It all started when my friend Sarai sent me an Instagram direct message. It was a photo of a girl, a pretty one, who appeared youthful and happy. In her hand, she held a small bottle filled with pink-colored pills. The caption above her photo read: "When bae tells you that you tasted better than ever, but he has no idea that you're using MySweetV." Saria's DM said: "SMH, another product telling us we're not good enough as we are." I replied, "I think you just gave me my next story idea."
MySweetV, I later learned, was a company that created "all-natural, FDA-approved" supplement pills for women designed to make vaginal secretions taste "sweeter." Their website, a seemingly hastily put together Shopify account, claimed that the product not only will provide a "semi-fruity" taste, but would maximize female performance and sex drive. Hmm.
Let me be clear: My issue isn't with this specific product or brand. (That said, anyone with eyes and Wi-Fi connection can see there's something suspicious about this company; its Instagram account, I found, is deactivated, its website looks like the online version of some creepy dude selling strange things out of his trench coat, and the so-called rave reviews are memes.) Rather, my larger issue is (and will always be) with all companies that create, sell, and promote products that tell women and girls that we are inherently flawed and need products to fix what's wrong with us.
I thought about what companies like MySweetV would look like if they were actually executed professionally; if the testimonials were approved by celebrities, or influencers, or widely-received by women across the globe. And then it dawned on me—they already exist.
Flower or fruit-scented vaginal soaps, pills, drinks, and countless other items can be found easily online, at your local grocery store, or bodega, and are marketed toward women, only smarter this time, using scientific terms like "pH balancing" or "gynecologist-approved" to make women feel like we're making a health-conscious choice by taking our vaginal hygiene routine a step further.
The truth is, contrary to what the labels say, you only need one thing to properly clean yourself: water. But with products as convincing as these, who would want to feel insecure with a plain, old vagina-scented vagina, when you could feel as beautiful as a flower and taste as delicious as fruit?
While there have been incredible strides in the body positivity movement over the past few years, it doesn't eliminate the work we have left to do to rid of these toxic narratives for good. Unfortunately, that work can't happen overnight, so I decided to debunk some of these vaginal health myths that prey on our insecurities—you know, the same ones that force us to think that we smell or taste bad, the same ones that make us think our vaginas are ugly or odd-looking, and the same ones that allow spaces for ridiculous products like MySweetV to exist.
I enlisted the help of Dr. Jennifer Aquino, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center, to learn everything you need to know about your vagina but were afraid to ask.
What is vaginal discharge? Is it good or bad? Or both? Is it normal to have some discharge every day?
Vaginal discharge can be absolutely normal. In fact, most women have a small amount of clear white fluid produced by the vagina daily. This normal fluid coats the vaginal tissue with moisture and contributes to overall vaginal health. The frequency, amount, and consistency of this normal discharge can change as a woman goes through her menstrual cycle. In addition to the normal discharge, the vagina also has healthy amounts of bacteria that allow the vagina to fight off infections. Estrogen, a hormone, also plays an important role in vaginal health because it increases glycogen, which is sugar, content in the vagina encouraging lactobacilli bacteria to grow; lactobacilli use sugar as their source for growth. The increased level of lactobacilli leads to production of acid, allowing our vagina to maintain a healthy acidity or pH. For reference, the pH or acidity level of the vagina is normally 3.5 to 4.7. The vagina’s natural acidity keeps bacteria from growing out of control. Changes in hormone levels, douching, sex, infection, or use of irritating products like spermicides can lead to an imbalance in the types of bacteria that live in the vagina. When the balance is disrupted, patients will often develop symptoms of vaginitis including itching, burning, irritation, and abnormal discharge.
What is vaginitis? Should I use over-the-counter products to treat it?
The culprits of vaginitis are the bacteria that “take over” during the time of imbalance and include bacterial vaginosis [22 to 50 percent], yeast [17 to 39 percent], and trichomoniasis [4 to 35 percent]. Evaluation of vaginitis begins with a thorough examination of the vagina. However, symptoms of vaginitis can be very uncomfortable for many ladies, and sometimes patients will self-treat themselves with over-the-counter medications prior to the visit. If this happens, our evaluation and diagnosis may be compromised. I usually encourage patients to come to the office first before seeking any self-treatment. Once the diagnosis is made, medical treatment is given based on what bacteria is overgrowing. Uncomplicated infections usually require one-time therapy, however recurrent infections may sometimes require ongoing treatment.
How can I maintain pH levels in my vagina? Do soaps, supplements pills, or changes in diet help?
There are also different ways one can try to maintain a healthy vaginal acidity and bacterial balance. This is includes eating yogurt and garlic, maintaining a low-carbohydrate diet, and hormonal manipulation, especially if patients are on birth control pills.
What is the proper way to clean a vagina or vulva? How does douching come into play?
Things to avoid when trying to maintain a healthy vaginal environment include douching. Douching can disrupt the balance of your vagina and actually put you at risk for inflammation of your cervix. You should try to avoid feminine hygiene sprays or scented deodorant tampons. Using condoms during sex will also prevent semen from changing the vagina’s composition. I tell my patients to avoid soaps and detergents when cleaning their vaginas and just use plain water. I also advise them to always wipe front to back and encourage them to not wear tight underwear and clothes.
How can sex education better inform women of their menstrual cycles?
I am often times surprised that many women do not know much about the menstrual cycle. Most patients know that they should have a menstrual cycle every month. However, there is so much more to it! I usually go over the menstrual cycle with my patients to help them understand how it works, and that way they can differentiate what is normal and what is abnormal. I definitely believe the menstrual cycle should be covered in sex education, especially because teens often go through many bleeding irregularities when they first start to have their periods.
How can I keep better track of my period? Is something wrong with my menstrual cycle if it is irregular?
The average age of menstrual cycle onset is 12 years of age. The length of the cycle is considered the first day of a period to the first day of the next period. The normal length of the cycle is usually between 24 days and 38 days. Anything shorter or longer may be abnormal. I usually have my patients chart their cycles, especially if their periods irregular and/or if they are trying to get pregnant. Phone apps are often useful in these cases, including Ovia Fertility and Period Tracker!