We need to talk about vaginas for a moment. There’s much chatter in movies, on TV, and even among men in the pub about what a vagina should look like, how it should smell, the way it should feel to the touch. But what gives them the right? Unless they’re trained gynaecologists, what business is it of theirs to comment on our bits?
Uninformed words can make perfectly normal, healthy women feel self-conscious, even worried, about our own bodies. Jokes and jibes about vaginal odour and discharge can leave us filled with doubt and embarrassment – especially if it’s something we’re already insecure about. So, yes, we need to talk about vaginas – about how the ‘weird’ thing you’re worried about is actually super ordinary. Or, how the thing you thought was ‘ugly’ is actually just the way vaginas are. Equip yourself with the facts, feel confident that you’re not the only one – and then all of the scriptwriters and men can zip it.
Why is my vagina so dry?
Vaginal dryness can happen to women at any age, and according to a survey carried out by Regelle last year, 70% of the 500 Irish women surveyed had experienced it. It can be caused by something as simple as an overly fragranced body wash, or from not being fully aroused during sex. Other times it can be a side effect of breastfeeding, or of cancer treatments including chemotherapy and radiotherapy. However, the biggest cause of all is menopause. As oestrogen levels decrease, the vagina can dry out. This can be uncomfortable, possibly even painful, but no matter what the cause – it can absolutely be fixed. Water-based lubricants are available from almost every pharmacy in the country and are completely safe to use with condoms, unlike oil-based ones that can break down the latex. Vaginal moisturisers are helpful too – not only do they lubricate the entire vaginal passage but they can also restore your natural pH. Spend time on foreplay to ensure you’re fully turned on before having sex. If you’re still finding it dry and uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to visit your GP or gynaecologist. They’ll definitely have dealt with the issue a bunch of times before, so they’ll offer you the best advice, 100% judgment free.
What’s the deal with discharge?
Women can be embarrassed about discharge but it’s very common and usually perfectly healthy. There’ll be more of it when you’re ovulating, and it’ll usually have the texture of raw egg white. It’ll then become more creamy and white as the month goes on. Hormonal imbalances caused by stress can also lead to discharge, as can hormonal changes around the time of your period. If you find this uncomfortable, wear a pantyliner to absorb the excess moisture and prevent staining. However, there are times when discharge is a sign of infection – so look out for additional symptoms. If you’re experiencing itchiness that just won’t go away, and your discharge is thick, you might have thrush. Around 75% of all women will get thrush at some stage, so this could be your turn. There’s no need to rush to the GP though. Pop to the pharmacy and pick up Canesten cream for external itching, and a Canesten pessary to treat the internal infection. Hey presto, you’ll be back to your old self in just a few days.
What’s that smell?
Everybody, whether male or female, has their own specific scent and it’s almost impossible to eliminate it completely. Regular washing with fragrance-free products can keep the odour from strengthening, but if you think it has changed or become unpleasant, it could be an indicator of bacterial vaginosis. BV is very common, particularly among women who are smokers or who have recently changed sexual partners. According to the HSE, approximately 30% of Irish women will experience it at some point during their life, as will 20% of pregnant women. It’s completely harmless and easily treated, so it’s nothing to worry about, really. With symptoms including a strong fishy smell, particularly after sex, and a white or grey watery discharge, it can be unpleasant, but usually all you need is an antibiotic.
Is there a ‘right’ shape?
Vaginas come in all shapes and sizes. Most women’s labia will be slightly thicker or longer on one side than the other, in the same way we’ve got one boob slightly bigger than the other. Some women’s inner labia hang down past the outer ones, while others are completely tucked in. There is no ‘normal’, which by default makes us all normal. Your vagina is probably a completely different size than that of the women next to you. According to Jillian Lloyd’s study in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the average length of a vagina is 9.6 centimetres, while the range is between 6.5 and 12.5 centimetres. Just as men’s penises are different sizes, so too are our genitals. We’ve all just got to embrace the unique bits that we’ve got.