People come in all shapes, sizes and colors. It should come as no surprise that female genital anatomy is also highly variable.
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“The female anatomy can differ a lot from girl to girl or woman to woman,” says Ob/Gyn Oluwatosin Goje, MD. “And in one person, the appearance can change with age.”
Still, you might be wondering if your appearance is typical. Dr. Goje shares what counts as “normal” when it comes to your lady parts.
Female anatomy 101
First, a quick refresher on anatomy. People often use the term “vagina” to describe female genitalia. But the vagina is what’s on the inside. It’s a stretchy tube that extends from the vaginal opening to the uterus.
The bits you can see from the outside are known as the vulva, which has several parts:
- Labia: These are the folds of skin around your vaginal opening. There are two sets: The fleshy outer lips (labia majora) surround the inner lips (labia minora).
- Clitoris: This structure is filled with nerve endings and swells when you’re aroused. It’s about the size of a pea and sits at the top of the labia minora.
- Mons pubis: This is the fleshy area above the labia. In adults, it’s the area covered with pubic hair.
What do normal labia look like?
The way your labia look can differ a lot from person to person, Dr. Goje says.
Labia come in a rainbow of natural hues, from pink or purple to brown or black.
“It’s common for the labia to be a shade darker than the rest of your skin, especially in Black women,” Dr. Goje says. The color of the labia can also change. Labia might get paler as you age, or darker when you’re aroused. But if they’re suddenly bright red and inflamed, it could be a sign of infection (and reason to see your doctor).
The shape of the labia varies a lot from person to person. Some common shapes include:
- Longer outer lips: The outer labia may be long or short. In some cases, they come together to hide the inner labia.
- Longer inner lips: Sometimes, the inner labia extend below the outer labia.
- Exposed inner lips: In some women, the outer labia are short or curved, revealing the inner lips (even if the inner lips aren’t very long).
- Asymmetry: Lopsided labia aren’t unusual. One side of the inner or outer labia may be longer than the other.
Some women have larger labia, others smaller. And your labia can change with age. “As young girls grow, their vulva grows with them,” Dr. Goje says. “As you approach menopause, changing hormones can cause the vulva to shrink a bit.”
Some girls and women have what’s known as labial hypertrophy, enlarged labia. It can affect the inner or outer lips but is more common in the inner labia. The condition is harmless and just part of normal human variation, Dr. Goje says. Still, it can cause irritation or discomfort in some women when they do certain activities, like biking or horseback riding.
Most women can manage the discomfort with lifestyle changes, like avoiding certain activities or wearing different underwear. “But in some cases, women with an enlarged vulva can benefit from reduction surgery to make it smaller,” she says.
Like the external structures, women’s internal anatomy also varies. The average length of the vagina (the stretchy tube) is 4 inches, but it can be longer or shorter, wider or narrower. Size doesn’t really matter, though, since the vagina naturally stretches during sex and childbirth.
After having a baby, it may stay enlarged for a while. “For some women, it stays that way, but in others, it shrinks back to their pre-baby state,” Dr. Goje says.
Other women may have trouble inserting a tampon or having sex. They may think their vagina is too tight, but that’s rarely the case, Dr. Goje says. The feeling of a too-small vagina is typically caused by:
- Pelvic floor dysfunction.
- Vulvodynia (chronic pain of the vulva).
- Dryness or changes in natural lubrication.
- Changes in elasticity (more common in menopause).
The feel of the vagina can change, too. The vaginal wall has natural folds that feel like ridges. “During perimenopause and menopause, those ridges can flatten,” she says. The vagina is no longer as stretchy as it once was, and sex can become painful. In these cases, hormone replacement pills or creams may help.
When to see the doctor
When it comes to the female anatomy, variation is the rule, not the exception. “It’s OK if your vulva looks different than everyone else’s in the locker room,” Dr. Goje says.
But if you have any concerns, see your doctor. They can help make sure there aren’t any problems down south. Dr. Goje recommends talking to your provider if you have:
- Symptoms like pain, itching, chafing or foul smell.
- Problems inserting tampons.
- Pain or problems having sex.
It may feel awkward to bring your concerns up to your doctor. But remember: Doctors have heard (and seen) it all, and they can help you get the care and treatment you need.