Vulva, I hardly knew ye

I don't know if I'm your average 20 year old. (virgin and only had one b.f.)I have never been able to insert a tampon correctly, nor have I ever looked at my own va-jay-jay. I recently shaved it for the first time. I really don't know what the call is for anything relating to my womanly junk, you know? I don't know if I should leave the hair down there, wax, or completely shave it all off. I don't know how to insert a tampon, and I am worried when it comes to sex it just wont fit. I even tried with some dildos and can't fit it in, but I don't even know if I'm doing it right. Please, please help me! Those pictures on the tampon box just don't work for me!
Heather Corinna replies:

Sounds to me like you could use some good, old-fashioned vulva reclaiming. And it's so not just you that does, I swear.

Let's start by tossing out terms like "va-jay-jay." Seriously, when television writers -- on a medical show, of all things -- have to be cute about it you know we're living in a culture that really likes for women to be ashamed of our bodies and to keep from taking full ownership of them. Heck, The New York Times reported that that particular term popularized on the show Grey's Anatomy "sprang from an executive producer’s need to mollify standards and practices executives who wanted the script to include fewer mentions of the word vagina." Unsurprisingly, mentions of the word penis, just as frequent, were considered perfectly acceptable, and no one was asked to replace it with a cutesy, childish term. That speaks volumes about how negative that is: it's a term thought up to AVOID treating women's bodies with the same respect they'd give to discussing any other body part. I bet you'd feel better now if you had been reared with a greater awareness and acceptance of your own body, so why enable things like terms that keep women and girls--or anyone else with a vulva-- down, eh?

Let's also go ahead and not call parts of your body "junk." Your genitals and reproductive anatomy are -- quite literally -- where every single person and thing that comes from people in the world has ever first come from. I don't mean to get all crunchy on you, but seriously, think about it: uteruses, vaginas, vulvas are where our world all starts. Vulvas have birthed most of human history. That ain't junk, sister, that's seriously awesome and powerful, and it's all right between your legs.

The name for the whole of your external genitals is the vulva. You can find out a lot more about it in detail here: Innies and Outies: The Vagina, Clitoris, Uterus, and More. And if you don't want to call it your vulva to yourself, at least pick a term that isn't about a bunch of TV show execs acting like juveniles and actually has some real meaning for you. Pick something that's got real gravity.

Since you shaved your vulva, now would be as good a time to take a look as any, since obviously, you're going to get a really clear view. If you're thinking about a time coming soon when you're going to let someone ELSE take a look, and you're concerned enough with how it looks to groom your pubic hair, it's pretty darn silly -- don't you think? -- not to look yourself first. So, get a mirror you can hold in your hand, or a long mirror you can sit in front of, open up your legs and just have a gander. There's no need to be shy with something that is a part of you. Take some time. Move parts of your vulva around with your fingers. You don't have to fall in love with it if you're just not feeling it, but take enough time so that it doesn't seem so mysterious and you can garner at least some vague appreciation for your vulva, if for no other reason than because it is a part of the body you inhabit and which is a critical part of you. Just take a few minutes. Have a real look. After all, you've been living together for twenty years now: the least you can do is say hello. I bet you've said hello to neighbors you've lived near in less time than this.

Looking at your vulva, if you look right at your vaginal opening (and that link I gave you up there will tell you where that is) you can see if you might have a hymen (also called the vaginal corona), almost entire -- it can't be totally intact if you menstruate -- or partial. These are obviously not particularly realistic, but they are pretty clear illustrated examples of most types of vaginal coronas. You can also take a look at this article for more examples of how one might look. If it looks to you like you have a microperforate hymen, then tampons aren't going to work until more of that hymen wears away, which it will, gradually, over time. If it looks like you have a septate hymen, then to use a tampon, you'll have to feel out one of those openings and just gently push that tissue to the side with a finger while inserting a tampon. You should be able to find a way to do that that isn't grossly uncomfortable: while the edges of a hymen attach to a sensitive area, the hymen itself is not full of nerve endings.

If you don't have either of those and your hymen is pretty worn away, then it's likely just a matter of doing a few things.

It's usually easiest for people to start with tampons that have an applicator. One you have one open and in hand, you'll want to first relax. When we're nervous or anxious, our vaginas tend to clamp shut, and our vaginal openings get very tense, which makes putting anything inside difficult or painful (this is the biggest reason why women experience pain with intercourse, for example). Next, be lubricated: you can get some vaginal lubricant and just put a few drops around the vaginal opening, as well as on the tip of a tampon. Then, the easiest way for a lot of people with vaginas is to just put one foot up on a chair or the toilet. Using your dominant hand, hold the middle of the tampon applicator between your thumb and your middle or ring finger, and put the top of that applicator at your vaginal opening -- sliding your inner labia apart first if they're covering your vaginal opening -- with it tilted towards your lower back -- in other words, at something of an upwards angle. Then you just press the bottom of the applicator up with your index finger (or your other hand if that works better for you) until the tampon is in. If you fumble with this, doing it while using a mirror can help. But having really looked at your vagina before you try again may already make a world of difference.

If you've already done that before and you still can't get it, then you know, you really can ask your doctor about this. Since you're 20, even though you aren't sexually active yet, it's a good idea to get started with your annual gynecological exams and pap smears, and a gynecologist can walk you through this step-by-step AND answer any other questions you might have about your sexual anatomy.

As to what you do with your pubic hair, that's up to you. Some people shave or wax part the part of their pubic hair that spreads to their thighs. Others do more than that, and others still take it all off. Some leave it just as it is. It's your hair, just like the hair on your head, so what other people want -- again, just like the hair on your head -- has no real bearing. It's about what you want to do, and how much time you really want to dedicate to it, but since it's hair, it's no biggie what you try, since it always grows back. So, you can try a few things, or try nothing, and make up your own mind day-to-day as you see fit.

Okay? And if you're in the mood for a full-on, vulva rebel yell now, check out the first link in the list I'm about to give you, which also contains some other links I think you might find helpful.

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