Gillian Anderson's Golden Globes gown was embroidered with vaginas. Ob-gyns say they're vulvas. What's the difference?

Gillian Anderson, on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, wears a Gabriela Hearst dress embroidered with vulvas.
Gillian Anderson wore a dress embroidered with vulvas at the 81st Golden Globe Awards. (Gilbert Flores/Golden Globes 2024 via Getty Images)
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Actress Gillian Anderson made headlines at the 81st Golden Globes on Jan. 7 with a Gabriela Hearst gown that had a unique and subtle detail embroidered on it — namely, a part of the female anatomy. Multiple media outlets — and even the Sex Education star herself — stated that the dress featured vaginas. The only problem? It was actually vulvas.

Dr. Jill Krapf addressed it in an Instagram post, writing: “The media will literally use ANY term except for vulva ... vagina, lady bits, female anatomy (not wrong).” The ob-gyn added: “If we really want to promote sexual education, we need to start with the basics. Why are we so uncomfortable using correct terms for female body parts?” (Krapf did not respond to Yahoo’s request for comment.)

Dr. Mary Claire Haver, also an ob-gyn, commented on the post: “I saw the headlines [and] rushed to see the photos and my first thought was, ‘That’s a vulva.’” Another gynecologist, Dr. Karen Tang, added: “Would you call a leg a foot? A penis a scrotum? Of course not! So we should also use the right terms for female anatomy!”

Why are people still confused about vulvas and vaginas? What’s the difference?

First, a quick anatomy lesson: The vulva is on the outside, while the vagina is on the inside. The vulva is made up of several visible parts, including the labia, clitoris, vaginal opening and the opening of the urethra (where urine comes out), according to Planned Parenthood. The vagina, on the other hand, is an internal, flexible, muscular tube that connects the vulva to the cervix (which is the lower part of the uterus), and it plays an important role in penetrative sex, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. But “vagina” is often used as a catchall phrase when talking about these parts of the female anatomy.

“The word ‘vagina’ has been consistently misused for years and years,” women’s health expert Dr. Jennifer Wider tells Yahoo Life. “There are many reasons why this is the case, from lack of full understanding, using nicknames, the reduction of all female anatomy to one thing, shame, etc.”

Dr. Shieva Ghofrany, an ob-gyn and founder of Tribe Called V, tells Yahoo Life that “lack of education coupled with media and products reiterating the wrong terminology” plays a role in why many people don’t know the difference between vaginas and vulvas or use the words interchangeably, along with the fact that “female sexuality and anatomy have been so confused for so long — there is no impetus to correct the terms.”

Why is it important to know the correct terms?

Women’s health experts say that getting it right matters for several reasons. “Accurately identifying our own anatomy just seems wise as humans for general health — i.e., if you tell your gyn your ‘vulva’ itches vs. your ‘vagina,’ then it may imply different issues,” Ghofrany explains. “And yes, patients mix this up all the time, which is why many of us as doctors hear a patient’s complaints and rather than make a diagnosis based only on what a patient reports, we ask very specific questions and often do an exam. In addition, there is data that children learning the accurate anatomy leads to lower rates of sexual abuse.”

Wider echoes that, saying it’s “very important” to use the correct terms when it comes to a woman’s anatomy, or any anatomy, for that matter. “The vagina is the muscular tube that connects the vaginal opening to the cervix,” she explains. “The vulva are external genitalia that encompasses the mons pubis, labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, vulva and vestibular bulbs, the Bartholin and Skene’s glands and the urethra and vaginal openings. The delineation is important for many reasons: Young girls should understand and know the parts of their bodies; it contributes to the lessening of shame; and if something is wrong, they can point it out accurately and safely — biology and proper language make a difference!”

Despite the anatomical confusion over the design on Anderson’s Golden Globes gown, experts agree that the actress wearing a dress like that still helps normalize using terms like “vulva” and “vagina.” “I think Anderson’s dress was empowering, can lessen the stigma and has triggered conversations like this one!” says Wider.

Ghofrany agrees, saying, “I think dresses like this or Gabriela Hearst’s ‘Ram-Ovaries’ sweater or the vulva needlepoint art I have on my wall are all subtle ways to help educate and normalize what we already discuss so openly in everyday movies, music, etc. So shouldn’t we actually teach and learn and use proper terminology as well?”