If you’re a woman and you’ve ever wondered, “Is that supposed to look like that?” you’re not alone. In her 15 years as an OB/GYN, Dr. Courtney Barnes has cared for thousands of women, getting up close and personal with their most intimate parts. And no matter how much expertise she offers, or how hard she works to make her patients feel comfortable and empowered in their care, she finds many are still insecure about their anatomy.
In an effort to give the female body the respect and honor it so deserves, here are the things she wishes every woman knew, straight from the source herself:
First of all, pet names are cute, but knowing — and teaching — proper anatomy terms are important.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pet name as much as the next person, but it’s critical for girls and women to know the appropriate names for their intimate body parts. Knowledge is power. All women should feel comfortable using the proper names for her own body parts. This also opens the door for them to ask questions or talk about issues.
The basics: The vagina is the tube, starting at the hymen and ending at the cervix.
The vulva is the outside. It's the part you can see and includes the clitoris, urethra (where urine comes out) and labia (lips). The perineum is the skin the extends from the vulvar opening to the anus.
Vulvas come in all shapes and sizes, so no, yours isn’t “weird.”
As a gynecologist, I look at thousands of vulvas, and I can tell you no two are the same. I can also tell you out of the thousands, not one has struck me as “weird.” Vulvas are like flowers; the uniqueness is what makes them beautiful, and very rarely do they have perfectly symmetrical petals. Which brings me to my next point…
Chances are, your labia aren’t symmetrical, and that’s okay.
There are two sets of labia, outer and inner. About half of vulvas have outer lips longer than the inner, and half have inner longer than the outer. As a general rule, the length of the sides isn't perfectly symmetric. Again, reference the flower. If you don’t believe me, feel free to visit the Labia Library website and check out the flower garden. Yes, it’s a real thing, and yes, there are real pictures of a variety of vulvas — all of which are normal.
You are your vulva’s worst critic.
Most sexual partners are not gynecologists and therefore don’t have the expertise that comes with looking at thousands of vulvas. A majority of the time, they’re just happy to be there and don't have a lot of critical thoughts.
Pubic hair is there for a reason.
As a gynecologist, I'm pretty much an expert on the American cultural trends of pubic hair. Right now, I’m seeing a lot of "slick as a seal," which most women use a razor to attain. Razors nick the skin. The skin has bacteria on it. That combination is the reason I see all sorts of issues with trauma to the skin, infections, folliculitis, abscesses and scarring.
Hair is there for a reason. Hair protects sensitive areas. Hair keeps the heat in. The vulva covered in a soft fluffy padding is protected. I understand wanting to trim the “jungle” to create an inviting atmosphere, and I understand not wanting the jungle to creep past the borders of your knickers. But can we please rethink the "slick as a seal" culture?
There are some good and not-so-good reasons to surgically alter your vulva.
I’ve been an OB/GYN for 15 years, and just recently I started seeing lots of young patients in my office wanting to surgically alter their anatomy. The surgery most of them want is a labiaplasty. Basically, I cut off a portion of the labia and sew it back together in attempt to create a symmetric and "perfect" flower. A good reason to do it: The labia are so long that they cause chafing or impede activities such as sex, exercise, etc. Less great reason to do it: Someone thinks your flower petals are a bit wonky.
It makes me sad to have patients crying in my office because they have true emotional distress about their vulvas. The insecurities usually come from a family member who sees their anatomy and says, "Yikes, that isn't normal." So, my advice: Think before you make a comment about your daughter's, lover’s or your own anatomy. One comment can make a huge impact.
In summary: Stop overanalyzing your anatomy. Talk about bodies with correct terms and respect. Listen to your vulva. And every once in a while, stop and admire the flowers, including your own.
*Courtney Barnes is an OB/GYN at MU Health Care.