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Women's bodies 1: A few general observations

Men's bodies and women's bodies are obviously different as far as their sexual equipment is concerned, but the differences go way beyond this.

The basic gender difference between men and women comes from a difference in their genes. Women have two sets of X chromosomes, while men have one X and one Y chromosome. Developmentally, all babies would develop a feminine body, were it not for the presence of the Y chromosome in some - this causes a baby to develop into a boy. However, there are developmental possibilities which lie between the two genders of male and female: for example, a person may end up with two X chromosomes and one Y, or a person may have a Y and an X chromosome but with a genetic insensitivity to testosterone, which results in the development of a female body. 

At birth, the sex organs and glands are already different in girls and boys. There are also some differences in the way the brain is "wired" in the two sexes. But nothing much happens physically in our sexual development until puberty, which starts between the ages of 11 and 15, with girls generally starting puberty a year earlier than boys. At this point, the female sex hormone, estrogen, is produced in young women, which brings on menstruation, and later causes ovulation. The first menstruation is called menarche, and the menstrual cycle is often quite irregular in the beginning. Ovulation becomes established one to two years after the first menstruation occurs. Additionally,  changes in the shape of the girl's body start to happen.  A girl will grow taller, with her hips and thighs becoming more curvy due to fat being laid down. Her pubic hair starts to grow, as well as axillary hair in her armpits. 

Her breasts will start to swell and follow her monthly hormonal cycle in terms of sensitivity and fullness. Breasts (scientifically known as "mammary glands") were originally sweat glands, which have been adapted during evolution to secrete milk for infants. Each breast is unique in its shape and size; they vary greatly between women and indeed for the same woman over the course of her life. Each breast has a central ring of pigmented skin called the areola, with a nipple in the middle. Quite often, women's breasts don't match up exactly, just like the two sides of your face are not exactly the same.

As puberty progresses, the internal and external sex organs grow and the vaginal wall thickens. Vaginal secretions may start to appear. Again, each women's genitals are unique in shape, size, color and texture (more on this here: women's sexual anatomy).

There are other differences between female bodies and male bodies in the skeleton, muscles and bodily fat. Women have a wider pelvis than men to accommodate a growing baby and give birth, whereas a man's greater body weight requires a heavier and larger pelvis. Women have a higher percentage of body fat (20 - 25% by weight) to carry us through the bad times and help us stay wonderfully curvy, compared to men, whose bodies are 10- 20% fat by weight. Obviously, there is a lot to say about body image and fat for women, which I will talk more about in the body section of this web site. Men end up developing more muscles, which in general makes them stronger than women. However, they do not necessarily have greater stamina than women. Additionally, their voices change to a lower pitch during puberty.

Around the mid-forties, women's bodies change again as their estrogen and progesterone production falls. The menopause starts to set in with a loss of fertility, a thinning of vaginal walls and sometimes changes in the bones. However, the menopause is not automatically the end of a woman's sex life, her sexual desire or her physical attractiveness. Today, women want to live their lives fully beyond their mid-life changes - and we're getting this, with some excellent role models to prove it. 

If you want to hear an inside view on what it means to live with a female body read: Women's bodies: What it's like to live with one

For a male view of what it's like to live in a male body, go here.

Or to read more on women's sexual anatomy, click here.

Source for the facts cited in this page: ABC of Sexual Health (2005) Second edition edited by John M Tomlinson, British Medical Journal Books and Blackwell Publishing.


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