Let's go on a trip through time…examining the life cycle of a vagina.
Ah, the memories of puberty!
Puberty usually happens between the ages of 8 and 12, although of course there are outliers. Puberty is kicked into action when the hypothalamus begins producing a certain hormone. Although it happens in children, this is the period of time where one’s body “matures.”
For young girls, this means many things, including the start of menstruation, where the ovaries begin producing eggs (ovulation) and then shedding them. For the first couple of years, it’s normal for periods to be irregular, as the body adjusts.
After puberty, which causes not only ovulation and menstruation but also the beginning of sexual urges and (to the annoyance of many) hormonal acne, the body continues to mature.
The “peak childbearing years” of generations past, now known as late teens and early to mid-twenties, exhibit further changes for the vagina. Because of the influx of hormones, pubic hair grows in thicker to protect your sensitive skin, and the labia may grow and change in color.
Many choose to use hormonal birth control, to protect against unwanted pregnancy and to treat a myriad of other symptoms.
Hormonal birth control, unsurprisingly, works by introducing hormones to someone’s system, usually a combination of estrogen and progestin, although the specifics of the doses change depending on the brand and type of birth control. (There are also non-hormonal birth control options, but we’ll leave those out for now.)
There are plenty of changes to be expected after starting birth control: changes to one’s discharge and cervical mucus, as this is how hormonal birth control prevents sperm from getting to the egg. Hormonal birth control also often relieves uncomfortable menstrual side effects like cramping and heavy flow.
Sadly, there can be negatives as well: birth control can sometimes decrease natural lubrication during sex, and some report a decreased sex drive. Many feel comfortable making that trade to avoid an unwanted pregnancy!
Let’s say, for our purposes, you’re a woman in her thirties going through a pregnancy. Your pelvic floor muscles are weaker than they were a decade ago; kegels and other pelvic floor exercises are your friend, to decrease your chances of a collapse during birth.
Throughout your pregnancy, there are countless changes to the body, as you make room and give nutrients to your growing baby; for example, during even the first trimester, your vaginal lining will become thicker and less sensitive in preparation for birth.
During a vaginal birth, the vagina will stretch to accommodate the newborn being delivered. Sometimes the vagina will bounce back to its pre-baby days – exercise and moisturizing can help with elasticity.
For ladies in their 30s who aren’t looking to have a baby, they still have plenty to look forward to in this era: many believe that a woman’s “sexual prime” is in their 30s and 40s!
This is from a “physiological” standpoint, in the sense that it is the hormonal peak that allows women of this age to have more and better orgasms, although of course it also has to do with each woman’s relationship with her own body and her relationship with the person she is having sex with.
In your 40s and 50s, estrogen levels begin to slowly decrease. “Perimenopause” is what we call the period of time before menopause, where things start ramping down.
This decrease in estrogen leads to thinning pubic hair and less elastic vaginal skin. This can lead to more irritation and dryness down there.
Menopause & Post-Menopause
On average, women in the US reach menopause in their early 50s, although this depends on each person’s individual biology and history. Medically, a woman is in menopause when she has not menstruated for one year.
During menopause, there are many changes to the vagina. Firstly, there is less natural lubrication, which can lead to discomfort during sex - artificial, vaginal-safe lubricants can help with that.
Due to the depletion of estrogen in the body, some may notice shrinking of the clitoris and labia.
As you age (and thus enter post-menopause), the collagen of your skin depletes, leading to thinner skin. Not only does this result in the visible signs (like the dreaded wrinkles) but it impacts the skin all over your body, including your intimate area. It’s important to moisturize with lotions specifically formulated for your skin to combat this.
Through all of these changes, many women view menopause as a positive period of their lives: not only do they no longer have to worry about period care and unplanned pregnancies, but women generally have increased ‘clarity, decisiveness, emotional intelligence,’ and other positives” post-menopause.
It’s also a badge of honor: after a long life lived, women are excited to have reached this unavoidable chapter of life for all who own a vagina!