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Anatomy of the Vulva

In a culture that has discouraged women from understanding or exploring their intimate body parts, women are missing out on an important opportunity to positively affect their health. From common concerns like vaginitis to more serious conditions like cancer, this is a part of the body women should become familiar with in order to receive the best health care possible. If you know what's normal for you, then you will be more capable of detecting when something goes wrong.

The vulva consists of many sensitive parts. As you move down from your belly button, you come to the mons pubis, the protective fatty tissue that lies on top of the opening to the vagina and is covered by skin and pubic hair.

Moving further south, the outside vaginal lips are called the labia majora. Shrinking or swelling in response to both temperature and touch, these "lips" are extremely sensitive. Inside the labia majora is a second set of "little lips" known as the labia minora, which serve to protect the interior of your vagina. The labia minora have no hair, but oil glands within them can be felt through the thin skin as tiny bumps. Even more sensitive than the labia majora, they also swell with blood during sexual excitement. Both sets of lips sweat and produce discharges which serve to waterproof the vulva and defend the vagina from disease organisms.

The clitoris is a tiny organ made of soft, spongy tissue and is covered by a hood of skin called the prepuce. The clitoris sits atop of the labia minora and, like a penis, it becomes engorged with blood when you are sexually stimulated.

Located just below the clitoris is the urethra, which serves as the passageway for urine. It also has erectile tissue which responds when the vulva is stimulated. The perineum is the short piece of skin that stretches from the bottom of the vagina to the anal opening. Forming the entryway into the vagina is the vestibule. The Bartholin's glands, located on either side of the vaginal opening, produce lubricating fluid to the vulva and vagina.

Women's vulvas can look very different from each other in shape, size, and color. Therefore, it is important for women to learn what a "normal" vulva for them personally looks like, smells like, and feels like to the touch.

For more information

  • Books at WHRC's lending library:
    • The V-Book: A Doctor's Guide to Compete Vulvovaginal Health by Dr. Elizabeth Stewart.
    • The V Zone: A Woman's Guide to Intimate Health Care by Colette Bouchez.
    • The Vulvodynia Survival Guide: How to Overcome Painful Vaginal Symptoms and Enjoy an Active Lifestyle by Dr. Howard Glazer and Dr. Gae Rodke.

Reprinted with permission from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Women's Health Resource Center.

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