If you use the word vagina when referring to female parts “down below,” let me first say we’re proud of you for NOT using hoo ha, or cootchie, or lady bits… or junk. We’ve come a long way toward creating comfort around using the word “vagina,” but we may have taken it a bit too far.
“Vagina” is not a catchall term for all the parts that exist in the magical space between a female’s legs, but it’s just one part (albeit an important one) of anatomy among many parts that make up the VULVA - which IS the catchall term for those parts.
Maybe in our puritanical efforts to minimize discussions about our genitals, our foremothers decided to keep it short and sweet: boys have a penis; girls have a vagina. But to be honest, the anatomical equivalent to the male penis would more appropriately be the female clitoris - the ONLY structure in the human species with the sole purpose of creating pleasure. Imagine how different things might be if kindergarteners proudly spouted that truth!
Unfortunately, too many girls and young women lack the vocabulary to have accurate conversations about their genitals. I know this because every day, as a gynecologist, I hear things like, “I think have an ingrown hair on my vagina,” (truth: the vagina doesn’t grow hair) or “There’s a bump on my vagina” (when the bump is on the mons). And we can’t leave boys and men out of this conversation, either. Don’t we want them to know more than just “vagina”?
It’s definitely time to make those much-needed corrections and teach our kids what a vagina is AND what it isn’t. If you’re needing some help with that conversation, here’s how it can go:
Just like you have a FACE which is made up of many parts like eyebrows, eyes, nose, nostrils, lips, mouth, etc, Females have a VULVA which is made up of many parts, too.
The VULVA includes the mons, labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, urethra, vaginal opening and the perineal body. Yeah, that’s a lot. Here’s a part by part break down:
MONS - The mons is the soft, fatty pad over the pubic bone. It’s the first place that pubic hair will grow when a girl is going through puberty.
LABIA MAJORA - There are two of them and they are the “big flaps” or “lips” that begin at the bottom of the mons and extend between the legs. Pubic hair will also grow on the outside of the labia majora. The inside of the labia majora have a different type of skin called mucosa which is pink and does not grow hair. The labia majora are thick and padded. They cover and protect other sensitive parts of the vulva.
CLITORIS - This is the bump that sits just inside the top of the labia majora. On the outside, you can only see the bump, but there’s a lot more to it under the surface of the vulva. It is packed full of nerve endings which makes it super sensitive to touch. Most interestingly, the clitoris is the only organ that exists just for creating pleasure (yes, it’s ok for you to touch or rub it, and yes that should feel good - just please keep it a private activity).
LABIA MINORA - These are the flaps or lips that are inside the labia majora. They are thinner and not as padded, and they can be big or small. Up until puberty, they are very small, but during puberty, they grow and become larger, longer, and the color may become darker. Some females have smaller ones that stay inside the labia majora, and some have longer ones that stick out. There is no right or wrong way for them to look.
URETHRA - This is the opening just below the clitoris where urine comes out. It is usually uncomfortable if touched.
VAGINAL OPENING - This is the larger opening below the urethra where menstrual blood comes out and where babies come out. If you look at the vulva, you can only see the OPENING to the vagina. It actually takes everyone’s favorite tool, a speculum, to see the whole vagina in all its glory. That’s because the actual VAGINA is a longer tube-like structure that connects inside female parts to the outside (that’s how the baby gets out). It is covered in mucosa that helps it stay moist and healthy. It.does.not.have.any.hair!
PERINEAL BODY - You don’t hear much about this one, but it’s the firm place between the vaginal opening and the anus. It’s the place that tends to get most most irritated by thongs (by the way, the ANUS is NOT a member of the vulva club).
So one more time, you may call all things down below a “vulva,” but please for the sake of better communication and the sanity of your doctor, can we all pledge to quit calling everything “down there” a vagina? For a visual, check out our downloadable, "This is not a vagina." Get it HERE.
Thank you! :)