By Rachel Jacoby Zoldan. Photos: Stocksy.
Everyone is fascinated with vaginas—what they look like, how they smell, even how they change over time. Clearly, we have a lot of questions. And we really shouldn't! Knowledge is power, people. So we tapped a few top experts in the field to get the facts on things that might have been plaguing you, plus a few pieces of interesting trivia that may just blow your mind (or even help you orgasm). Get your notebooks out—things are about to get real interesting.
1. For starters, you're probably not even using the right word.
The vagina is actually just the muscular, elastic canal that extends from your cervix to your hymen, explain Anna Druet and Anne Högemann, research scientists at Clue, the period tracking app. "Many [use the term vagina colloquially] to encompass all parts of the female genitalia." Technically, the vulva is the term we should use to refer to the external female sex organs, including the clitoris, urethra, the labia majora and minora (outer and inner vaginal lips, respectively), and the pubis. (All the stuff you can see, in other words.)
2. Your clitoris is more like a penis than you realize.
"It has the prepuce, the glans and the frenulum, just like the penis," says Dr. Sharon Gerber, OB/GYN and Fellow in Family Planning at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. And the clitoris, while smaller in size than the penis, has twice as many nerve endings. Research indicates that the clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings while the penis has just 4,000, and has the highest concentration of nerve endings in the entire human body. Like most organs, size and shapes vary, but an average clitoris is less than one cm in length.
3. Your hymen is useless—it may even prevent normal development.
This is not a "purity" organ: After an embryo forms, the hymen develops, a thin fold of mucous membrane around the vaginal introits (AKA the opening to the vagina). If a hymen is imperforate, meaning not opened, or partially opened, young women may have regular hormone cycles but not menstruate. But it's totally fixable with minor surgery.
4. Your vagina may actually change in size and shape during arousal.
It's called "vaginal tenting," and is totally OK. The vagina averages around three to four inches in length, say Högemann and Druet, though it can be more or less. "But during arousal, it gets more relaxed and wider," they add. "The uterus is pulled upwards, which changes the position of the cervix, allowing the vagina to become longer," she adds, which ultimately is the readying of the body for intercourse. However, she notes that the inner two thirds of the vagina act differently from the outer third: only the inners lengthen.
5. Many women don't climax from vaginal penetration.
Research is mixed in this area, with studies reporting anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of heterosexual women usually or always climax from vaginal intercourse, according to Högemann and Druet. If you're not satisfied from vaginal penetration, experts suggest other ways of achieving orgasm. And your best chance at orgasming with vaginal penetration, says Druet, is adding clitoral stimulation—remember those nerve endings!
6. Your pubes actually have a purpose.
Before you make the shave (or go full-on with laser hair removal or waxing), know that pubic hair has a job. Specifically, it "serves as a protective barrier to genital tissues, particularly the sensitive vaginal opening. As well as providing a protective barrier, it also acts as a buffer against friction. Shaving can leave tiny—and easily microscopic—wounds on the skin, temporarily rising one's risk of infection," says Gerber. Hygienic waxing facilities are fine, and may be better than shaving. However, be careful of waxing if you’re on medications containing isotretinoin, like Accutane, because it can cause wax to more easily burn the skin.
7. Discharge is usually normal, but not always.
The quality and quantity of your cervical fluid changes throughout your cycle, and are responses to the hormonal transitions that prepare your body for ovulation, explain Högemann and Druet. "Cervical fluid starts opaque, whitish and creamy in your early follicular phase—around the start of your cycle," they say. "It increases in quantity, wetness, transparency and stretchiness in the as you approach ovulation. Cervical fluid reaches peak characteristics of fertility around the day of ovulation, which include a wet, clear and stretchy texture." (You can actually stretch it between your fingers, if you want to try.)
You should call your doctor, though, if you're seeing any type of atypical characteristic in your discharge. These can often be due to infection, but can also be allergic reactions, even to a medication you're taking. If there's a change in texture—think chunky or foamy—a foul smell, or an off-color, head to see to a pro to see what's going on. If there's burning or itching in addition to the change in discharge, those could be indicators of an infection.
8. Your vagina is self-cleaning.
The lining of the vagina is made up of various glands that release fluids designed to cleanse and lubricate the vagina. If you use soap, it will always interfere with the vagina's natural flora, which can upset the body's pH balance and cause infections, such as thrush. So don't use soap anywhere beyond your outermost labia, where your pubic hair grows.
Furthermore, Gerber is strongly against the use of any kind of douche. "The benefits of douching are practically nil and can be harmful," she says. Douching, which is the rinsing of the vagina with vinegar or an antiseptic with the aid of a douche bag, can increase the risk of vaginal and pelvic infection by altering the pH and ridding the vagina of important bacteria. "Research shows a link between douching and increasing the risk of bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory infections, and ectopic pregnancy," she adds. So yeah, case closed on that one.
9. Your vagina does change, especially after childbirth.
"The cervical opening may change slightly in appearance—from a dot to more of a curve—but it is still closed and fulfills the same purpose," Druet and Högemann say. While vaginal tissue stretches during labor, it should return back to its same size without much intervention.
10. Kegels are basically "vaginal anti-aging creams."
Gerber recommends every woman practice Kegel exercises after a vaginal birth, once they have a doctor's clearance. "The way we use wrinkle creams, everyone should be doing Kegels. And definitely after childbirth,"she says. To properly locate the muscles, Gerber suggests a technique one of her mentors taught her: "Pretend that you're in an elevator, and you need to pass gas, but your trying to prevent it." That way, you'll activate all of the muscles in the pelvic floor, she says.
These are all good vagina facts to keep in your back pocket. Or front!
This story originally appeared on Glamour.
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