The Vagina and the Vulva: Different Things, Both Awesome

Vulvas! Vaginas! Many of you Persephoneers have them, or know someone who does, but do you know the ins and outs of your bits? Let’s read on. (Diagrams, illustrations, and latex molds ahead, so read at work at your own risk.)

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, “vagina” started being used as a catchall term for the female genitalia, and it always makes me cringe, especially when someone says something about shaving their vagina – no, I promise you, nobody is shaving their vagina and they would need a trip to the emergency room if they tried!

Knowing the proper names of the different parts of your bits is important for lots of reasons; even if you find the words clinical and prefer to use slang, I think it’s good to know what the different body parts are called, and it can help you communicate more accurately with your doctor if you’re ever having a problem. A friend of mine once compared saying vagina when you mean vulva to saying throat when you mean mouth or lips – the general area is the same, but they’re completely different body parts, and having a sore throat is really different than having a tender lip.

Illustration of a vulva with the different parts labelled
Image taken from the National Vulvodynia Association

So let’s have a look. This diagram to the right labels everything pretty clearly. “Introitus” is another word for the opening to the vagina, and the urethral meatus is a fancy name for your pee hole. You’ve also probably heard the labia majora and the labia minora referred to as outer and inner labia or major and minor labia. Finally, the vestibule is the area in between the urethral opening and the opening to the vagina, and it also includes the Bartholin glands, which secrete a bit of lubrication to the vagina.

Think about how different people’s noses can look from one another – or their hands, or their mouths. Vulvas can vary that much too; labia can be big, long, small, ruffly, smooth, etc., and it’s not uncommon for them to be asymmetrical or for the inner labia to be bigger or hang lower than the outer labia. The visibility of the clitoris can vary a lot from person to person as well thanks to the clitoral hood, or the little bit of skin that usually covers part or all of the clitoris.

Speaking of clits, did you know that there is literally more to the clitoris than meets the eye? The little bit that we can see (either by pulling back the hood or not) is the glans at the tip of the clitoral shaft, which goes up underneath the hood; inside, it branches down into two legs, or crura, like this:

Internal structure of the clitoris
“It’s bigger on the inside.” Image from Wikipedia.

 

You’re probably familiar with the diagram of the female reproductive system (if not, have a look here), but do you know what the vagina actually looks like? Or the cervix? There’s no other way to describe the Beautiful Cervix Project besides “really fucking cool.” It’s dedicated to sharing images of women’s cervices in all different contexts – one woman documented her cervix every day through one menstrual cycle, and there are also pictures of cervices during pregnancy, before and after childbirth, before and after pap tests and colposcopies, and after menopause. If you’re squeamish about blood or bodily fluids, you might not want to look at all the pictures, but I find it really fascinating to think about how many changes this small body part that I never see or think about goes through on a regular basis. These photos also really help illustrate what the vagina looks like – you may know that it’s full of ridges, but actually seeing them close up is really interesting.

Here are some of my other favorite vulvovaginal links. (I wonder if that’s the first time anyone’s written that phrase.) They’re educational, but they’re also entertaining/funny/interesting/reassuring. If you have any sites I’ve missed, definitely mention them in the comments!

  • 3D Vulva– this site features 3D illustrations of the internal and external genitalia as well as the whole reproductive system. Some of the images are animated, so if the prospect of spinning around a 3D picture of the vulva and internal clitoral structure appeals to you, you’ll enjoy this site. (It’s really helpful when it comes to understanding what is where and in relation to what, internally and externally.)
  • Gallery of vulva photos on TheClitoris.com– although vulvae are as diverse as noses and other body parts, they’re generally not as easy to see, and I think that is part of why some women tend to wonder if various things are “normal” about their bits. (Though it’s also important to point out that not all women have vulvae and vaginas, and not all people with vulvae and vaginas are women.) I love galleries like these because I think they can often offer some reassurance (“That one looks just like mine!”) as well as help us understand and appreciate the diversity among vulvae. (The rest of the site is worth exploring too; I occasionally have minor issues with some of the content on the site, but it has veritable craploads of information about anatomy, pleasure, and sex.)
  • Vaginal cast by Jamie McCartney
    Vaginal cast by Jamie McCartney. Image from TrendHunter.com

    “The Internal Clitoris” video by Betty Dodson – when I first learned how vast and sprawling the clit actually is, I had a lot of trouble picturing it, so here is Betty Dodson to draw a picture for you.

  • Innies & Outies: The Vagina, Clitoris, Uterus, and More – I gave a very quick rundown of your bits here, so for more comprehensive information, check out this post; Scarleteen is geared towards a younger audience and so this article may cover some things you consider fairly basic, but it’s good information to have or to pass along to someone else who could use it.
  • Vaginal and vulvar casts by artist Jamie McCartney – The first link shows some of McCartney’s latex vaginal casts, and the second links to his larger project, a wall of plaster vulva casts. I hate that the latter is called “The Great Wall of Vagina,” because, as we’ve established here, it’s really more of a Great Wall of Vulvas, Some of Which Feature Openings to the Vagina. Apart from the name, though, I think it’s a really interesting project whose aim is similar to the gallery of vulva photos on TheClitoris, and I like that he strives to be inclusive (the Great Wall features the external genitalia of trans women as well as women before and after giving birth and women of all different ages).

H/t to Alice Nevada for sharing her pet peeve about the misuse of “vagina” and suggesting a post about anatomy!

Keep the great questions coming! (Hee.) Got a ques­tion to ask, subject you’d like us to dis­cuss, or myth you’d like us to bust? You can e-mail us at FriskyFeminist@persephonemagazine.com, and we’ve also set up a Tum­blr for the sole pur­pose of receiv­ing com­pletely anony­mous ques­tions here.

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paperispatient

I recently earned my MA in women’s studies. I enjoy reading, working out, playing Scrabble, watching cheesy movies, and cooking yummy vegetarian meals with my partner and Frisky Feminist co-author, Future Mr. paperispatient.

11 thoughts on “The Vagina and the Vulva: Different Things, Both Awesome”

    1. I also think it’s interesting because (as far as I know, at least) people don’t seem to teach boys incorrect terminology for their bits – they might call them slang or give them baby names, but I don’t think anyone would teach a little boy that the entire area is just called a penis, you know? (Or maybe “prostate” would be a better comparison, since that’s internal too?)

  1. I just have to say PiP that because of you and some of the other women who cringe at using vulva, I always chuckle to myself when I say vagina instead of vulva. I still do it for things like “I’m gonna shave my vagina” because it’s just what I’ve always done, although if it were to ever come up at the doctor I would probably make sure I was using vulva if that’s the area I was referring to. Anyway, thanks for the reminder! It’s a good one!

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