Here at Lunapads, we’re all about getting to know your body, since knowledge is power! We’re asking our friend Kristen Gilbert, Director of Education at Options for Sexual Health, to give us a little primer on vulvas.
If you have a vulva, there’s a good chance you’ve had some questions about it. They are a little bit mysterious sometimes: rarely discussed, tucked away out of sight, and associated with things that are whispered about, like sex, menstruation, and going to the bathroom. And who do we ask when we have vulva questions—a lover, or friend? Is this a doctor question? Hey, is there such thing as a Vulva Expert? While I’m not a certified vulva genius or anything, I am a sexual health educator and I talk about vulvas for a living. I know what you’re thinking: how do I get that job? It is pretty awesome. Today, let’s talk vulvas together.
First, let’s discuss vocabulary—does vulva seem like an odd word? I hear a lot of folks use the word ‘vagina’ which I like because it’s better than ‘privates’ or ‘down there’. But the vagina is an internal organ; it’s the passageway between the uterus and the genitals. I like to say that calling our genitals a vagina is like pointing to our head and calling that our throat. Friends of mine also refer to this part as the yoni which does sound reverential and magical, but it’s the only Sanskrit word I know so it feels strange to use it when ‘vulva’ is perfectly fine. I’d like us all to use the word more often and unselfconsciously, like the way we say ‘elbow’. If you’re ever at a production of the Vagina Monologues, when they get to the part when they encourage audience members to yell out “Vagina!” it would be so great if you called out “Vulva!” instead.
If you’re ever at a production of the Vagina Monologues, when they get to the part when they encourage audience members to yell out “Vagina!” it would be so great if you called out “Vulva!” instead.
People who have a penis usually know quite a bit about their penis, partly because it’s on the outside of their body and also because they usually see it and touch it when they go to the bathroom. Folks with penises usually know what their penis looks like, and would recognize it in a photo lineup. The same cannot be said of most people with a vulva. Since vulvas are ‘down and around the corner’ they’re trickier to see and many of us haven’t taken the time to grab a mirror and have a good look. Today’s the day! Let’s go over the parts of the vulva and do your best to identify your own bits along the way…
The two side pieces, known as the labia, come in sets—an outer and an inner set of labia. The outside set can be puffy, especially during arousal; they can also change in size and shape with age. Most people have hair on their outer labia (and all around the genital area). The inner labia are a different type of skin—they’re hairless and sensitive—and most inner labia are asymmetrical, just like the rest of our body parts. If your inner labia stick out, or are tucked in, or are long or short, congratulations you have awesome, healthy labia! Most of the questions people ask about vulvas are about the inner labia, since many of us believe that ours aren’t ‘normal’. If you’ve wondered this yourself, please have a look at I’ll Show You Mine, an awesome vulva photo book by Wrenna Robertson. The urethra is where we pee from, and it can be quite a small opening. It’s usually located near or above the vaginal opening, which is the opening through which we might have our period. The anus is below, and the best part—the clitoris—is at the top of the vulva, where the inner labia meet.
Can we talk about the clitoris? Yes, please. This is a truly amazing part of the human anatomy. While the part that is visible on the outside might be small, the clitoris is actually a substantial wishbone-shaped organ that runs underneath the labia and down to the anus. There are more nerve endings in this part of the body than any other part, including the penis. So what’s the ‘purpose’ of the clitoris? To give us pleasure! Pretty great gig. When we talk about vulvas it’s really important to talk about pleasure—our vulvas have so much potential to make us feel good.
When we talk about vulvas it’s really important to talk about pleasure—our vulvas have so much potential to make us feel good.
There is an enormous amount of variation in the world’s vulvas: different shapes, skin colours, hairstyles, and sensitivity. Your vulva is as unique as your nose. And the skin around the vulva requires care just like any other skin. It can get irritated by perfumed products, or from friction that comes with shaving or some types of sex. People can absolutely have dry skin, ingrown hairs, eczema or even acne around their vulva, so please don’t feel shy to ask a clinician to have a look if you’re feeling irritated. Vulvas also may need other health checks like STI tests or pelvic exams—just to make sure everything is healthy. Many sexually transmitted infections don’t cause symptoms, so even if your vulvas looks and feels great it’s important to get screened if you’ve ever been sexually active.
Self care during periods is worth the effort.
Some people with vulvas have periods, and when they do there are many ways to manage menstrual flow. Pads can be worn inside the underwear and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles including soft washable pads like Lunapads. They also make great period underwear in a range of designs like boxer briefs or lacy thongs. Some people prefer a tampon or menstrual cup when they’re swimming, or anytime a pad would be uncomfortable or inconvenient. Menstrual products should be changed regularly to avoid irritation, and a quick shower or rinse with a peri bottle can soothe tenderness if that’s a concern. Some people track their cycles on paper, or use a calendar app; this can be a useful way to predict and manage emotional changes that might happen, too. Self care during periods is worth the effort.
If you’re raising a child who has a vulva, share this information with them. It’s never too early to feel great about your body! And if you have any questions about your vulva or sexual health, the folks at 1-800 SEX SENSE can talk anytime Monday to Friday, 9am-9pm. Even if you’re not Shawna Dempsey-level into vulvas, I hope your vulva gives you pleasure!