Written by Jessica McKinney, PT, MS and Samantha Pulliam, MD and sponsored by
The images of female nudity on the internet and in the media often show a very narrow range of body types, which may leave you wondering, ‘am I normal?’ Well, the short answer is: yes! That’s because there really is no ‘normal.’ Just as faces vary in size, shape, and appearance, vaginas and vulvas, too, are unique.
What is a “normal” vagina anyway?
First, let’s get some terminology straight. People often refer to the vagina, when they really mean the vulva – the outside, visible part of the female genitalia. The vulva includes: the vaginal opening, the urethral opening (where pee comes out), the labia majora and labia minora (the outer and inner lips around the openings of the vagina and urethra), and the external part of the clitoris. The vagina is the inside part of the female genitalia. It’s a flexible tube that is flattened most of the time, expanding as needed for sexual activity or to accommodate a tampon, for example. The vagina connects the uterus, or womb, to the vulva.
When it comes to appearances, there is a wide range of ‘normal’ that includes vulvas of different sizes, shapes, and colors. The labia can be long or short, wide or narrow, tucked up and in or drape down. For some, the inner labia extend past the outer labia or are so small they are hard to find. Sometimes, the labia are asymmetrical, or uneven. The clitoris can also vary in size and may be hidden away or extend out past the clitoral hood, the skin that covers the glans clitoris.
There is also an array of skin colors, textures and hair growth. It is helpful to get to know the appearance of your vulva, so that you can recognize any unusual changes and report these to your doctor. If you notice any unusual redness, dark or light-colored spots, new bumps, itching, burning, pain or swelling, it is important to discuss with your doctor.
What’s vaginal discharge? How do I know what’s regular and what’s not?
Once you hit puberty, the vagina begins to produce a clear or white-colored discharge. It’s mostly water and normally contains different types of bacteria that help keep the area clean. That’s right – the vagina is self-cleaning. Estrogen, one of the two main female sex hormones, helps to maintain the lining of the vaginal wall, so that it is thick and pliable (estrogen has many other important jobs, too!). This encourages growth of healthy bacteria, which produce a substance that keeps the vagina slightly acidic. The acidity keeps harmful bacteria and yeast from growing. This is why it’s best to clean the vulva with warm water and a mild soap, if needed. Using harsh soaps, fragrances or douches can disrupt the healthy bacteria, and lead to infection or irritation.
Normal vaginal discharge has a mild odor but should not be very strong or foul-smelling. You may notice slight changes in color, consistency, or scent throughout your cycle, which is also totally normal. It’s helpful to take note of your body’s normal vaginal discharge throughout your cycle. If you find there is a persistent very strong or unpleasant smell or notice any changes in color, amount or consistency, these may be signs of infection or an underlying medical condition. Be sure to discuss with your doctor if you have any of these concerns.
About the authors:
Ms. McKinney is a physical therapist and has specialized in pelvic and women’s health throughout her career. Her background includes women’s health education, advocacy, and business and program development in the US as well as in low-resource global health settings. She currently serves as Vice President of Medical Affairs and Clinical Advocacy at Renovia Inc.
Dr. Pulliam a fellowship-trained and board certified urogynecologist, a subspecialty of medicine focused exclusively on female pelvic health. She has been in clinical and leadership positions at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), as well as within the American Urogynecologic Society, and she currently serves as the Chief Medical Officer at Renovia Inc.
- Moore K, Dalley A, Agur A. Clinically Oriented Anatomy. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2013.
- Lloyd J, Crouch NS, Minto CL, Liao LM, Creighton SM. Female genital appearance: “Normality” unfolds. BJOG An Int J Obstet Gynaecol. 2005;112(5):643-646. doi:10.1111/j.1471-0528.2004.00517.x.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Vulvovaginal Health. Freq Asked Quest FAQ190 Women’s Heal. 2015. https://www.acog.org/-/media/For-Patients/faq190.pdf?dmc=1&ts=20190118T2109581063. Accessed January 18, 2019.