20 things you didn't know about lady bits
How much do you really know about, ahem, down there? Rebecca Howard-Dennis puts our privates on parade (so to speak)
1. Front bottom? Lady garden? Fouffe or good old-fashioned fanny? According to those in the know (yes, there are people out there who do this for a living), there are over 1,200 terms for the vagina in the English language alone. But while pet names such as ‘vajajay’ (which first appeared on Gray’s Anatomy, don’tcha know?) have slipped into everyday parlance, some experts believe enough is enough. ‘We should be proud of our bodies,’ says Dr Carol Livoti, Manhattan obstetrician and gynaecologist, and co-author of Vaginas: An Owner’s Manual (£8.99, Thunder’s Mouth Press), who regards such euphemisms and slang as dumbing down. ‘We should start calling our anatomical organs by their anatomical name.’ Us? We’re opting for ‘vajajay’ over vulva every time.
2. Bowel aside, the vagina holds more bacteria than any other part of the body. High levels of good bacteria keep the pH of your particulars in balance, and try to outnumber any bad bacteria that might get in.
3. Feminists, you’re not gonna like this, but the word vagina roughly translated from Latin means ‘sword holder’. Penis has no such sexist connotations and is taken from the Latin word for ‘tail’.
4. What you may call your vagina is more accurately your vulva. The vulva is anything you can see on the outside, and the vagina (or birth canal) is a muscular tube that links the vulva to the uterus. Glad we’ve cleared that one up.
5. Vaginal douching involves spraying a cleansing solution (either bought, or a DIY mix of vinegar and water – ouch!) into your front bottom, but doctors agree the vagina is capable of taking care of its own business. ‘I compare it to a self-cleaning oven,’ says obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Lisa Masterson. ‘High levels of naturally-occurring lactobacillus bacteria that produce hydrogen peroxide keep everything in order.’
6. The clitoris is actually shaped like a wishbone, not a button as it’s commonly described, and is loaded with some 8,000 teeny tingly nerve endings - more than any other body part. FYI, a penis has a mere 4,000.
7. When excited, vaginas can expand to about twice the size. The average un-aroused vagina is about 3-4in deep, but due to the phenomenon of ‘vaginal tenting’ it can double during sex. It’s partly thanks to increased muscular tension in the body that draws the uterus up, creating more length, as well as neurotransmitters triggered during arousal that relax and flood the vagina’s walls with blood, creating more width.
8. Unlike men, women need no downtime between orgasms. In fact, the world record of 222 orgasms in a single hour is reputedly held by a woman and was recorded at Denmark’s does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin event, The Masturbate-a-thon. Incidentally, the male competitors managed a paltry 16 in 60 minutes.
9. Vaginas and sharks both contain the natural lubricant squalene. Yup, who knew that the fluid produced by your hoo-ha also crops up in sharks’ livers, and is extracted for use in pharmaceutical vaccines? Fact.
10. A healthy vagina has its fair share of secretions over the course of a monthly cycle. Most of the time this is perfectly normal ‘housekeeping’ and is necessary for the removal of dead cells and bacteria. The amount, colour, smell and consistency will vary depending on where you are in your cycle, and when closely monitored can act as your best cue for when to conceive. Stretchy, slightly opaque secretions that resemble egg white are a clear indication that oestrogen is high and you’re at your most fertile.
11. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35 in the UK, with around 3,000 women diagnosed a year. In more than 99 per cent of cases, human papilloma virus (HPV) is to blame. While there are more than 100 different types of the virus, and most people (men and women) will have the virus at some point in their lives, certain strains carry a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. Regular screening will help detect abnormal cell changes before they become cancerous and, as part of the NHS screening programme, women with mild or borderline cell changes will be offered an HPV test. In women who test negative, the changes tend to go away, while those who test positive and have pre-cancerous changes can be treated using a variety of techniques, such as cryosurgery (freezing tissue) and electrosurgical or laser procedures. For more information, visit cancerresearchuk.org
12. While there’s no solid evidence that certain positions boost your chances of conception, MRI scanning of couples in flagrante showed that positions which allow deep penetration help to deposit sperm right next to the cervix. The study only looked at two positions, but both missionary and coitus more ferarum (doggy-style to you and me) seem to give semen the best chance. Many women swear by lying on their backs afterwards, too. ‘I don’t know if it made any difference,’ says mum of three Daisy, ‘but it seemed logical that staying horizontal would help boost our chances.’
13. Don’t be surprised if your second trimester is plagued by yeast infections. No one knows why this stage of pregnancy tends to make some women more prone, but doctors suspect hormones alter your vagina’s pH, allowing yeast to thrive. Your midwife or doctor can prescribe a safe, topical treatment. Oh, and stick to knickers with cotton gussets.
14. Soon after conception your body begins pumping out extra oestrogen and progesterone, both of which will have an impact down below. While some women report a surge in secretions, others notice their bits become more swollen and tender, partly due to the body’s increase in blood volume, the majority of which is routed to your uterus to nurture your growing baby.
15. The weight of your growing baby can put serious pressure on your nethers, and distended veins can appear anywhere below your waist. Fortunately throbbing varicosities – as they’re also known – in your vulva are rare (although they become more common after multiple pregnancies) and will subside after delivery.
16. Nine out of ten new mums experience some degree of tearing when giving birth vaginally, with 60 to 70 per cent of those requiring stitches. First-degree tears will usually heal on their own, but a second-degree or more, or an episiotomy, will need stitches to speed healing and make you more comfortable. The thread used is soft and dissolves, and most tears or episiotomies heal within a month of your baby’s birth; after two months you can expect to be pain-free. But in the short term, you could try these mum-approved techniques:
- ‘Pour a jug of warm water over the stitched area at the same time as you pee. It helps dilute your urine and stops it stinging.’ Jules, Epsom.
- ‘I eased the pain with nappies full of ice.’ Melissa, Bristol. Ice can work wonders and be super-soothing in the first 24 hours after delivery, but be aware that any swelling in the days after is caused by excess fluid collecting in your labia, which will disperse in its own time.
17. While you can never safeguard your bits from the trials and tribulations of labour, you can get your vagina ‘match fit’. Perineal massage encourages optimal stretching during delivery: twice-weekly sessions from week 34 can reduce your risk of an episiotomy as well as post-partum perineal pain. Here’s how:
- Add a few drops of vitamin E or organic coconut oil to your fingertips and around the opening of your vagina.
- Insert both thumbs about 3cm deep inside, then push both thumbs down and out sideways until you feel a slight tingling.
- Hold the stretch for two minutes.
- ‘I think this was the best preparation for labour,’ says Susie. ‘I had a ventouse delivery and didn’t tear or need an episiotomy.’ But if the hands-on approach leaves you feeling squeamish, how about the pelvic floor-training device Epi-No Delphine Plus (£89.99, epi-no.co.uk)?
18. We’re not saying your bits will be exactly the same after a vaginal birth, but it may please you to know there’s no statistical difference in average recorded vaginal size between women who’ve had babies and those who haven’t.
19. Pubic hair is back. Apparently the ‘bare down there’ movement of the Nineties and Noughties is over – a new study says women can’t be bothered and men don’t really care about pubic topiary. Even Gwyneth declared on live TV that she’s ‘rocking a Seventies vibe down there.’ So ditch the razor, depilation is dead. Long live the bush!
20. After childbirth, the drop in oestrogen necessary to trigger breast milk production unfortunately also causes vaginal dryness, tenderness and a lower libido. So the longer you breastfeed, the longer it may take to fully renew your interest in nookie. Remember, penetrative sex is best delayed until after your six-week check-up.