Think vaginas are ugly, stinky, and never-changing? Think again. (Photo: Yahoo)
If you’re a woman, you’ve got one. But how much do you really know about your vagina? We asked the experts to dispel the most common myths about your “down there” region.
Myth: Everything “down there” is the vagina.
Reality: The external part of the female sex organ is actually the vulva. As the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Tumblr explains: “The vagina is actually just the tube inside that runs from the uterus and cervix to the vaginal opening. The vulva, on the other hand, is the all-in-one term for the entire external shebang: clitoris, urethral opening (pee hole), inner and outer labia (lips), vaginal opening, perineum (taint), and anus. That’s it! Just a simple name for our outside genitals.”
Vanessa Cullins, MD, vice president of External Medical Affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, clarifies that the vagina itself is made of both muscle and elastic and runs from the vulva — the external female sex organ — to the cervix (the mouth of the uterus).
Myth: Your vagina stays the same throughout your life.
Reality: The vagina changes and evolves over a woman’s lifetime because of hormones. “Before puberty, little girls’ vaginas are very small because in actuality, nothing is meant to go into their vaginas. Their vaginas aren’t meant to expand and contract like a reproductive-age woman,” Cullins tells Yahoo Health. “When they go through puberty and start making estrogen, you have the ability for the vagina to stretch and elongate.”
Puberty isn’t the only time the vagina shifts gears as a result of hormones. “Once you lose the ability to produce estrogen — when you’re peri-menopausal or post-menopausal — there is reduced elasticity and reduced ability [for the vagina] to elongate, which can lead to pain during intercourse for older women,” Cullins adds.
Related: 6 Culprits of “Down There” Dryness
Myth: Vaginas are ugly!
Reality: “They’re not ugly!” insists Debby Herbenick, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Applied Health Sciences at Indiana University and author of “The Coregasm Workout.”
Herbenick explains that when it comes it vaginas, not only is there no such thing as ugly, they’re far from one-size-fits-all. “They come in so many different shapes and sizes and colors. I teach human sexuality at Indiana University and show students numerous drawings, diagrams, and photographs of female and male genitals and, once they see how diverse they are, they become more comfortable with their own bodies and more proud of what they’ve got,” Herbenick tells Yahoo Health. “This is important because feeling that vaginas are … ugly holds people back from so many pleasurable, intimate experiences.”
Myth: Vaginas are dirty!
Reality: “This couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Herbenick. “Vaginas are self-cleaning (like the eyes) — that’s what vaginal discharge, like tears and eye discharge, is for. It keeps women’s bodies clean.”
Adena Bargard, PhD, an assistant professor of nursing at Columbia University Medical Center and the director of the Women’s Health Subspecialty Program in the School of Nursing, echoes Herbenick’s sentiment. “The number one misconception regarding the vagina and vaginal health is that the vagina is dirty,” Bargard tells Yahoo Health. She adds that while many women think “that it needs to be cleaned with soap, deodorized, douched, etc., the use of products to clean the vagina itself [can] actually cause far more harm than good — by destroying the natural, balanced ecology of the vagina and contributing to recurrent yeast and bacterial infections.”
“One of the main reasons for women to not douche or use scented products is risk of causing an infection or inflammation — for most women, inflammation occurs outside on the vulva and is a contact dermatitis that is basically a skin inflammation,” Cullins adds. Douching can not only cause bacterial vaginosis, but, as Cullins points out, should you have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease (STD) like chlamydia, douching will only serve to push the disease bacteria further up into your vagina.
Myth: Vaginas stink.
Reality: “Every woman has her own scent and it should never be foul to her or her partner,” says Cullins. According to the Mayo Clinic, a woman’s vaginal odor can change throughout her menstrual cycle, and could even be more noticeable after sex; sweating can also lead to some vaginal odor. Ultimately, if your vaginal odor is not accompanied by other symptoms, then it’s probably not abnormal.
Plus, keep in mind that while you may feel self-conscious about your vaginal odor, chances are very low that other people (who aren’t having intimate contact with you) can smell it, according to a Planned Parenthood “Ask The Experts” column. “But in fact, most people really like the way their partners’ vaginas and vulvas smell. It’s the kind of smell that is an important part of what makes sex sexy for them,” the column says.
