How Vaginas Work

What Does a Normal Vagina Look Like?
Eve Ensler's play "The Vagina Monologues" made many women more comfortable with their private parts.
Eve Ensler's play "The Vagina Monologues" made many women more comfortable with their private parts.
Skip Bolen/WireImage/Getty Images

Women trying to restore their hymens aren't the only ones seeking surgery on their private parts. In recent years, a trend of genital cosmetic surgery has emerged, as women who are unhappy with the look or feel of their vulvas and vaginas pursue surgical options.

One of these surgical options is labiaplasty, in which a woman's labia can be made smaller or bigger, or made to more accurately match the other. While overly large labia can be a medical problem -- one that causes pain during sex or exercise -- doctors report that many of the women seeking this surgery have perfectly normal labia [source: Kantrowitz]. Other women seek surgery that will make their vaginas tighter after childbirth. While vaginas can stretch slightly during childbirth, doctors urge women to seek non-surgical options such as Kegel exercises. These exercises require a woman to squeeze the muscles of her pelvic floor to strengthen the walls of the vagina.

The concept of the "designer vagina" worries both doctors and women's rights advocates because there's no such thing as a perfect set of genitals. To borrow an overused phrase, vaginas are much like snowflakes -- no two are alike. And while some women pursue vaginal cosmetic surgery because they believe it will bring them a better sex life, impaired sexual function is often one of the unfortunate side effects, along with scarring and chronic pain. Not to mention psychological effects and poor self-esteem; it's possible that the rise of pornography has led women to believe that there's an ideal vagina when in actuality, there's not [source: Navarro].

Many women spend a lot of time worrying not about what their vagina should look like, but what it should smell like. A mild odor is normal, as is a regular amount of vaginal discharge. Normal discharge is typically clear, white or yellow, and takes a variety of forms, from fluid to clumps. Discharge is the vagina's way of cleaning itself and maintaining a healthy balance of yeast and bacteria. An over-the-counter product, such as a douche or a spray, will only ruin that balance and cause infections.

While most odor and discharge is normal, some can indicate that the vagina is infected. We'll talk about vaginal health on the next page.