De-mystifying the Vagina: First Steps

The vagina is a phenomenal and complex organ, worth having an entire museum dedicated to it. As is being worked on by Florence Schechter, who says to the Independent “I’m really interested in exploring not just how an ovary works but also the more ambiguous parts of the subject. It will explore things like sexuality and gender identity and controversial subjects like contraception and abortion and masturbation and consent.

In “natural” circumstances the human population is entirely born through the vagina. According to the world bank, women make up 49.5% of the world’s population and so almost half of the people on earth may have a vagina, yet it is often so misunderstood.

According to a survey by gynaecological cancer charity ‘The Eve Appeal, only a third of women in the UK can correctly label the female anatomy. For most women, the road to truly understanding the vagina is riddled with either generational myths, societal stigmas or shame. Understanding the anatomy of our genitalia as women, and how this contributes to the way in which we perceive ourselves, how we maintain health and how we apply ourselves to intimate relations. For example, should one choose to be sexually active – how does one get the most out of sex or be able to speak confidently for themselves in uncomfortable situations, if they don’t how their sexual organs should work?

So where do we begin in de-mystifying this phenomenon? First of all, the vagina is only one part of the female genitalia and not the whole thing. When we speak of the vagina, we’re referring to the internal canal-like passage to the uterus or womb. The vagina is where menstrual blood leaves the body and where the penis enters during sexual intercourse. This is separate from the urethra (the tube that urine or wee passes through) and separate from the external parts of a woman’s genitalia, of which are known as the vulva.

What many call “flaps” are actually the “labia minora” (inner flaps) and the “labia majora” (outer flaps). To drive the point home, the clitoris is not the vagina. The clitoral hood is not the vagina.  Basically, only the internal, muscular organ is the vagina. Designed for women to have and enjoy sex, have periods and have babies if they should choose to do so.

Developing a clear and detailed understanding of the female genitalia was empowering for me because once I had it, I could no longer be shamed into believing there was something “wrong” with me when I knew there wasn’t. It significantly reduced the amount of pressure I felt to look and behave in a certain manner – whether that was in regards to feeling disgusted by my pubic hair or being embarrassed by my periods. It has contributed greatly with my self-confidence, and of course, this self-belief has improved my performance in all areas of life. I’m quite shameless nowadays and see them as normal/essential bodily functions, that I will happily and freely talk openly about.

Women are weighed down by so many factors that men don’t have to consider when waking up in the morning or when it’s “that time of the month”. So what do they use all that extra energy, time and lack of pressure for? What could we women do, if we were to rid ourselves of the pseudo-limitations that society assigns to our bodies?

The way in which female genitalia is perceived, approached and referred to is affected by several social factors such as patriarchy, misogyny, religion and the mass media. Heavyweights that tell us how our vaginas should look, smell and – in fact, let’s start there!

How is the vulva (since the vagina is internal) “supposed” to look and smell? Appearance wise, no vulva is the same. Just like we all have different body shapes, eye colours and nose widths – there is diversity in genitalia.

Smell

Despite what the media tries to sell in the form of femfresh and scented intimate washes, vagina’s are not supposed to smell like vanilla and roses. Vagina’s are supposed to smell like vaginas, their natural scent – much like every clean individual’s personal scent. It will vary from person to person. Generally, as long as you maintain good health and hygiene, you will be fine. Unless you notice a particularly pungent or worrying odour, in that case, you should visit your local GP as you may have an infection.

Hygiene

The vagina cleans itself and rids itself of what it doesn’t need, by way of discharge. You do not need to be putting anything in there to clean it, this a fast track route to vaginal irritation. For the vulva (the external area around the vagina), it is advisable to stick to mild and non-perfumed soaps “as [harsher perfumed soaps] can affect the healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels in the vagina and cause irritation.”

Discharge

According to the NHS, “it’s normal to produce clear or white secretions (discharge) from your vagina. This mucus is produced naturally from the neck of the womb, known as the cervix.” This is your body’s way of maintaining a healthy balance in the vagina and

Pubic hair

Whether you’re shaving, waxing or using removal creams – at some point, we suffer from ingrown hairs, cuts and skin irritation. If you’re like me, you’ve probably asked yourself “why am I even doing this anyway?”

“Cultural standards of beauty influence people’s personal choices on appearance – including pubic hair. In some countries, less and less hair has become a “norm” (1). But these trends don’t always have your health (or physical comfort) in mind.” says Clue writer Claire McWeeney. “Body shame, cleanliness and perceptions of sexiness are common reasons people cite for pubic hair grooming” often with little recognition or awareness of the fact that pubic hair has a purpose. It can act as a protective barrier, preventing unwanted bacteria from easily getting into the vagina. As well as, protecting the skin on vulva from friction can sometimes damage the skin.

“Tightness”

The vagina is a muscle that is capable of stretching wide enough for a baby to be birthed through it and then return to its original width. The amount of sex a woman has (who as an adult is entitled to decide what she wants to do with her vagina) does not equate to how “tight” or “loose” her vagina will be. “The pelvic floor is usually strong when we are young, and weakens as we age. It can also be strained by vaginal childbirth, menopause, certain surgeries, weight gain, weight lifting, chronic coughing and pushing due to constipation,” says Anna Druet. Muscles expand and contract, and exercises such as pelvic floor exercise can tighten the muscle, “pelvic floor exercise is the primary way to keep your pelvic floor strong and healthy.” Here is where I will end my “first steps towards de-mystifying the vagina.”

 

Further Reading:

https://medium.com/clued-in/vulvas-shapes-sizes-and-misconceptions-92149ccf1f20

Keeping your vagina clean and healthy: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/vagina-health/Pages/keep-vagina-clean.aspx

Pubic hair: A fuzzy topic: http://blog.helloclue.com/post/148791208716/pubic-hair-a-fuzzy-topic

Pelvic floor 101: Tips & myths of vaginal “tightness”

http://blog.helloclue.com/post/143531159046/pelvic-floor-101-tips-myths-of-vaginal

 

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