(Image: Jessica Doojphibulpol – www.dailycal.org)
by Kate McIntyre
My first memory of learning about the differences in people’s bodies is from when I was about four or five. My Mom told me “Some bodies have 3 holes and some bodies have 2 holes. Your body has 3 holes.” Uncomplicated and direct – a good starting place, to be sure. But there’s so much that so many of us aren’t clear on. For example, it took me an embarrassingly long time to wrap my head around my menstrual cycle. So I thought it might be time to put some of the fundamentals down on paper, a little crash course on the inner and outer workings of female-assigned anatomy.
It’s important to note that for lots of people, the sex they were assigned at birth doesn’t fit with the way they know themselves and doesn’t match their gender.
Bodies have been sorted into two categories (sometimes called binary) by the medical community, but that doesn’t always represent people’s lived experience. All folks possess unique variations of their sexual anatomy. I want to acknowledge the vast variations in anatomy that exist, and emphasize that there is no one right way to be.
Curious about your clitoris?
Folks who are assigned female at birth generally share some common anatomical structures: a vulva, clitoris, vagina, urethra, ovaries, and a uterus.
The vulva is the name for the folds of skin around the entrance to the vagina. Vulvas come in all shapes and sizes. They all look different and those differences are all okay.
The clitoris is both inside and outside of the body. It can be a really sensitive part of the body and also comes in different sizes – some are easy to see and feel and others are not. The smallest part of the clitoris is outside of the body, while most of it is found inside of the body and wraps around the outside of the vagina. The clitoris serves no other known function to the body other than pleasure!
The vagina is made of elastic muscular tissues that have the ability to expand with arousal or in childbirth. The entrance to the vagina is near the back of the vulva.
The urethra is a tube that connects that bladder to the outside of the body. It is generally found between the clitoris and the entrance to the vagina.
For those who have a uterus, it is connected to the vagina by the cervix. The uterus is a muscular organ that collects and then sheds menstrual blood every month or so.
Ovaries develop, store, and release eggs during the menstrual cycle. The egg travels from the ovary to the uterus through the fallopian tube.
Ovary-reacting? Period cramping your style?
The menstrual cycles refer to the duration of time from the first day of the menstrual period to the day before the next period starts. They can vary in length, generally between 21 to 35 days. Some folks have regular cycles, and others have irregular cycles. The cycle is generally divided into four parts:
Part 1 (Menstruation or period): The uterus sheds the lining it collected during the previous cycle. Like menstrual cycles, people’s periods can vary in length, bleeding generally lasts between 2-8 days. The amount of blood varies between people. It can differ between days of the period, as well.
Part 2 (The Follicular Stage): Hormones signal an egg to mature in an ovary. The lining of the uterus begins to thicken.
Part 3 (Ovulation): Usually about halfway through the menstrual cycle, the egg is released from an ovary and begins travelling through the fallopian tubes. If sperm are present, fertilization can occur. Pregnancy can happen when sperm enters the vagina up to 5 days before ovulation and 24 hours after ovulation. This is called the fertile window. This fertile window generally happens once per cycle but not always exactly halfway through the cycle. If fertilization doesn’t occur, the egg disintegrates after about 24 hours.
Part 4 (Luteal Phase): This occurs after ovulation. The lining of the uterus continues to thicken.
(Take a look at some beautiful illustrations by designbyduvetdays.com)
Take charge of your discharge!
People have different amounts and textures of discharge. This can change throughout the cycle and with age. Creamy, clear, watery, white, stretchy discharge that smells slightly sour or musky is normal; chunky, greenish, yellow-ish, or fishy or rotten-smelling discharge can be a cause for concern.
Get a sense of what is usual for you; observe the changes in the texture and smell of your discharge. If you have concerns, if something seems off, or if you have burning, itching or pain during sex or while peeing, see a health care provider.
Take time to observe the changes of your body. Take note of what looks, smells, and feels normal for you. There isn’t one right way for bodies to look or function. The more accurate information we receive about our bodies, the more we can make better informed choices about our health care and our lives.
Kate McIntyre is a Health Educator at Women’s Health Clinic, specializing in sexual and reproductive health.