Know Your Anatomy: Why You Should Look at Your Vulva and Vaginal Opening
Just as it’s important to do a skin check or a breast self-exam, it’s a good idea to look at your vulva on a regular basis. Not only does a vulvar self-exam help you be more knowledgeable about your own body, it also can help you stay on top of your health.
Chances are, though, if you’ve grown up in the United States, the idea of a vulvar self-exam might seem uncomfortable or strange. In your sex ed courses, you may not have been taught about external female anatomy or the huge diversity of what a healthy vulva can look like. You may have gone your entire life without seeing another vulva, and you may have never seen your own. For these reasons (and many others), there is a very real sense of shame and embarrassment when it comes to talking about female genital health. All of these things combined can lead to some extremely negative health outcomes, and we strongly believe it should not be that way.
While you may not need to look at your vulva every month and it should not replace your gynecological checkups, it can be helpful to better understand your body and spot problems. Let’s take a closer look at how to perform a vulvar self-exam and why it’s important.
“Vulva” vs. “vagina”: What's the difference?
Many people use the terms “vulva” and “vagina” interchangeably, but there is actually a difference. As the Cleveland Clinic puts it, “your vagina is a canal-like organ located inside of your body that opens outside of your body. It’s a powerful passage that leads from your uterus (inside of your body) to your vulva, which includes your external reproductive organs, or genitals.” In other words, your vulva is the part of your anatomy that’s on the outside of your body (it includes the your clitoris, labia, and vaginal opening), and your vagina is a tunnel inside your body that leads to your uterus.
How to look at your vulva and vaginal opening
If it’s your first time, it’s normal to feel anxious, unsure, or uncomfortable about looking at your vulva and vaginal opening. It’s completely understandable to wonder if your vulva is “normal.” The truth is, however, there is no universal definition of what a “normal” vulva looks like! Healthy vulvas come in many different shapes, colors, and sizes, and it’s for this reason that Women’s Health Victoria created The Labia Library, a resource that includes a photo gallery to show the natural diversity of women’s genitals.
While there’s lots of variety in what vulvas can look like, there are a few parts to the anatomy that you can identify, such as your clitoris (or clitoral hood), your labia majora and labia minora, and your vaginal opening. As a starting point, it might be helpful to check out a diagram of the external female genital anatomy so you know what you’re looking at.
Experts recommend looking at your vulva when you are in between periods. It’s important to remember, too, that it can be easy for bacteria to enter the vagina. Before you begin, make sure to wash and dry your hands thoroughly.
When you are ready, find a spot in your home where you feel comfortable. There are a few positions that you can try. You might try spreading a towel on the floor and sitting on top of it with your back against a wall or propped up by pillows. Then, spread your legs, bend your knees, and keep your feet on the floor. You can also stand in the bathroom with one foot on the ground and one foot on the toilet or edge of the tub. Relax your pelvic floor muscles and use a handheld or floor-length mirror to take a look.
Everyone’s body and anatomy is unique, and there are lots of factors that can affect how your vulva looks, such as where you are in your menstrual cycle and whether you’ve given birth. It may take a few self exams in different positions for you to learn what normal looks like for you.
How a vulvar self-exam can help with pelvic organ prolapse
While there are many benefits to looking at your vulva, there are some specific ways it can help you if you have prolapse or suspect you may have it.
Depending on your specific symptoms, it’s possible that you may be able to see your prolapse from the outside of your body. It might look like a bulge or something that is “coming out”. It’s also possible that you may feel your prolapse symptoms more intensely after certain activities or exercise. Your prolapse may be more visible during these times, so it can be helpful to look at your vulva/vaginal opening when you are feeling heaviness in your pelvic area. Sometimes it can be difficult to describe what you’re experiencing to your healthcare provider, so you can also take pictures on your phone to show your provider at your appointment.
**Medical Disclaimer: This post is intended to provide information and resources only. This post or any of the information contained within should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Always seek the guidance of your qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding your healthcare, conditions, and recommended treatment.