If you really are concerned that your vaginal odor is “bad,” then “that’s something that needs to be evaluated — and that starts with the woman herself in terms of determining whether [the smell] is coming from the vulva or the vagina,” Cullins advises. If you have a smell that’s concerning you, first take a bath or shower with a non-fragranced antibacterial soap, which will wash away any sweat or discharge that might be source of the problem. Then “take a whiff! Stick your finger in your vagina and smell the vaginal discharge,” Cullins says. “If it’s offensive to you, go to an OBGYN, nurse practitioner, or women’s health practitioner” for further testing.
Myth: Vaginas stay in one fixed shape.
Reality: Because it’s an organ, the vagina can change shape depending on various conditions and states. While most women know that the vagina stretches out during labor and delivery, it can also shape-shift during sex, and during periods of arousal. “There’s no real “normal-sized vagina — they vary in size just like penises vary in size,” says Cullins.
“The size of the vagina is going to be determined by genetics, whether you are before puberty, after puberty, before menopause, after menopause, whether you’ve had a vaginal birth,” Cullins adds, explaining that while there is no right or wrong size, one thing you shouldn’t be experiencing is pain. “If [a woman] is unable to insert a sex toy or … a tampon, or you or your partner are unable to insert a finger, that’s cause for concern,” Cullins says, “unless you’ve never been sexually active.”
Some women who have not been sexually active may still have their hymen — a thin, tissue that stretches across the opening of the vagina. (And many women have stretched or broken their hymen long before they become sexually active, thorugh everyday activities such as cycling, horseback riding, gymnastics, and even masturbation.)
“If you’re not sexually active and the hymen is still intact, it takes time for the vagina to learn to stretch to the size of a finger, a tampon, or a penis,” explains Cullins. “It takes time and practice” to learn to use tampons and for the vagina “to begin to be more flexible in its ability to expand in terms of width and length.”
Myth: Nothing should be coming out of it.
Reality: Not only do menstrual fluids — a.k.a. your period — come out through the vagina, other types of perfectly normal discharge do, too. It’s important to remember that the vagina isn’t like a faucet that gets turned on for your period and stays off the rest of the time.
“In my experience, the number one misconception about vaginal health is that vaginal discharge is unhealthy,” says Holly Sternberg, MD, an OBGYN with Atlanta Women’s Obstetrics & Gynecology. “Some vaginal discharge can be a sign of an infection, especially if it is accompanied by irritation, a foul odor, or strange color,” says Sternberg, “but most is quite normal and varies according to hormonal status.”
Cullins adds that should you be experiencing abnormal discharge, it’s important to be evaluated by a health care professional “who is familiar with external genitalia and internal genitalia of women.” In other words: You want to go to a women’s nurse practitioner or OBGYN, or visit a clinic (such as a Planned Parenthood clinic) staffed with women’s health care providers.
Myth: It should be hairless! It should have hair! I don’t even know anymore!
Reality: “You begin to get pubic hair as you begin to go through puberty,” explains Cullins. “It is very normal to have pubic hair all over the mons pubis.” Yes, you have a mons pubis, and it’s easy to identify. “It’s a triangular shape of fatty tissue that you can feel easily below your abdomen. When sitting or standing, it’s an area you can easily touch without having to spread your legs,” says Cullins.
Once puberty begins, “you start having hair on the mons pubis and labia majora, Cullins says. The labia majora are the big external lips on the outside of the vagina that are part of the vulva. Hair patterns differ from person to person — just like the hair on your head, genes not only determine your hair color, but the pattern in which your hair will grow. Some women will have pubic hair that extends to their inner thighs, while other women may have more (or less!) hair growing on the labia and mons pubis.
Another thing that differs from woman to woman: What she chooses to feel and do about her pubic hair. “Different people will feel like shaving or waxing during their lives, and at other times in their lives it doesn’t make a difference to them, and they won’t,” Cullins says. Meanwhile, other women will never feel the need to do anything about their pubic hair. What any individual chooses to do about her pubic hair is a totally personal — and strictly cosmetic — decision.
The only thing to keep in mind, though, is that “hair-bearing areas are potentially prone in some people to folliculitis [infection or inflammation of the hair follicles] or in-grown hair,” Cullins says. “So if you’re someone who is prone to folliculitis or in-grown hairs” on other parts of the body, then “you need to be careful with how you remove hair on the vulva.”
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