The labia are some of the most visible parts of your vulva, but they're still shrouded in mystery and pubic hair. To clear up a few things about your own anatomy, Cosmopolitan.com spoke with Dr. Barbara Levy, vice president of health policy with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, to shed some much needed light on a key part of your vulvar landscape.
The labia are the part of the vulva that most people call the "lips," because they kind of look like lips. Women have two sets of them: the larger, fleshier, hair-covered labia majora on the outside, and the smaller, smooth labia minora tucked inside those. Both sets serve to protect the vagina, both get bigger during sex, and both can vary a lot in size from woman to woman. A study from 2005 that measured different aspects of the ~female anatomy~ found that flaccid labia majora lengths varied from about 7 to 12 centimeters, and labia minora length varied 2 to 10 centimeters. If women were like men who brag about penis size all the time, they'd talk endlessly about their long and elegant 10 cm labia. But women do not do that, because women are smart.
In some cases, a woman's labia can get stretched longer to the point of discomfort if they're continuously getting caught in her clothes, and Dr. Levy mentioned an avid cyclist who had damaged her labia after years of long bike rides. If your labia are uncomfortably long, you can go to a gynecologist and discuss solutions—one of which is cosmetic surgery (labiaplasty). But Dr. Levy said that, in 31 years of practicing medicine on about 31,000 patients, she's only considered operating on three women who were experiencing physical discomfort due to elongated labia.
"As a women's activist and feminist, I avoid operating on women for purely cosmetic reasons unless I have a really compelling reason to do so," she said. "For women who really feel like their lips are getting in the way, I would say that's worth a conversation with a provider. But removal of any of that tissue is removing sexually functional tissue, and it's going to leave a scar that could potentially be painful and may be a long-term problem."
And the thing about longer labia, or a "big vagina," meaning you've had more sexual partners? That's completely and totally untrue. Nothing about your labia is an indicator of sexual history, unless they carry sores from a past sexually transmitted infection. And even then, many STIs can be contracted in ways that don't involve sex.
SHAPE AND COLOR
If you hold a mirror up to your vulva and stare meticulously at your labia (What, that's not your Friday night? K...), you'll probably find that both sides aren't exactly matching. "Just like our faces are asymmetrical, our breasts are asymmetrical, and our feet are asymmetrical, we got one lip that's a little bigger than the other," Dr. Levy said.
There's also nothing weird about having labia minora (inner lips) that are longer than your outer lips—a study from 2005 about female genital appearance found that about half of all women have inner lips that are a bit larger than their outer lips. Sort of like how some people have innie belly buttons, and other people have outies, but instead of your belly button, it's your vulva.
Although the labia majora are just normal skin, they can vary in color from the rest of your body. Like they might be slightly purple, or a little pink, or maybe sort of brownish. All totally normal. And like the inside of your mouth is not the same color as your face, the labia minora can also be a different color than the labia majora.
The only time color can be a sign that something's wrong is if your labia are especially red and sore feeling—wearing clothes that are too tight or rub a lot can basically give you a vulva blister, the same way wearing a pair of tight shoes can give you a foot blister. If that's happening to you, consider switching so some baggier undies and pants (or skirts—feel the breeeeze) for a few days until the irritation goes away.
The labia majora are what you see when you look at a vulva, face on. The skin is basically the same skin as on the rest of your body, but with a bunch of pubic hair coming out of it (Charming!). Dr. Levy said you can treat that skin as you would any other skin, which means you can use moisturizer if it gets irritated. Just be wary of skin infections like you would anywhere else—especially if you're shaving or waxing.
If you get a skin infection on your outer lips, you can basically treat it as you would a skin infection on your arm. Just be careful, because you don't want to get any sort of lotions or ointments on your more sensitive labia minora. I REPEAT: NO LOTION ON YOUR LABIA MINORA. THEY DO NOT LIKE THAT.
Because vulvas are a rich tapestry, the texture of your labia can vary a lot. As Dr. Elizabeth Stewart explained to Women's Health, your labia (like your nipples) "contain small, bumpy-looking glands" that kind of look like tiny pimples or goosebumps. If you get a hand mirror and hold that up to your labia, you might also notice extra little folds of skin that look like tiny ruffles. Also totally OK and normal.
