The female anatomy
Getting to know your reproductive anatomy is as important for health reasons as it is for self-esteem, boosting feelings of sexual attractiveness and enjoyment of intimate relationships.
But it’s not always so straightforward to see or know what’s going on down there – and with so much information out there, it can be easy to get things wrong.
Let’s take a closer look…
The ins and outs of your vagina
It’s a common misconception that the vagina includes everything you can see.
In fact, the vagina (also known as the birth canal) only refers to the flexible inner canal that runs between the uterus (or womb) inside your body and the area outside known as the vulva.
Where is my vulva?
The vulva is the visible area outside the body that’s made up of the inner and outer lips, clitoris, urethra (the tube that transports urine out from the bladder) and the outer entrance to the vagina.
The outer lips of the vulva are made up of an area of fatty tissue, that appear like two “lips”. After puberty, they become covered in pubic hair, which is designed to protect the more sensitive inner parts from bacteria and dirt.
Above the vulva lies the soft fatty tissue area that covers the pubic bone, where most of the pubic hair grows. During and after puberty, it becomes covered in hair, which extends down between your legs, covering the outer lips and sometimes also the top part of the inside of your thighs.
The inner lips sit just beneath the outer lips and connect with your clitoral hood, a small fold of skin that surrounds and protects your clitoris. Your clitoris is the female version of the male penis, filled with nerve endings that contribute towards sexual pleasure and orgasms. What you see of the clitoris on the outside is really only the tip of the iceberg. While it only looks like a small button, this long structure, shaped like a wishbone, continues deep inside the body and increases in size when aroused.
Don’t buy into any suggestion that your vulva should look a certain way. Your vulva is unique – and the shape, size and color of the different parts of the vulva all vary from one person to the next. They are almost always asymmetrical, with the inner lips sometimes larger, smaller or the same size as the outer lips.
What are the key functions of the vagina?
The walls of your vagina lie against each other when compressed but can widen when needed to let a baby pass through or fit a penis. While the vagina is elastic and returns back to its compressed state after sexual intercourse, some women may notice that it feels different after giving birth. This can be helped by doing regular pelvic floor exercises.
During your period, the vagina passes the menstrual blood and lining of the uterus out of the body. You can place tampons or a menstrual cup inside the vagina to collect the flow of blood.
It also secretes natural substances (or discharge) that help to “self-clean” your vagina by flushing out any unwanted bacteria, fluids and cells. You do not actually need to clean your vagina – in fact it’s much healthier to leave it to do its thing. But if you want to, you can carefully clean the vulva and surrounds with warm water and a mild, pH-balanced soap.
What is the hymen?
Just inside the opening lies a thin piece of tissue that partially covers the vagina known as the hymen.
It’s not everyone that are born with a hymen, and while for some, it’s worn down during sexual intercourse, it can also be worn down during non-sexual activities, such as during sports, riding a bike or using period products like tampons or a menstrual cup. Click here to learn more about the hymen.
How does my vagina change during my menstrual cycle?
Each girl is born with about 1 million eggs in their ovaries.
During ovulation (the mid-point of your menstrual cycle), your ovaries release one egg, which causes the vaginal tissue to become thicker and the walls of your uterus to develop a thick lining full of nutrients and blood as it prepares for a (potential) pregnancy if the egg is fertilized by sperm.
Where is the cervix positioned?
On the days where you are at your most fertile (around ovulation), the cervix opens to allow sperm to travel into the uterus, whereas at other points of the cycle, it remains tightly shut.
Your period happens when the egg is not fertilized and the walls of your uterus break down. Your body needs to get rid of this lining – which is what you see when you have your period.
How does the female anatomy and vagina change as you age?
Just like the rest of your body, the female anatomy changes as you get older.
On the outside, you’ll start to see the hair thin, fall out or go grey, while on the inside, your vagina will also go through some changes.
The opening can get smaller and the length of the canal can shrink. The walls become thinner, lose elasticity and become more relaxed.
This does not necessarily result in less pleasure during sex, however during menopause, there can be a decrease in your vagina’s secretions, which can result in uncomfortable sex or irritation. Your clitoris on the other hand, retains its pleasure-giving capacity no matter your age.