Page last updated December 2020

What does a vagina look like? Anatomy explained

What does a vagina look like? Anatomy explained - The Femedic

I was older than I’d like to admit when I first looked at my vagina in the mirror. Before then, I’d barely even thought about what it looked like, even though I’d been menstruating for several years already and was sexually active. When you consider that in a 2019 survey, just under half of British women couldn’t label the vagina in a diagram,1 this doesn’t seem so unusual — but, in fact, how little so many of us know about our genitals is a sorry state of affairs.

How did we get here? Probably because, like me, many of us grew up in a world where genitals and sexuality were topics shrouded in shame and stigma. If you wanted to discuss them openly, you’d run the risk of being seen as crude or dirty.

The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. Here, we’ve explained vaginal anatomy: what each part is called, how it works, and why it’s important.

What is the vagina?

The vagina is an elastic, muscular canal that has an opening between the legs — between the anus and the urethra — and leads to the uterus via the cervix. The external parts of genitalia assigned as ‘female’ are called the vulva, which is often mistakenly thought to be a part of the vagina. ‘Vagina’ only refers to the internal canal that leads to the uterus.

Vaginas can vary in shape and size between different people — some may be more egg-shaped and others may be more cylindrical. On average, the vagina is around 8cm long.2

What does a vagina look like?

Because the vagina is inside the body, we’ve included two diagrams that show how it appears from the outside and how it looks inside the body in relation to the uterus.

How does a vagina look from the outside?

Vaginal opening

This is the part of the vagina that is visible externally, where the canal opens into the outside. This is where menstrual blood comes out, where tampons and menstrual cups are inserted, where hands, a toy, or a penis may enter during sex, and the passage through which babies are born.

How does a vagina look on the inside?

Hymen

The hymen is a thin piece of tissue that covers the opening of the vagina. However, it almost never covers the opening completely, and not everyone with a vagina is born with one. The hymen is also called the vaginal corona.

The hymen can be stretched and broken easily from movement such as from exercising, using a tampon or a sex toy, or having any kind of penetrative sex.

It is a myth held by many cultures that an intact hymen is a sign of virginity, i.e., that the person hasn’t had penetrative sex yet. Virginity in itself is a social and patriarchal construct based on the idea that a woman’s value is tied to her sexual status: she is ‘pure’ before having sex and when she does, she is ‘giving away’ this quality.

Vaginal canal and vaginal walls

The connecting canal between the cervix and the outside. It is not symmetrical nor a perfect cylinder shape: the front wall (anterior wall) is around 6-9cm long while the back (posterior) wall is around 8-12cm.3 It doesn’t go straight upwards, either — the canal slants backwards at a 45 degree angle, towards the anus.

The vaginal walls are lined with a mucous membrane which has a number of ridges and folds that run from the anterior to the posterior wall and contribute to the elasticity and structure of the vaginal canal. If you were to take a cross section of the vaginal canal, the folds and walls would form a H shape: the vaginal walls would be the upright lines on either side, with the folds forming the horizontal line that connects them. These ridges and folds generally become smoother after menopause.

Our vaginal mucosa protects the skin inside the vaginal cavity, and plays a number of important roles in immunity, pregnancy, and more.4

G-spot

A cluster of nerve endings on the anterior wall of the vagina that can cause sexual pleasure and potentially ejaculation when stimulated. It is named after a German doctor called Ernst Gräfenberg who is thought to be one of the first to describe the area in medical literature. However, similar mentions of this area are said to date back to 11th century India.5

The spot is roughly a third of the way up the anterior wall, although this can vary between people. Touching the g-spot isn’t necessarily pleasurable for everyone, so don’t worry if you try to stimulate it and don’t feel anything.

The existence of the g-spot has been contested due to a lack of supporting scientific evidence. Some believe that stimulation of this area occurs due to its proximity to the clitoris, which is known to give pleasure in most people when stimulated.

Fornix

Fornix means ‘arch’ in Latin, and within the vagina simply refers to the recess caused by the way the cervix protrudes into the vagina to connect it to the uterus.

Cervix

The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina. It’s a cylinder-shaped passage of tissue that goes through a variety of changes to facilitate a number of different functions: allowing menstrual blood out, helping or preventing sperm from entering the uterus,6 and moving upwards to allow the vagina to lengthen when we’re sexually aroused.

During pregnancy, the cervix protects the growing fetus by creating a thick plug of mucus, which protects the uterus from infection.7 The mucus thins shortly before childbirth, and the cervical walls relax to allow delivery.

In people who aren’t pregnant, the cervix is at least 3 cm long.8

Why language matters

It’s important to use the right language when referring to our bodies not only for clarity, but because the words we use shape our perception and understanding of the things we’re talking about.

There is unfortunately still a stigma attached to genitalia, as if by speaking about these parts of our bodies openly, we’re revealing that we’re somehow impure or dirty. Euphemisms such as ‘lady parts’, ‘intimate health’, and ‘down there’ are ways to circumvent calling these parts of our body by their name and therefore, preserving a sense of modesty.

However, this also works to obscure these parts of ourselves and the roles they play in our lives, including in menstruation, childbirth, and sexual pleasure.

Featured image is a line illustration of a person looking at their vagina with a mirror. They are outlined in a dark pink/maroon colour. The background is pale peach with some soft pink and yellow shading over the illustration of the figure

Page last updated December 2020

Monica Karpinski

Founder & Editor, The Femedic

Monica is the Founder and Editor of The Femedic. Against a journalism background and after years of leading content marketing projects in the healthcare space, it became clear that health information out there for women simply wasn’t good enough. No-one had bothered to look deeper into the ways women were searching for information, or consider the depth of what they actually needed to know. Instead of waiting for the perfect publication to approach her, she created The Femedic.

Monica has been named one of The Drum’s 50 under 30 for influential women in digital 2018 and was shortlisted for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2018 British Business awards. She speaks and writes widely on gender and health inequality.

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References

  1. YouGov, Half of Brits don’t know where the vagina is — and it’s not just the men, YouGov website, March 2019 [online] (accessed 4 December 2020)
  2. NHS, Is my vagina normal?, NHS website, September 2018 [online] (accessed 4 December 2020)
  3. Moore, C., and Daneshgari, F., Vaginal anatomy for the pelvic surgeon, in Zimmern P.E., Nortion P.A., Haab F., Chapple, C.C.R. (eds), Vaginal Surgery for Incontinence and Prolapse. Springer, London, 2006, pp 3-10
  4. Zhou, J.A., et al., Immunology of uterine and vaginal mucosae, Trends in Immunology, 2018, vol 39, issue 4, p 355
  5. Syed, R., [translated from German] Knowledge of the “Gräfenberg zone” and female ejaculation in ancient Indian sexual science. A medical history contribution, Sudhoffs Arch, 1999, vol 32, no 2, pp 171-190
  6. Nott, J.P., et al., The structure and function of the cervix during pregnancy, Translational Research in Anatomy, March 2016, vol 2, pp 1-7
  7. Ibid
  8. Berghella, V., and Saccone, G., Cervical assessment by ultrasount for preventing preterm delivery, Cochrane, September 2019 [online] (accessed 4 December 2020)