“There’s a new candle, have you heard?”
- Seth Meyers, from a Late Night interview with Gweneth Paltrow
Gweneth Paltrow is selling a votive candle, which is part of her Goop line of lifestyle products, called, “This Smells Like My Vagina.” The candle sold out instantly at $75 a pop. Ms. Paltrow describes the scent as a “funny, gorgeous, and beautifully-unexpected scent with geranium, citrusy bergamot, and cedar absolutes juxtaposed with Damask rose and ambrette seed”.
She explained on the Seth Meyers show, “So, it sort of started as a joke...and I smelled this beautiful thing and I was like, ‘This smells like my vagina.’ I was kidding, obviously. I think women, a lot of us, have grown up with a certain degree of shame around our body… So this is a little bit of a subversive candle for all of us out there.”
This, of course, got all kinds of attention and has prompted memes that include all the inappropriate jokes we’ve heard our entire lives about fishy smells and unpleasant odors associated with the vagina. Some are amused, while others are speaking out against perceived misogyny about the jokes.
I personally wouldn’t pay $75 for a votive candle no matter what it smelled like, but to each their own.
Ms. Paltrow does however, bring up an important point. Women have long been shamed for strong odors down south, and it’s about time for some clarification, praise, and some vagina rebranding.
Dr. Shannon Klingman created Lume Deodorant for Pits and Privates for this very reason. She wanted to help women whose confidence had been eroded by body odor. This is because she saw time and time again female patients in her practice who felt shame and embarrassment about what they understood to be “vaginal odor.”
As an OB/Gyn, Dr. Klingman observed that women wouldn’t make an appointment specifically because they were embarrassed about unpleasant vaginal odor, but would commonly bring it up while at regular gynecological visits.
She also observed that many physicians were diagnosing their patients with bacterial vaginosis (BV) when they detected a fishy smell and sending them home with a course of antibiotics that, most likely, they didn’t need. This wasn’t solving any problems, but there just wasn’t a solution out there. This bothered Dr. Klingman, so she started doing some research.
Dr. Klingman discovered through testing in an outside lab that the odor molecule that forms with BV (trimethylamine) in the vagina is exactly the same as the odor molecule that forms on the outside of our bodies. That makes it difficult to distinguish between odor associated with an infection and the external odor of everyday living.
Although individual circumstances vary, women with healthy vaginas deal with a number of bodily fluids down south on a daily basis, including sweat, urine, menstrual cycle blood, vaginal discharge, and semen. All of these normal bodily fluids provide a great opportunity for bacteria on our skin to enjoy a feast and create odor.
Not only that, our anatomy is such that all the bacteria thriving on and around the vulva is subject to mingling with bacteria that migrates from our backsides, and it’s quite a party. This is what has led Dr. Klingman to say, “It’s a jungle down there.”
If you don’t have an infection, feminine odors are an external problem, and using antibiotics won’t solve it. That’s because they are meant to address an internal infection. So when we talk about vaginal (internal) odor in the absence of an infection, we are really referring to vulvar (external) odor, because uninfected vaginas don’t stink. In fact, they are really great housekeepers.
The vagina is a lot of things and serves some pretty spectacular purposes, but let’s start with what it is not. The vagina is not a part of our external body. The vagina is an internal passage that connects the inner world of the reproductive system with the outside world.
The vagina is remarkably adaptable and can hold something as small as a tampon in place. It can also expand enough for an entire baby to pass through. The vagina has been referred to as a “self-cleaning oven” due to the fact that it has the ability to clean itself. Vaginal discharge is the result of the continual inner cleaning and balancing of the delicate vaginal microbiome.
False ideas about hygiene and cleanliness over the years have led people to douching and using vaginal deodorants. These things actually mess with the pH level inside the vagina and do more harm than good. Without interference, the vagina is typically able to maintain the right amount of bacteria to protect itself.
The vagina is worthy of praise as an incredible multitasker and self-sufficient entity– capable of taking care of itself. So why has it been stigmatized unfairly?
Misinformation, lack of understanding, and definitely some discomfort with the proper terms.
If people are uncomfortable using the word “vagina,” then they are doubly uncomfortable using the terms “vulva” and “vulvar.”
“Vulvar odor” doesn’t really roll off the tongue like “vaginal odor.” I’m going to be honest, I’m a writer, not a doctor. Before I started working for Lume, the words “vulva” and “vulvar” were not in my regular vernacular. I think most women just refer to anything in the female genital zone as their vagina, and they’re not particularly concerned with accuracy.
Have you ever tried to explain to someone who calls all soda Coke or all tissues Kleenex, that they are wrong? They just stare at you blankly. A lot of people come to understand a product and a brand name as one in the same and don’t really care about accuracy.
I believe the vagina falls into this category. I conducted some unofficial research over the weekend with my teenage daughters and brought up the topic of vulvas. My intention was to clear up misconceptions and perhaps correct years of well-intentioned but misinformed motherly instruction, and let them know that vulva was the proper term.
My daughters did, in fact, stare at me blankly and say, “I don’t care.”
I also called my college daughter and asked for her response regarding the word vulva, and she replied, “Yeah, I’m not using that word.”
When naming the vulva, if someone had chosen “hoo-ha” or “lady bits” instead, maybe people would be more inclined to use accurate names. But look, we can’t go back in time and change Latin, so let’s just do our best with the tools we were given.
Vulva is the Latin word for “wrapper.”
Understanding a vulva as the “vagina wrapper” is so much more fun. Vagina wrapper might be the best set of words I have ever paired together. Why didn’t I already know this? Was I absent on the day Vulva 101 was taught?
The vulva’s main job is to protect and insulate the openings to the reproductive organs and urinary tract. The vulva refers to the entire neighborhood just outside the vagina, including the tight knit communities of the urinary opening, clitoris, clitoral hood, labia (inner and outer lips) and the aptly-named vestibule (or, opening). Vestibule comes from the Latin word meaning “entrance court”. So in this case, it is the lobby of the vagina.
Again, we probably don’t give Latin enough credit for being fun.
However you refer to all of the parts downstairs, it’s important to understand that external body odor is produced by bacteria that live on our bodies. There is nothing inherently wrong with you if you experience unpleasant body odors in the course of day-to-day living– we all do.
Lume is effective at controlling external odor because it prevents bacteria from consuming bodily fluids and causing odor in the first place.
Lume’s mission is to help us all understand that body odor is a normal part of being a human being, and that it is within our reach to manage. If you have ever felt shame or that your confidence has eroded because of body odor, Lume wants to restore that and change the way you perceive yourself.