Our culture has a weird thing about vaginas. They’re revered in pop culture as a source of sexuality and empowerment, but many people — mostly male — still get squeamish at the mention of menstruation.
Tampon and pad ads awkwardly tiptoe around saying the body part and function they’re literally designed for, and other mainstream media has only started warming up to the v-word in the past few years. But there’s a cultural spotlight on the sexual aspect of vaginas that overshadows their basic biology and makes discussing them taboo.
This designation of normal biological processes as obscene and improper stigmatizes conversation about vaginal health to the disadvantage of everyone with the genitalia. Women, transgender and genderqueer people miss out on vital education about normal vaginal function that could significantly impact their well-being. Many unwittingly fear for their lives when they get their first periods, and even more believe harmful misinformation they find online.
Because of the cultural taboo, it’s common for women who are confused or unsure about their bodies to silently suffer and question their “normality.” This, combined with the medical field’s tendency to distrust female patients, drastically affects whether they receive adequate care or knowledge of preventative measures to maintain vaginal health.
Moreover, misogynistic men often dismiss menstruation and other vaginal ailments as gross “lady problems” that shouldn’t be spoken about. It’s past time we normalize talking about vaginas; I mean, it’s not like half our population has one or anything.
Even the basic anatomy of female reproductive organs remains a mystery to many people. First of all, the external bits you can see and might be calling your “vagina” is actually the vulva. At the top of the vulva is the clitoris, hiding underneath a protective hood of skin. Moving toward the anus, next comes the urethra, where the urine exits from the bladder. Further down is the entrance to the vagina, the internal canal where blood and babies exit. After that, a piece of skin called the perineum separates the vulva from the anus.
The vaginal opening is surrounded by two pairs of lips: the labia majora and the labia minora. The fleshy and hairy majora form the outer lips that often encapsulate the entire vulva, and the inner minora typically reside within them. While most vulvas share these basic traits, their shape, size and color can vary widely from person to person.
Pornography and unrealistic beauty standards for women lead many to insecurity about the appearance of their genitals. You might have a picture in mind of a “normal” vagina, one where the labia minora are completely hidden by the majora. However, the majority of vulvas actually differ from this stereotypical representation.
Often, the minora visibly extend beyond the majora. Furthermore, the lips aren’t always perfectly symmetrical. As long as they don’t cause discomfort, which they usually don’t unless they’re very long, neither of these features indicates a problem. Unfortunately, our culture has profited off the insecurities it engenders into women to such an extent that labiaplasties are quickly becoming one of the most popular procedures in plastic surgery.
Another unrealistic standard arises when considering vaginal smell; popular culture likes to pretend vaginas are supposed to smell like roses. In reality, the combination of sweat glands in the groin, normal vaginal discharge and the bacteria and yeast that naturally live within the vagina all contribute to a mild smell that varies from one person to the next. It makes logical sense that, after a long day of sweating and discharging, vaginas don’t exactly smell lovely.
But that’s why people take showers. You don’t expect your armpits, another moist, hair-covered crevice, to smell great at the end of the day. Even so, a “clean” vagina still has a distinct, if faint, odor that usually is only detectable by the vagina’s owner and their sexual partners. This mild scent, which can range from metallic to slightly sweet, is again completely normal and nothing to be ashamed of, but social misogyny insists upon its irregularity. Have you ever heard anyone describe penises as pleasant to the nose?
This sexism also preys upon insecurities about vaginal cleanliness by warping ideas about what that requires. To be clear, you do not need to and should not wash the inside of your vagina. The inner reproductive organ maintains its own hygiene by discharging unwanted bacteria. But you should cleanse the external parts.
Using warm water (and an unscented, very mild soap if desired), you should clean your vulva, making sure to get the nooks and crannies of its folds. This ensures that any built-up discharge and bacteria gets rinsed away and can’t wreak havoc on the vaginal ecosystem. Furthermore, just as you should wipe front to back, you should clean your vulva before your anus to prevent cross-contamination with bacteria from your feces.
Don’t fall prey to snake oil products like douches, “pH-balancing” soaps, and scented “freshness” wipes or sprays. Often, these do far more harm than good. Vaginas contain entire ecosystems within them, populated by different bacteria and yeast. The good bacteria, primarily the species lactobacillus, prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria and yeast that can lead to infections.
These good bacteria help maintain a specific pH level, or acidity, that inhibits the proliferation of harmful yeast and other pathogens. This ecosystem is self-regulating and, for the most part, doesn’t need intervention beyond gently cleansing the area around the vaginal opening.
However, different factors can throw the entire system off-balance by affecting the vagina’s acidity and abundance of good bacteria. Douches and fragrant soaps can disrupt the vaginal environment and tip the fine balance toward a yeast infection. Wearing tight-fitting pants and non-cotton underwear can also lead to problems by irritating the vulva and not allowing it to “breathe.” Simply taking antibiotics can kill off the good bacteria and invoke a yeast overgrowth.
So how do you tell when something’s wrong? A general rule of thumb states that any inexplicable change in the smell or color of your discharge is cause for concern, especially if accompanied by persistent itchiness and/or pain. Normally, your vagina produces secretions throughout the day.
Depending on where you are in your cycle, your discharge may be clear, whitish or light yellow and will likely leave a mark on your underwear. Because this discharge can naturally vary in smell and appearance over the course of the menstrual cycle, it can be difficult to distinguish between “normal” and “abnormal.”
This grey area can be overcome with close attention to symptoms beyond discharge. Yeast infections produce a thick, white discharge that resembles cottage cheese. Because a healthy vagina can also secrete white stuff, it can sometimes lead to false alarms. The hallmark of yeast is persistent itchiness, inside your vagina and sometimes outside on the vulva. Most of the time, over-the-counter, topical antifungal creams cure the infection in a week or less.
But some issues require a visit to the doctor. If your abnormal discharge is grey, green or dark yellow, and/or if you’re experiencing pelvic pain or burning/soreness at the vaginal entrance, you could have an infection more serious than yeast. From STI’s to bacterial vaginosis, these ailments typically need antibiotics to clear up, which you’ll need a doctor’s prescription for.
Also, if you’ve never had a yeast infection before, it’s a good idea to visit the gynecologist to make sure that’s really what you have. Likewise for if yeast becomes a recurring problem for you or doesn’t fully go away after the OTC treatment.
If you or a sexual partner has a vagina, its health should always be a priority. Using condoms and peeing after sex can help prevent urinary tract infections and similar problems. UTI’s and yeast infections are incredibly commonplace, but most women know very little about them until they get one.
Individuals are often the best judges of their personal well-being. Our intuition tells us when something isn’t right. But the lack of open information caused by the stigma surrounding the genitalia, especially when combined with medicine’s mistrust of women, makes those with vaginas doubt themselves.
Moreover, the sexism still prevalent in our society discourages talk of “lady problems,” preventing connections between other vagina-havers with similar experiences. To normalize and support vaginal health, we need to keep talking about it to desensitize naysayers.