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Vagina shaming & vaginal odour: notes on a(n) (r)evolution

The era of unsolicited opinions on our vaginas, vulvas and the way they ought to look and smell is over. And marketing speak has made it worse.

By Giada | 15 January 2022
An exposed woman covering herself in Kim Gehrig's commercial for Libresse
Kim Gehrig’s advert, Viva La Vulva for Libresse, 2018

From the moment we become aware of our sexuality and intimacy, we start questioning ourselves on our vulvas, vaginas and worrying whether ours are “normal”. What is even more distressing is when we receive unsolicited opinions on how they ought to look or smell. Too many of us have been told their vagina smells bad, tastes funny, looks wrong, is too loose, too wet, not wet enough… This is vagina shaming at its finest.

Beyond the people we interact with, ads, brands and products we come across with on a simple supermarket run have always fed the insecurity by promoting a certain idea, that of perfect vaginas that are fresh, clean and smell like a bunch of roses. How has this toxic narrative encouraged a culture of shame and insecurity?

The psychology of intimate hygiene marketing and the “fresh and clean” narrative

Intimate hygiene products often known as “feminine hygiene products” have been around 1845, although they really became a thing in the early 20th century. Now a several billion dollar industry, it grew and thrived thanks to the rhetorics of fear and guilt, with very little control over whatever was said. That allowed for false advertising and dangerous concepts to be put forward and engrained in many women’s minds. Take Lysol, a disinfectant many used to “kill” germs and sperm.

Beyond those “clean vagina” essentials, many period-related products spoke the same language, the language of shame, with a variety of products designed to hide our period, and conceal any potential smell. We now know any fragrance is harmful for the health of vulvas and vaginas.

Pubblicità disinfettante per l'igiene intima femminile della Lysol del 1946
Lysol Ad – Windsor Star, 1946

What’s that smell? Just a “regular” vagina smell.

Our vulvas and vaginas have been through a lot, each with their own unique way; whether in the shape, colour or fragrance, no two vaginas are the same. The days of somewhat feeling bad about it are over however. Every vulva and vagina comes with its own smell and taste, as influenced by a number of factors. What we eat, what we wear and our period can have a direct influence on our natural vaginal odour.

There isn’t one specific smell: the vagina is home to billions of bacteria and comes with its pH. Bacterial flora is in constant evolution and can change at any time throughout the course of our lifetime. The one smell that should awaken suspicion is the beautifully named fish odour, which is never an indicator of poor hygiene but a sign of infection (vagina’s are self-cleaning!).

If you notice unusually strong smells, it might also be as a result of yeast infection, or it might even have to do with your urinary tract. Whatever the smell, it is a message your body is trying to send you and an invitation to get diagnosed for thrush, BV or other infections. It is never something to be ashamed of. Talk to your gynaecologist or doctor, and get better.

Our advice?

Every vulva and vagina is special in their own way and there is no right or wrong. What is wrong is being made to feel self-conscious by people who just don’t have a clue, or a say for that matter. The better you know your vagina. the better you can understand and feel when something is wrong – without feeling any kind of shame. Thoughts on the matter? DM us @y__spot.

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