so, visit us on social media and share our articles. Together, we can change the narrative.
*the healthcare professionals in this article do not endorse any medicinal brands or products.