Some people, especially women, may feel uncomfortable reading an article talking about the vagina. Many women don’t talk or even pay attention to their vaginal health. But when you learn to love and get to know your intimate body parts, your self-esteem and sex life flourish. So read on and pass it to other women to benefit from it.

“Out of sight out of mind” – this is how most women view their vagina because it is concealed in their body, unlike the man’s penis, which confronts them each time they look down. Most parents don’t encourage young girls to touch their genitals, or play with them, as most young boys do, and this sets up a mindset about the vagina being a bad thing that should not be seen – a no-go area except when having sex. There are many women who have no idea how their genitals look like as it takes a deliberate effort to see them. Indeed, you will need to open up your legs in front of a mirror to see your genitals. How many women have courage to do so?

While men’s genitals and women’s breasts are discussed openly, the vagina is usually a taboo part of the body and is rarely talked about, leave alone mentioned. It even goes by a variety of different names because most people are shy to say the word vagina. This is the same in most of our vernacular dialects. There is always a nickname for it, or a derogatory description. Despite these facts, many women have concerns about their appearance down there but usually have nobody to talk to.

Most of the information women have about their genitals comes from movies, videos, magazines or inaccurate and exaggerated girl talk. And women, by their very nature, like to compare themselves to other people, and this can be damaging when they compare their genitals using incorrect information. Some women have skewed perception of what is normal and what is not in their genitals. Because they see models with trimmed pubic hair, for example, they may think their untrimmed hair is ‘undesirable’.

If you add to this the burgeoning vaginal hygiene market with advertising telling you what you need in order to be sexually desirable, women’s insecurities and embarrassment about their genitals are compounded. Worries about vaginal hygiene cause confusion to many women. For example, the adult female genital area is meant to be wet, yet many women worry about vaginal discharges because they don’t know what is normal and what is not. Young girls get particularly anxious about changes in their bodies and are likely to get more confused when they don’t have balancing messages to counter those bombarded on them by advertisers.

It’s all in the mind…

Learning more about your vagina includes getting acquainted with your arousal cycle too. Understanding what turns you on and how pleasurable it can be, can bring self-empowerment and a greater acceptance of your sexual organs. But this comes when you have a healthy attitude towards your genitals in order to get things in perspective.

A few facts: There is no such thing as ‘normal’ when it comes to the shape of the female genitalia. There isn’t a perfect size or shape, but many perfect shapes and many perfect sizes. No two genitals look the same. Every genital is beautiful, but remember, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. A woman’s genitals are relatively inaccessible and highly complex in design, compared to a man’s. You should not confuse the aesthetics of the vagina with good sex, just as the size of a man’s penis doesn’t equate to a better sex experience. The more familiar you become with the workings of your intimate areas, the less threatening and alien they will seem.

Getting in the know…

Many women spend time fixating on whether their vagina is able to please a man, instead of their own pleasure and their genital health. Your intimate health is more important as when you have it, even sex gets better. Don’t be deceived by advertising to buy products to keep your vagina clean. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ and there is no recognised need to use a specific cleaning or deodorising product. All that is required is a gentle wash with warm water. Over-zealous cleaning will disrupt the vagina’s delicate balance.

Also remember the vagina has a scent – your whole body does – and there is nothing wrong with that, in fact there is evidence you use it to attract potential male partners. You should only be concerned if you have a bad odour as this could mean infection. A change of smell and discomfort in the vaginal area could indicate bacterial vaginosis (BV). Although BV is twice as common as thrush, most women have never heard of it.

Like body odour, vaginal discharge is normal and tends to change throughout your menstrual cycle, so there is no need to feel embarrassed. Its usually clear, milky white or faintly yellow, and its not uncommon for texture or colour to change according to your hormonal fluctuations; around ovulation it will become ‘stringy’. The important thing to remember is normal vaginal discharge does not itch, burn or irritate, and it does not have a bad smell.

Above everything else, don’t be afraid to seek medical advice about any concerns regarding your vagina and sexual health in general. If you suspect a problem, do not wait for it to go away of its own accord. Talk to a doctor. Doctors are trained to spot when things are not normal and treat you and the earlier a problem is detected the better for full and quick treatment. A doctor should always check out any lumps, sores or changes in the skin. The same applies to painful sex, any changes in your vaginal discharge or bleeding after intercourse.

Keeping your vagina healthy…

Daily care. Excessive washing (or douching) of your vagina, or the use of perfumed products may alter its normal pH balance by removing ‘good’ bacteria, therefore making you more susceptible to infections and irritation. It’s also important to avoid wearing tight fitting, synthetic clothes and wear cotton underwear. Remember to change tampons regularly during menstruation, and use a lubricant such as KY jelly during sex to avoid irritation, especially when you are menopausal.

Get tested. Make sure you are up to date with your tests. If you are over 25 you should be having a smear test (or Pap smear) every three years to monitor the health of your cervical cells. Over 40, once every year, after menopause, once every six months. Whether you have regular STI testing depends entirely on whether or not you are in a long-term relationship. If you are not in a steady relationship where you have sex with only one partner, its obviously vital you practice safe sex by insisting on your partner using a condom or using the female condom. You should be aware of signs of STI such as an unusual discharge, rashes, itchiness, sores or pain in the genital area. You should get tested frequently if you are sexually active with different partners.

Pelvic fitness. An important part of caring for your intimate health is keeping those mythical pelvic floor muscles in shape. This will help prevent and manage urinary incontinence and will also help heighten sexual response. You can try to combine floor exercises with yoga to increase overall core stability, improve tummy tone and posture, as well as strengthening your pelvic floor muscles. Ideally you should do the pelvic floor exercise, also known as Kegel exercise, for 10 to 15 minutes every other day.

