Get Up Close and Personal With Your Vulva
"Boys are fancy on the outside, and girls are fancy on the inside."
That's how a former colleague's mother explained the difference between men and women to her.
Technically she was right. Even the parts of women's sex organs that are not buried deep within our pelvis are hidden safely between our legs, where even we can't see them. Most of us can identify our vagina and clitoris and their function, but what about all that tissue between and around, collectively known as the vulva.
Let's take a little tour.
The labia majora are the outermost skin flaps and one of the sites where your pubic hair grows. They contain glands for sweat and sebum, the waxy white or yellowish substance that helps keep blood, urine and bacteria from migrating inward.
The labia minora, or inner lips, are full of nerve endings, which can deliver a sexy tingle when paid proper attention during intimate moments.
The vestibule can be found between the labia minora and surrounds the openings to the urethra and the vagina. This nerve-rich area is also a source of sexual pleasure and contains glands that provide some of the lubrication that gives you that "wet" feeling when they are stimulated. The area of the vestibule closest to the urethra also provides lubrication when you urinate.
Up front, we find the clitoral hood and clitoris, which, much like an iceberg, you can't see most of it—even with a mirror. That bit of flesh, given credit for being our sexual pleasure center, splits in half under the skin to form legs, or crura, and vestibular bulbs. The bulbs reach back through the labia, past the urethra and vaginal canal and toward the anus. These underground structures are made of erectile tissue that swells with blood during arousal.
Like those of us who possess them, there's a lot of variation in vulvas, and they change over time. Both childbirth and menopause can leave their mark.
If there is no tearing or stitches, the area might not undergo noticeable changes after childbirth, thanks to the skin's stretchiness. But if the site does not heal well—if the stitching wasn't done neatly or has broken down—corrective surgery, known as labiaplasty, may be necessary. Changes in skin condition, eczema, psoriasis, vulvar cancers, herpes and warts can also affect the shape and require surgery.
After menopause, the skin in the area becomes drier and tighter, which can lead to discomfort during sex. This dryness can be alleviated by using a lubricant that was designed especially for that sensitive skin. Resist the urge to grab the bottle of lotion on your nightstand to do the job, as it may contain perfumes and other ingredients that could prove unfriendly to your nether regions.
The vulva is sensitive both in a good and bad way. While the nerve endings that lie just below the surface can be a source of sexual pleasure, the skin needs tender attention and befitting care. Its warm moist nature, designed to create an optimal environment to initiate procreation, unfortunately also makes a fertile region for the growth of less-charming entities that can cause itching, burning and odor.
Some say hygiene requires nothing more than a moderate amount of warm water, but if you feel like you need a little more help, look for a product made specifically for the area. It couldn't hurt to ask your gynecologist for recommendations, too. Soap can irritate the sensitive skin and upset the bacteria in the vagina as much as douching does.
Likewise, removing hair from the area can give rise to many issues. Razors can lead to skin irritation and ingrown hairs. Waxing can damage the internal structure of the skin and cause the vulva to look older earlier. As we evolved from our earliest, more hirsute predecessors, pubic hair remained for a reason. It reduces friction during intercourse (hair on hair glides more easily than skin on skin) and helps prevent bacteria and other organisms from entering your body through nearby orifices.
Some of the easiest ways to be kind to your woman parts are to wear cotton underwear and limit the use of tight clothes. This will help increase airflow to the region, keep both the vulva and the vagina in shape and otherwise keep your fancy parts from turning funky.