Anna Yam, Ph.D.
Hello Vulva! Let's Be Friends
Updated: Apr 29
You have body parts “down there,” and maybe you are already good friends.
You might also have been frustrated with them, have mixed feelings about them, have been avoiding them, or don’t know much about them. If you’ve felt this way, you are far from being alone. Many of us were not encouraged to engage in self-exploration as little girls, or actively discouraged from it. In contrast, little boys have visual and tactile exposure to their genitals from infancy. This can make a big difference in terms of self-knowledge and comfort.
Many people also don't get a good education about female genital anatomy and function in school or at home. Given the importance of this information for health, sexuality, and pleasure, this education should be readily available.
Though the internet has greatly increased our access to helpful information, online outlets still make errors or provide poorly supported information on topics relating to female pelvic anatomy, female sexuality, and similar topics. For example, I recently saw an article in a prominent journal that mislabeled female genitalia. Ooops.
Here’s a diagram (from Planned Parenthood) with the anatomy labeled correctly.
Notice that the external genitalia is called the vulva (vuhl-vuh). The vaginal opening is hard to see without a mirror. The area just outside the vagina is called a vestibule (not labeled). The majority of the vagina is inside the body, its visible outer part is called the introitus (not labeled). Here's another view, from the National Vulvodynia Association. The Clitoris is actually a large-ish organ, with the majority of its body also located inside the body. The small diagram at the top (above) is the internal Clitoris.
The Mirror Activity
Now that you know the names of the anatomical parts, it's time to take a closer look.
Start by finding a comfortable, well-lit setting. A little back support and a comfy surface to sit on is helpful. Find a hand-mirror, makeup mirror, or any small mirror you can hold comfortably. Take off your bottoms and position the mirror so that you can see your vulva.
If you feel comfortable, take a few minutes to study the vulvar parts, setting the intention to draw your vulva from memory. This will help you focus your attention and provide some grounding if the activity becomes emotionally difficult.
Looking at your vulva will bring up many thoughts and emotions. If you are like many people I work with, you may have viewed your vagina, or your vulva as a whole, as a source of physical and emotional suffering. Your vulva might feel foreign to you, non-compliant, or something to fix. As you observe your body, notice the thoughts and feelings that come up, and try to be gentle with them, and with yourself. Notice any judgments that come up around appearance and function. If you feel up for it, write down your thoughts and emotions.
It is helpful to do these activities more than once. Through greater familiarity comes acceptance, and acceptance is the first step to real, positive change.
Are you interested in developing greater self-knowledge and comfort with your body? Is vulvar or vaginal discomfort interfering with your life? Dr. Yam has created an online course to empower women with information and practical steps to heal their pain. Learn more and enroll in the Healing Pelvic Pain Course.