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The Biggest Misconceptions About Your Vagina

It's time to separate fact from fiction.
PHOTO: Pixabay

Cosmopolitan.com spoke with Karen Elizabeth Boyle, MD, FACS, to debunk the biggest misconceptions about your vagina.

1. The myth: Your vagina naturally smells bad. 

The truth: Boyle says that it's normal for the vagina to have some slight odor, and that odor can vary depending upon your menstrual cycle, or if you just had sex or have been sweating a lot. She adds, "There are distinct causes of abnormal vaginal odors, the most common cause being bacterial vaginosis, which is when there is an overgrowth of normally occurring vagina bacteria. Other causes are not having good hygiene, trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection, or a retained tampon." Boyle says the vagina shouldn't smell "bad" (aka different from how it pretty much always smells), but if it does, it's a good idea to make a visit to your gynecologist for an examination.

2. The myth: Your vagina looks the same for your whole life.

The truth: Like the rest of your body, your vagina and vulva change quite a bit over the years. Boyle says that pre-puberty, your vagina in small and tight, your labia minora are almost not present at all, and the tissue is pink and sometimes dry. Once puberty starts however, lubrication and secretions start, and the vagina grows just like the rest of you. Then once you start having sex regularly, the vagina changes again, since the hymen tissue becomes disrupted and you can see lumpy bumpy tissue just inside the vaginal opening. Boyle also adds that the vulva changes a lot during pregnancy and afterward, saying, "During pregnancy and after you've given birth, not everything is as it once was with the vagina. The labia can darken, skin can stretch, the vagina can be more stretched out and dilated, the perineum can be weaker, and the vagina more relaxed." 

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3. The myth: Your labia should look one particular way.

The truth: Boyle says labia are like noses in that they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all of which are normal, despite the rise in labiaplasty. As a surgeon who regularly performs labiaplasty, Boyle says, "I always support my patients by reassuring them that their labia are normal, despite their shape, length, or size." However, there are some medical scenarios where surgery may be warranted. "When the labia minora become very elongated and enlarged, and hang outside the outer labia or labia majora, women will have irritation, pain with intercourse." But that still doesn't mean there's one way they should look. Alyssa Dweck, MS, MD, FACOG, a gynecologist in Westchester county and assistant clinical professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, seconded the idea that there's no "normal" way for your labia to look, and points to the project one man did where he captured many vulvas in plaster to show how different they can appear.

4. The myth: Douching is the only real way to get your vagina really clean. 

The truth: This is the opposite of true, with Boyle saying she does not recommend douching at all. Boyle says, "Douching can disrupt the normal flora and pH of the vagina and cause irritation and burns. Cleaning with a gentle soap is usually sufficient, but if you feel the need for a deep clean, I would take a bath (without bubbles, because even bubbles can be irritating too)." So, seriously, you don't need to douche

5. The myth: Your vagina is the whole package down there.

The truth: Nope. Boyle says, "The vagina is organ that is located inside your pelvis. The vaginal opening is just inside the opening of the labia minora. The best general term for the whole external area is the vulva, which encompasses everything: the mons pubis, the clitoris, the urethra, the labia minora, labia majora, and the perineum are all in the vulva. The vagina is inside." 

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6. The myth: If you see vaginal discharge, something's probably wrong. 

The truth: Boyle says this is totally untrue, and it is normal and healthy to have vaginal secretions, and depending on the time of your monthly cycle, the secretions can vary significantly. Boyle says, "During your fertile period, you make an inviting lubricant to help assist the sperm in the journey north to your egg, and then at other times of the month, your vaginal secretion can be thicker and whiter. With arousal, it's essential to have natural lubrication." According to Carol Livoti, MD, ob-gyn at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and author of Vaginas: An Owner's Manual, "clear, elastic mucous resembling raw egg whites" and milky white discharge is totally normal. If it's cottage cheese-like, yellow, grayish-green, watery, or more than you usually produce, then yes, see a doctor.