Getting acquainted…

The vulva. The external and visible genitals are known as the vulva or punendum. It is a very erotic area, highly sensitive to touch, which also serves to protect the vaginal and urethral openings. The fatty tissue and skin at the front of the vulva is the mons pubis. It covers where the pelvic bones join at the front and acts as a cushion during intercourse. The monis pubis of a mature female is covered by pubic hair.

The shot superficial structures of the vulva, the labia majora, extend forward from the anus and fuse at the front with the mons pubis. These “lips” are two-fold and normally lie together and conceal the other external genital organs. They are composed of fibrous fatty tissue, and carry hair follicle and sebaceous and apocrine glands. The latter give rise to a particular form of odorous sweat, which is a sexual chemical attractant and stimulant for most men. They are regarded by some as the female equivalent of the male scrotum, the left one being slightly larger than the right.

The labia minora are folds of skin, which lie between the labia majora. Unlike the labia majora, the labia minora contain neither fat nor hair follicles, but have numerous sebaceous glands that produce sebum that lubricates the skin and, in combination with the secretions from the vagina and sweat glands, form a waterproof protective covering against urine, bacteria and menstrual blood.

There are wide variations in the size and shape of these lips and, like the labia majora, one is generally larger than the other. They may be hidden by the labia majora or project forward. During sexual excitement they become engorged, change colour, and increase in thickness – sometimes as much as two to three times the normal size.

The clitoris. The clitoris is the most sensitive organ of the vulva and is the female equivalent of the penis, having the same component parts but in miniature form. In anatomic and physiological terms, the clitoris is a unique organ. No organ, which acts solely as a receptor and transmitter of sensual stimuli, purely to initiate or elevate levels of sexual tension, can be found in the human male.

The body of the clitoris is two to three centimetres long and is acutely bent back on itself. The top of the clitoris is covered by a sensitive membrane that contains many receptive nerve endings. During sex, the clitoris doubles in size and becomes erect – in exactly the same way as the penis. The length of the whole clitoris, including the shaft and glans, varies greatly on stimulation by hormones during puberty.

The hymen. In childhood, a thin membrane, the hymen, guards the opening to the vagina. It is normally perforated and allows the escape of menstrual blood. Its thickness and stiffness vary from woman to woman; in rare cases it is so strong and resistant that intercourse is difficult and the hymen must be cut under local anaesthesia. Normally the hymen is torn during childhood activities such as sports or use of tampons. Even if intact, it is rarely so painful during first penetration as folklore would have us believe.

The vagina. Many myths and jokes surround the size of the vagina. The vagina is a potential rather than an actual space. It is a fibro-muscular tube measuring about eight centimetres in length but its size is variable, and so capable of distortion, that any normal vagina can accommodate any size of penis with ease.

If penetration occurs early before expansion in length and diameter has fully developed, a woman may experience initial difficulty in accommodating an erect penis, particularly a large one. But vaginal expansion continues rapidly so that the penis, regardless of size is accommodated with the first few thrusts.

As excitement climbs the vagina normally overextends in length and circumference. This elliptical vaginal expansion accounts for some loss of stimulation of the penis, and reduces vaginal sensation for the woman, giving many women the feeling that the fully erect penis, regardless of size, is “lost in the vagina.”

Inside the vagina. The projection of the cervix allows the space of the vaginal vault to be divided into front, back and lateral fornices. The cervix enters the vault through the upper part of the front vaginal wall and as result, the front wall is shorter than the rear wall and rear fornice is much deeper than the front one. This arrangement favours the passage of sperms into the cervix during intercourse because when a woman lies on her back, the opening of the cervix is not only directly exposed to semen, but is bathed by the pool of ejaculate which forms in the posterior fornix in which it rests. During intercourse, it is the posterior fornix, which takes the brunt of penile thrusting and so protects the cervix from injury.

The lining of the vagina is thick and is thrown into prominent folds called rugae, some of which run longitudinally and some horizontally. The lining cells of the vagina contain glycogen, a kind of starch. The fermentation action of bacteria, which normally live in the vagina, on the glycogen produces lactic acid that render the fluid in the vagina on the acid side of normal. This acid environment is necessary to maintain the health of the vagina and deters bacterial growth. Any interference with the delicate ecological balance, for instance using vaginal douches, can cause irritation, inflammation, discharge and allergic reactions.

The lining of the vagina does not contain glands even though the vagina lubricates itself with a kind of sweat when sexually aroused. Under normal circumstances, cells that are routinely shed from the lining of the vagina plus mucus secreted from the cervix, plus vaginal sweating, form the normal vaginal discharge, which is colourless and odourless.

The vagina contains a muscle coat, which runs longitudinally, and it is richly supplied with blood vessels. Its action opens or closes the vaginal space. Inside the top of the vagina, directly behind the pubic bone, is said to be an area of erectile tissue, which when stimulated produces a different type of orgasm. This area is known as the “G” spot.

The greater vestibular glands and urethra. The greater vestibular glands lie behind and slightly to the side of the vagina. The ducts of these glands open into the angle between the labia minora and the ring of the hymen and carry lubricating mucus to the vaginal opening and the vulva’s inner parts.

The urethra is intimately embedded within the substance of the lower half of the front vaginal wall, so that bruising of this wall can result in inflammation of the urethra and an ascending infection of the bladder (cystitis). The middle third of the rear wall of the vagina is closely related to the rectum, and the muscles which form the pelvic floor, the levatores, blend with the middle part of the sides of the vagina forming the most crucial support of the vaginal structure.

Armed with this knowledge, get down to explore your genitals. Don’t be afraid to touch or look. It would help if your partner joined you in this journey of exploration, as it will enhance both your sex lives.

Published in June 2012