What Biology Class Didn’t Teach You About Owning A Vagina

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Vajayjay, chouchie, vag, muff, she-bang, clam taco, flange, meat wallet, nature’s front pocket, front bum, fanny, gee, rosebush, Mary, octopussy, finger warmer, hoo-ha, box, baby chute, lady bits and lady garden, these are but some of the nicknames for a vagina you don’t learn in biology class.

It’s the channel from which new born babies emerge, it’s crucial to the menstrual cycle, and central station for sex. If there was a headquarters for womanhood, it would be located in the vagina. But for all that it’s treated like a bad word, never to be uttered. Some dare to say cunt for effect for sure, but never vagina. Vaginas should be idolised, after all, none of us would be here without them. How did it become so taboo to talk about them?

For most of us, our first knowledge of vaginas came from an awkward biology class at school with some scientifically questionable information from the problem pages of magazines thrown in for good (or bad) measure. Any further information we learn tends to be accumulated in a haphazard way, which makes what we learnt at school all the more important.

Biology class is taught with technical accuracy (though usually omitting such vital parts as the clitoris). This disconnected way of learning doesn’t impart the sense of ownership and TLC all young women should learn to develop in connection to their most intimate body part. Biology class doesn’t prepare women for a lifetime of owning a vagina even though it’s one of the few situations deemed socially acceptable to talk about them . Learning about vaginas in clinical terminology in a dull classrooms and then never talking about them in public leaves us woefully unprepared. Sex-ed at school is basic and useful when we want to learn where babies come from and why and how we menstruate, but fairly useless when we want to know anything else.

vulva diagram

vulva diagram. Source.

Even with the basics covered in class, some text books don’t label the vulva along with the vagina. It’s no wonder when we do dare to talk about our lady parts we often say vagina (which is actually just the inner passage) when we mean vulva (the name for the collective external parts of the female genitalia, pictured above).

Female Reproductive System diagram

Female Reproductive System Diagram. Source.


Diagrams used in sex-ed books outline the general parts – vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix, ovaries – but diagrams are not a true representation, so they don’t tell us what a real vagina and vulva should look like. As a result, lots of women worry whether or not their vulvas look ‘normal’ because they have nothing to compare them to. Society has made sexual imagery so taboo that the only source of real human visual information on the matter is now pornography. Pornography is the worst possible source because it makes women believe their vulva should be shaved and stylised in very specific ways and can trigger body dysmorphia. On the flip side those women who don’t want to watch porn or google potentially dodgy images stay in the dark, always wondering. We google-image-searched ‘vagina’ for you so you don’t have to – the images mostly show medical anomalies like cysts and tumours so it definitely won’t help you define ‘normal’. It’s a lose-lose situation that can be solved by simply talking more about vaginas and chipping away at the taboo. Illustrating the taboo is the fact that search engines would probably bury this article in the darkest corners of the internet if we posted a photographic picture of a real vagina here. 

Vice Magazine pop up warning

This very reasonable article from Vice didn’t even have any diagrams or pictures of lady gardens.

In reality vulvas and vaginas come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here’s a basic guideline: If your vulva has always looked a specific way and your vagina usually feels a certain way then that’s normal for you and nobody else’s should matter. You need to see a doctor if it changes shape, colour, smell, or if something unusual is going on. That’s why it’s important to get to know yourself down there, make sure you get to know your normal so if anything goes wrong you’ll catch it straight away. Make sure you don’t miss your cervical smear tests either. Some of the most informed women are those who carry out their own empirical scientific research – with a mirror and some feeling around. It’s just the same as a self-administered monthly breast exam but for your vagina.