The only textures on your labia that should cause concern are cysts or new moles—call a doctor about those.
Shaving and waxing are really the biggest dramas that exist for the labia majora, which are otherwise healthy and normal and fine as long as you aren't the victim of a straddle injury, or experience repetitive pulling. And forget what you've read about whether you should or should not shave down there: Dr. Levy says that, despite the myth that shaving makes your vulva somehow cleaner, it doesn't. There's nothing wrong with removing your pubic hair, if that's what you're into, but pubic hair does serve a few handy purposes.
"There's actually a sexual function to the hair," Dr. Levy said. "The hair collects some of the fluid from the vagina and from the labia and that fluid has odors in it that are very attractive to other people." So go ahead and shave or wax to your heart's desire, but you might be shaving away some of your magical natural aura. And aside from that, your pubes protect your vagina from infection and, I don't know, dust storms? They protect it, is all.
For those who are worried their pube style isn't ~en vogue~, or that their ob-gyn is going to lecture them for shaving or something: Don't. "Our job is to be supportive and give education, so I would say that I want young girls and women to do what makes them feel most comfortable before themselves," Dr. Levy said. "Not for their doctors, or for a boyfriend, or for some other girl, or because they saw something on the Internet that makes them more comfortable. It bothers me that there's one more thing for us to feel insecure about."
NOW, ABOUT YOUR LABIA MINORA
The labia minora, or the inner lips, do not grow hair and are a bit more sensitive. "Think of the inner lips and the vagina like the inside of your mouth," Dr. Levy said. No, your labia don't have taste buds (CAN YOU IMAGINE), she means your inner labia has the same texture, basically, as the inside of your cheek. Unlike your mouth, though, the inner labia are lubricated and oily to protect your vagina from any weird invaders. And they become really swollen during sex—kind of like a boner, but for ladies. They also have way more nerve endings than the outer lips and connect to the top of the clitoris, so that's why it feels really good if you (or a partner) rub your inner lips, but rubbing your outer lips is like whatever.
While moisturizing the outer lips is perfectly fine, Dr. Levy said you should avoid putting soap or any other scented product on your labia minora. Dr. Levy actually said the no. 1 thing she sees people with irritated inner lips do is use too much soap. "People are crazy clean, we think we smell bad or we're trying to clean up all the germs down there, which of course you can never do," she said. "That's the one habit I certainly see in my practice that can cause people to be very irritated." Irritated labia are no fun, especially considering they play such a role in your sex life.
But in case your inner lips do get uncomfortable, Dr. Levy said she commonly recommends something mild and unscented, without petroleum in it, that will seal in your body's natural moisture. If you believe your inner lips are infected and they aren't getting better though, you should probably call a doctor.
AND WHAT HAPPENS TO LABIA WHEN YOU GET OLDER?
Since the labia are made of skin, and skin changes as we age, the appearance of your labia changes too. Some women get labiaplasties to maintain their youthful vulvar appearance, but purely cosmetic surgery to your lady bits can leave unwanted consequences and those procedures aren't going to do anything to improve sexual function. "Just like faces get narrower and a little bit droopier as people get older, the same thing happen to the labia," Dr. Levy said. "But, during sexual activity, they continue to engorge and function perfectly normally." Your old crone of a vagina can still work it like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
For a body part that can cause such emotional distress, your labia are pretty simple. And so long as they aren't causing physical discomfort, they're perfectly normal. The odds that you have labia that are abnormal are incredibly slim. "Anatomically problematic labia are very rare, far under 1%," said Dr. Levy. They're just another body part! And all body parts look different from person to person.
Part of all the labia drama and mystique has to do with the fact that we just don't see as many vulvas out and about as we do penises. And Dr. Levy can back me up on this. "We don't parade around with our body parts like men do, so we're not aware of what everybody looks like," she said. "But as a gynecologist, seeing 20 or 30 bottoms a day for 30 years, I can tell you that there's lots and lots of variations of normal."
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.