These days, we look at our vaginas — or more correctly, vulvas — much more than women (or men) used to. And as we get older or after childbirth, many of us are shocked to find the area has changed.
So, what can you expect to happen to your vagina? What’s normal and what’s not?
First things first. Just as everyone has a different body shape, eye colour, or preference for sexual partner, there is also enormous variation in vaginas and vulvas, regardless of age.
“It’s like anything — there’s a complete spectrum of appearances of the area and they’re all usually completely normal,” says Dr Yasmin Tan, a gynaecologist and laparoscopic surgeon with the Women’s Health and Research Institute of Australia (WHRIA).
Add the passage of time into the mix, though, and certain changes tend to be more universal.
The vagina and vulva lose thickness and the colour of the vulva can change from pink to a paler or darker hue.
The clitoris can shrink, the labia can loosen, and there may be shrinkage of some tissue, said Dr Tan. The urethral entrance may also start to “pout a little bit and look a little bit fleshy”.
“Like skin anywhere else it becomes thinner and a bit less elastic. That plumpness becomes a bit saggy.”
And just like the hair on our heads, hair down there may become grey.
From puberty to menopause.
The vagina and vulva will stay pretty much the same through the years from puberty to menopause, with the exception of two significant events: childbirth and breastfeeding.
Bringing a baby in to the world can be “very traumatic to the vaginal area,” said Dr Tan.
Tears or episiotomies may affect the appearance and function of the vagina and vulva in the long term, “depending on how well the tissue is put back together”.
While a vagina that has stretched during childbirth generally returns to normal with time, supporting tissues that hold vaginal structures in place can be damaged, and this may eventually lead to prolapse of the vagina walls.
The result can be bladder and bowel function problems, such as urine or faecal leakage, and a lump may protrude from the vagina. Surgery may sometimes be necessary.
Breastfeeding itself doesn’t causes problems, but the low oestrogen levels that accompany it can delay the return to normal of the vagina after pregnancy and childbirth.