If I had a damn nickel for every time a vagina-owning friend of mine came to me with anxiety or shame about the natural scent of their private bits, I could make a serious dent in my student loans. There’s a lot of societal pressure to make all “bad” body scents magically disappear, but it’s a vagina, so it’s not going to smell like a flower or a peach! Unless . . . you’re doing something seriously harmful to the delicate ecosystem that is your vagina.
Stigmas and social pressures can make us want to do a lot of unnatural things to our bodies. We should feel empowered to embrace our body’s organic processes, our natural vaginal smells, and take care of ourselves and our hygiene in natural, body-safe ways!
So let’s talk about how to kick-start that, starting with a couple of important questions: Why is it always those of us with vaginas bear the brunt of stress and expectations around cleanliness and smell? And what can we do to beat those stigmas while also taking care of our bodies in natural and safe ways?
Those Who Do Not Study History are Doomed to Repeat It!
I’m sure we’ve all seen them – the colorful advertisements claiming to make our privates smell like roses and taste like cotton candy. They’re everywhere – on television, on the internet, on social media, and on the shelves in the feminine product aisle. But why is there so much pressure for vagina-owners, and women in particular, to alter their natural body processes and parts in such unnatural ways? To answer that we can turn to history, and the way that social modernity has ushered in new cultural meanings around bodily odors, natural smells, and gender.
In an amazing study, Alecia Simmonds reveals how the turn of the 20th century witnessed a reduction in olfactory tolerance that largely fell across class and gender lines. These new cultural meanings reinforced women’s subordinate status through a pathologizing of women’s bodies. Fears around our natural vaginal smells, and other normal bodily scents, were used to police women’s bodies, call into question our self-worth, and convince us that our natural body processes were “unnatural” to the point of feeling alienated from the inside out.
This is reinforced and reflected in the advertisements and social attitudes about “women’s body odors” that we still see and experience today. And while we may have (hopefully) moved past using Lysol and other incredibly dangerous chemicals to douche and clean, the deceptively appealing products we see on the shelves are still seriously harmful to the vaginal environment.
Stop Telling Us What Our Vaginas Should Smell Like!!
Doctors have told us time and time again that the vagina is a self-cleaning organ, whose delicate balance relies on the consistent upkeep and balance of pH and bacteria. It accomplishes this through regularly expelling discharge that helps flush and clean naturally. Practices like douching, which is when you “rinse” the inside of your vagina with different liquids and chemicals, can be incredibly harmful because they can cause an imbalance in pH, or an overgrowth of bacteria, leading to yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and even more harmful long-term effects like cervical cancer.
Now I’m not saying that you always have to love whatever hygienic state your privates are in, or whatever scent may be wafting from them at any given time. I mean, it is a generally dark and moist area of the body, so of course it’s not always going to feel the freshest! What I AM trying to say is that messing with your vaginal canal is NOT the right way to hit refresh down there. Rather than wash the vagina itself, target the vulva – the outer part of the anatomy – which isn’t self-cleaning.
What’s the best way to clean my vulva?
Speaking to SELF, Dr. Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, reminds us that, “The best thing to cleanse [your vulva] with is plain water. Any time you use any soap or anything else, there’s a chance of causing irritation.”
Warm water running over the vulva is the absolute best way to clean and rinse the area with the least chance of altering or irritating the environment. Getting this done in the shower or bath is a no-brainer (especially with bath tools like the Waterslyde – I’m all for two birds with one stone, especially if I can get clean while also getting off!).
Just using water will help you wash away all the stuff that’s making you feel (and possibly smell) not so great, while preserving the health and happiness of your nether-regions. It won’t make you smell like the perfume aisle in Macy’s, but it’s important to remember that that’s not the point! Health and wellness is what’s essential here, especially in such a sensitive area of the body. Natural vaginal smells are just that – NATURAL – and prioritizing healthy and sustainable best-practice cleanliness rituals is just another great way to exercise self-love!
That being said, if you really feel the need to use soap on your vulva, pick something that is gentle and as mild. Also, be sure to stay as FAR away from dyes and fragrances as you can. Some MD-approved soaps that you can use – if you absolutely must – include the gentle and sensitive skin soaps made by time-tested brands like Cetaphil, Dove, CeraVe, and Eucerin. And for on-the-go freshness, reach for fragrance-free, body-safe wipes. Personally, I can’t leave the house without making sure I have a few Quickies tucked away in my purse (they’re free of parabens, phthalates, sulfates, fragrances, alcohol, gluten, and glycerin which make them great for our extra sensitive areas).
TLDR: Stick to what’s natural and practice a self-love that includes all your body’s incredible processes and all that comes with them, be it discharge or natural vaginal smells. Your vagina is just doing its thing. The best way to support it (and you ofc!) is to make sure it can thrive in a healthy environment, free of artificial chemicals or other substances that can kill the vibe (and leave you ridiculously uncomfortable!).
You don’t have to always love the way you smell, because we’ve all been THERE. Feel empowered to clean and refresh in natural and body-safe ways that rejuvenate without causing harm, whether that be with a rinse, a gentle wash, or a quick wipe!
About The Author
A graduate of UC Berkeley, Elizabeth Mason earned her degree in Gender and Women’s Studies. Currently, she is pursuing a master’s degree in Asian American Studies at SFSU, and is continuing to focus her studies on intersectional womxn’s politics, health, and sexual wellness. Her main interests include identity politics and their intersection with issues surrounding womxn’s healthcare and sexual liberation. She looks forward to the day when all womxn are empowered socially, politically, and – most importantly – sexually. She can be found on Instagram @elizabeth.mason.