Sure, your vagina has been with you your entire life, but how much do you actually know about it? Whether you've been too shy to ask or don't know where to look for information, chances are there are plenty of things that you've wondered about the area "down there." From what to expect after childbirth to normal sexual functions, read on to find out surprising facts you may not know about your lady parts.
1. It cleans itself.
Step away from the douches and harsh cleansers, ladies. Your vagina keeps itself clean. "It's lined by a variety of glands that produce the fluids needed to both lubricate and cleanse the vaginal area," says Lisa Stern, APRN, a nurse practitioner who works with Planned Parenthood in Los Angeles. "The vast majority of vaginal infections I see in my office are self-induced — generally by women who think they're doing a good thing by washing their vagina with soap and water, or worse, with douche."
Bath products, particularly those with chemical dyes or fragrances, can irritate the vagina and wash away the beneficial lubricants and flora (bacteria and yeast) that are normal and natural, she says. When these beneficial compounds get washed away, anaerobic bacteria and yeast proliferate and can cause symptoms like discharge, odor, and itching. Lesson learned: While a little mild soap on the labia area is OK, your body does a fine job of keeping the insides clean.
2. It grows in size when aroused.
"The average length of a vagina is 3 to 4 inches long," says Lissa Rankin, MD, gynecologist and author of What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend. Sounds sort of small, and possibly unaccommodating for your partner, right? Fear not: Nature makes room. "It can double in length when aroused," Dr. Rankin explains. But she adds that many women still have pain during sex when their partner is on the larger side. She recommends using plenty of lubricant and going slow. "Encourage your partner to have fun with foreplay," she says. "The more aroused you feel, the less intercourse will hurt."
3. Just like your face, your vulva also wrinkles with age.
It's a fact of life: The appearance of your lady parts may change with age. "The labia may become less plump as estrogen levels wane, fatty pads in the labia shrink and less collagen can lead to more sagging," Rankin says. "The skin of the vulva may darken or lighten and the clitoris may shrink. It's normal either way." Scary? Nah. "These changes, which are often related to decreasing levels of estrogen, do not affect how much pleasure your girl parts can bring you."
4. You can't lose something (like a tampon) in your vagina.
Everyone's heard the myth that things can get "lost" in there. "The vagina is bounded at the inner end by the cervix and by the vagina's own tissue," Stern says. In other words, your vagina is a dead end, not an open road leading to the rest of your body. So don't worry about anything going missing; however, "Sometimes a tampon can get lodged deep inside the vagina, like if it's accidentally left in place during intercourse. If this happens, your healthcare provider should be able to remove it easily with a speculum and forceps," she says.
5. Some women ejaculate with orgasm.
"It definitely happens, and it's not uncommon," Rankin says. "It seems to be a learned skill and happens more commonly as women get older and learn how their bodies work." So how does it happen? "There are glands around the urethra — the tube between the bladder and the outside world — that probably secrete fluid, particularly when the anterior wall of the vagina (aka. the G spot) is stimulated." Beverly Whipple, PhD, RN, a sexuality researcher and professor at Rutgers College of Nursing, describes this area as " the female prostate,' a collection of glands, blood vessels, nerves, and spongy tissue that, when stimulated, seem to create fluid in some women."
6. Your vagina may change dramatically after childbirth.
"Post-childbirth the vagina doesn't so much look different as it feels different," Rankin says. "As a gynecologist, I can almost always tell if a woman has delivered vaginally or not. I need a larger speculum for a woman who has had two kids than for a childless woman. But from the outside, you can't tell unless a woman has torn during childbirth, in which case she may have a faint scar at the site of her tear or episiotomy."
If you're uncomfortable with the way your vagina has stretched and changed after childbirth, Rankin has a one-word recommendation: Kegels! "These exercises can really help," she says. A refresher course: You can do them anywhere, anytime. Just squeeze the muscles you use to start and stop the flow of urine, holding for a few seconds at a time, and repeating in sets of 10 — or more, if you're up to the task!
7. The vagina is like a bicep: Use it or lose it.
"It's true that the vagina stays healthier when you're using it with some regularity," Rankin says. "Not only does sex keep the sensitive vaginal tissue healthy, but it's almost as if your yoni has a memory. If you keep reminding your vagina that it has a purpose beyond reproduction, it's likely to rise to the occasion." Case in point: If you neglect your vagina for too long (no sex, no Kegel exercises, etc.), the vaginal walls can become fragile, she says. And when menopause strikes, it may scar and close off a bit. But sex isn't the only answer: Your doctor can suggest specific exercises and instruments that can help the vagina stay in tip-top shape.
8. Vaginal discharge varies from woman to woman.
Rankin notes that the average amount of vaginal discharge a woman of reproductive age secretes over a period of eight hours weighs 1.55 grams, or about 1/4 teaspoon. But some women produce much less and others produce much more — and the variations are completely normal.
"You produce the greatest amount of discharge (1.96 grams) around the time of ovulation," she says. "Of course, every woman is different. Some women have ectropion, when the mucous-producing glands that are usually on the inside of the cervix evert onto the outside of the cervix. If your cervix has this normal feature, you may produce more cervical mucous, which increases the amount of vaginal discharge you have. Some women produce very scant amounts of discharge and others make much more. In the absence of infection, it's normal either way."
And the color? It varies, too — and just because there's a pigment to it doesn't necessarily mean you have an infection. "Normal vaginal discharge is whitish, but may appear yellowish when it dries," she says. "But if your vaginal discharge appears greenish when wet, you have itching or burning, your discharge smells extra fishy, or you think you're at risk for STDs, get it checked just to be on the safe side."