Often the vagina and vulva are used as interchangeable terms but they are in fact different things. A ‘near enough is good enough’ mentality to naming female anatomy has been commonly used for a long time. If I had a broken arm I wouldn’t describe it as 'that thing hanging off the side of my body’ so why are women so often taught to describe their genital's as 'down there' or call the whole region a vagina? Why not use the correct terminology? How can you learn about your body and feel empowered if you do not know what's what?
The vagina is the internal structure while the vulva is the external structure. What is not commonly known is that there can be variation in the type of internal structure you are born with. For example, as a result of my condition known as MRKH, I was born with a vaginal dimple which was about 5mm deep. This meant that to have a larger vagina, I decided to lengthen it by stretching it using vaginal dilators. So not all vagina’s are the same and everyone's vagina is probably their own version of normal.
In addition to size variation, there are other interesting facts about the vagina. Including that the vagina itself lacks sensitivity with nerve endings generally concentrated in the entrance of the vagina or in the first 1/3 of the vagina. Pleasurable sensations from penetration of the vagina are likely caused from the pressure and internal stimulation of the clitoral complex rather than the result of the stimulation of nerve endings in the vagina itself.
Vagina’s are also self cleaning and therefore do not need specific hygiene products which are widely marketed to women. In fact, these can damage vulva-vaginal health and the balance of healthy bacterial leading to infection eg. yeast infections.
The vulva is the collective name for the external genitalia. It comes in all different shapes, sizes and colours. As seen in this diagram, the vulva consists of the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, vaginal opening, urethra and bartholin gland.
When sexually aroused blood flow to the vulva increases which enlarges the area and can make the skin darken. Sensitivity can come from all areas of the vulva, it depends on the person.
It is important to remember that this part of the body comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. Unfortunately, women do not get to see images of vulva's very often (unless they are same sex attracted) which can distort ideas of what they are supposed to look like. These ideas of what the perfect vulva is supposed to look like are even entrenched in Australian censorship laws which limit the depiction of protruding labia minora in public images. Protruding labia minora are often digitally removed from imagery to meet these censorship laws further distorting ideas of what the vulva should look like.
Fortunately, there are projects like The Labia Library who are working to nomalise the variation of external female genitalia. The Labia Library, produced by Women’s Health Victoria, shows images of real women’s vulvas and some basic information which is very useful. Check it out!