How To Be Kinder To Your Vagina

Photographed by Nicholas Bloise.
In my bathroom there are four cleansers, five moisturisers, seven serums, and enough sheet masks to prettify the entire population of London. There are now also three skincare products for my vagina. Yep, I am the proud owner of potions for my pussy. Not because there is anything wrong but because, well, I really love my vagina. In the same way I love my face and hair, my stretch marks and the gap between my front teeth. The difference is I have always practised self-care rituals on the aforementioned body parts, yet failed miserably at treating my most sensitive area with the same respect.

Turns out I’m not alone in neglecting my nether regions. As a nation, we don’t take too kindly to talking about our vaginas. A study carried out by the Eve Appeal highlighted just how much we ignore them, with 44% of women unable to distinguish between the vulva and the vagina. It’s hardly surprising, considering we are fighting centuries of taboo. The ancient Romans thought menstruating women were witches and, in more modern times, women were advised not to stray from home during their period. Even giving our vaginas nicknames is problematic, believes psychologist Dr Vivian Diller. Monikers like pussy, lady garden, noon, fanny and (my personal favourite) vageen, “Make them sound less technical, and the consequences of discussing our anatomy in such hushed tones leads to negative associations” she says.

We do seem adept at talking about our vaginas privately. Take the WhatsApp group I share with nine girlfriends. We discuss our pussy hall of fame all the livelong day, yet what’s apparent from the flurry of messages is that we don’t exactly feel relieved when divulging the long-held secrets of our lady gardens. Rather, we wish we could carry these isolated dialogues into a more public space. After all, while shaving, waxing and lasering have wiggled their way into the mainstream, the actual health of our genitalia remains in the dark, and this does us all a huge disservice.

By ignoring skin changes or irregular bleeding, we could be overlooking telltale indicators of gynaecological cancers, explains Tracie Miles, a gynaecology oncology nurse. “These cancers have such a low profile that awareness they even exist is worryingly low. How can we expect women to spot associated symptoms of these cancers if they don’t know the differences between their vulvas and vaginas?”
SASS Intimate Purifying Cleanser, £7, available at Boots.
There’s also a general distrust around products designed for vaginas. Carrie Osman, founder of intimate health skincare brand, Sass, has had to deal with trolling by some feminists who feel she is shaming women into buying needless products. Osman believes that women should be educated in intimate healthcare products. “I know friends who get thrush after sex, or imbalances after too much exercise; why should water or going commando in bed at night be their only options?” And she’s right, these shouldn’t be our only choices. While vaginas are, on the whole, pretty good at self-cleansing (producing natural antibiotics to stop nasty bugs from getting in), sometimes they need a little help. Perhaps not on a day-to-day basis like an anti-ageing cream, just as and when. For Osman, these ‘as and whens’ are of monumental importance.

Judging by Sass’ loyal following, it’s clear that women agree: “We’ve had letters saying our cleanser has transformed relationships through extra comfort and confidence. Equally, Meg Hine, a keen cyclist (and Bear Grylls' sidekick) was mightily impressed with our sports range. My favourite story though, is a girl from L.A. who took 12 pH Balanced serums back to the States, after I told her to try it when she was sore after sex.”

Sass’ fresh approach to such a stigmatised product category is desperately needed. Its messaging is on point and its sleek packaging akin to the beauty ranges you’d find in Selfridges, with products named Recovery Serum and Purifying Cleanser. I’m an avid fan of these two in particular. The former is a godsend after a lengthy gym session, while the latter I tend to use on holiday or during the summer when the heat throws my pH balance out the window. Occasionally it saves me from that niggling feeling I get just before my period. Both work a treat and are a piece of cake to use. The texture is similar to an expensive face serum – minus the fragrance – and you massage in just as you would any cleanser or cream. Best of all, they needn’t be bought over the counter and sit prettily in the bathroom. They look so slick, in fact, I know of one girl whose boyfriend admitted to "loving her new face cleanser" – until she pointed out which part of the body it was meant for. Mix-up hilarity aside, it’s clear that Osman is on a mission to bring the subject of vaginal health in from the cold. She is even releasing the world’s first 'vagina dictionary', which aims to help us improve our ‘clitoracy’.
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Do feminists have a point when they argue these products fuel insecurities? No, believes Dr Diller. “Take products that address menstruation or menopause, these topics historically were rarely spoken about. Now women openly buy tampons, and other products to address menopausal symptoms. Health products that sell most often tap into what women really need. If there isn’t a need, they don't typically sell.”
Femfresh Intimate Hygiene Daily Intimate Wash, £1.49, available at Boots.
Elsewhere, femfresh is changing tactics in a bid to encourage women to be kinder to their vaginas. “We’ve moved away from words like 'problem'” explains the brand’s spokesperson. They’ve also enlisted influencers such as Tanya Burr in a bid to blast away humiliation. In her post on the subject she explained: “Whenever I vlog in my bathroom I get comments saying ‘oh she forgot to hide the femfresh’ or ‘spot the femfresh’, and I feel like it really shouldn’t be something people feel the need to hide.” Equally, the Hemsley sisters have championed the use of natural tampons and towels, for their lack of chlorine, bleach, pesticides and plastic, which can act as endocrine disruptors.

Tech companies are also reacting to the shift in attitudes towards our sexual health. There are now apps that keep track of your pelvic floor exercises, tell you when your menstrual cup is full or help with issues like incontinence. Living in the digital era means info is now just a click away, from YouTube videos that guide us through self-examination to learning to spot the symptoms of cancer. “There are a plethora of services available which support women who have concerns” says Miles.

Ultimately, taking advantage of these services is at the crux of this issue. Intimate care is still plagued by personal embarrassment – removing the stigma is up to us. We must learn to accept and be kind to our vaginas because the upshot is invaluable. Being more attuned will help us to look out for the signs of gynaecological cancers, which are so often silent killers. The more narratives we read and write, and the more campaigns we applaud, the more we work towards dispelling the myths. Surely that’s a big enough reason to shout loud and proud about our vaginas.
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