When you type vagina into google the next immediate option that pops up is ‘vagina parts’. This clearly indicates that we really do want to know more about this wondrous cavern even if we don’t talk about it. It’s probably not a stretch to say a lot of people google ‘vagina parts’ with sex in mind. A vagina-related topic never broached in biology class is pleasure. A recently launched website called OMGYes claims to have helped conduct the first large-scale research on female pleasure (and even then only 2000 women took part). There is lots of research on various clinical problems that occur such as STIs, infertility problems, cancerous growths and pharmaceutical treatments for various ailments, but hardly any research published on simple pleasure because nobody wants to fund it. OMGYes partnered with Indiana University School of Public Health and the McKinsey Institute and found that many people had independently arrived at similar techniques for pleasure but no terminology existed for these techniques. Acts that are probably as old as humans themselves have evaded nomenclature because it is so taboo to talk about them. The website aims to help women maximise their pleasure through a instructive subscription service while continuing to further scientific research on the matter.

The vagina is a very absorbent part of the body with a sensitive PH level that changes throughout your cycle from roughly PH 3.5 – 4.5. Biology class definitely doesn’t prepare a woman for the two most commonly googled terms associated with the vagina – vaginal discharge and vaginal itching – despite the fact that at least 75% of women will suffer from some form of vaginitis in their lifetime. Most cases are caused by a yeast infection (sometimes called thrush) that causes itchiness and can be cured with various topical creams and medicines. Yeast flourishes as your vaginal PH level drops throughout your cycle becoming the most acidic just before your period(1). The other most common cause of vaginitis is a bacterial infection that can be treated with an antibiotic. Mostly this is caused by an imbalance of good vs bad bacteria in your vagina so remember to wash your hands before carrying out your empirical research or sexual activities. The vagina itself, however, is self-cleaning and vaginal douches or using soaps or other products can actually harm its natural balance. The mucosal membrane in your vagina helps regulate a healthy vagina and another thing never mentioned in biology class is that a certain amount of discharge is perfectly normal with a changing consistency at different parts of the cycle. Once again, getting to know your normal is important so you can spot an infection early. For a perfectly healthy vagina you should try not to interfere with your vagina’s natural PH levels too much to avoid infections. If your vaginal PH levels are off-balance it can result in unwanted odours that are a sign of infections. Your PH levels are highest during menstruation because blood has a PH of 7.4. This is totally normal, but the body is most prone to infections during this time so keep an eye out for abnormal discharge. The hormone oestrogen helps us regulate PH levels so breastfeeding and some contraceptive pills can also influence our vaginal balance.

You should always research different brands of condoms and lubricants because not all are designed with optimum vaginal health in mind – not that they would ever tell you this in biology class! Even though not all brands are created equal, condoms can protect you not only from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, but also from regular bacteria that can mess up your vagina’s natural state. If you’re a fan of Netflix’s Grace & Frankie, or have hit menopause already, you’ll probably know that lubricant is helpful beyond a certain age for a healthy sex life. Many people are sensitive to the ingredients in lubricant however so, once again, make sure you know what your normal is and take notice if a product is causing irritation or an increased number of infections. The same goes for tampons, some women find the trace chemicals leftover from growing and bleaching the cotton irritate them and tampons can soak up too much of our vagina’s mucous, especially on light period days, leaving our vaginas much drier than they would like(2). Try organic cotton tampons or a waste-free alternative. Frankie’s motto is if you wouldn’t eat it, it shouldn’t go into the vagina and there are tonnes of brands that have a transparent attitude towards their ingredients which won’t harm your vajayjay. If you feel adventurous you can even make your own yam lube like Frankie.

Biology class may not have taught us much but it’s never too late to learn now. Good research, beyond the biology class, is key to becoming a loving owner of a vagina. 

(1) Dr. Carol Livoti & Elizabeth Topp, Vaginas, an owner’s manual, (2004).
(2) Dr. Carol Livoti & Elizabeth Topp, Vaginas, an owner’s manual, (2004); http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mercola/feminine-hygiene-products_b_3359581.html

Main Image Source (original altered by HeadStuff)

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About Author

Neasa McGarrigle

Neasa is Science Editor at Headstuff. She is a historian of science & science communicator writing her PhD on DIAS and Erwin Schrödinger in Dublin. Neasa is pronounced NASA and she has heard every space joke going. Her twitter is @NeasaMcG