Those "Vagina Detox" Herbal Balls are Just the Latest in A Long History of Practices Rooted in Vagina Shame

Vaginas smell. It's OK.
Publish date:
January 26, 2016
shame, douching, vaginas, vagina vagina vagina

The vagina is a complicated organ with a lot of complicated feelings bound up in it — for some, a painful reminder of gender dysphoria, for others, a welcome and key part of their identity, for the culture wars, a symbol of perceived femininity.

One thing is for sure, though: There's a heavy culture of shame and fear wrapped around the vagina, thanks to the historical oppression of people who happen to have them, and one of the many ways in which it manifests is the quest to make it an odor-free zone.

On a purely biological level, the cis vagina is a really outstanding and fascinating organ. It's considerably expandable — capable of accommodating an entire baby — it's self-lubricating, and, for the most part, it's pretty self-maintaining unless its balance of flora gets disrupted or it develops an infection or inflammation. Trans people who opt for gender confirmation surgery (and are able to access it) need to do a little more maintenance, like using additional lube during sexytimes, but their vaginas are no less glorious for it. Bottom line: Vaginas are cool, yay vaginas — except in cases where they are causing gender dysphoria and mental anguish.

But the fact is that vaginas — OEM or not — produce some smells. The body produces smells. Depending on general health, what people are eating, medications they're taking, hormones, and any number of factors, a rich bouquet of odors is associated with human life, and those odors shift at various times of the month and over time. Smell can in fact be the first warning sign of a health problem, and it's still used as a rough diagnostic tool in some cases, though thankfully we have more sophisticated tools for identifying things like diabetes (associated with an unnaturally sweet aroma) today. Internal genitals face the laws of nature just like the rest of the body, and that means that they, you know, smell.

Smell can be a fantastic medical indicator for vaginal health — strong, unfamiliar, unpleasant smells can be a signal that something is going wrong, like a yeast infection, an STI, or a fistula. Regular ole vagina smell can just kind of coast along, a familiar accompaniment to life that gently fluctuates. Sometimes they smell like flowers and sometimes like grass and sometimes slightly yeasty and sometimes coppery and any number of things. It's all good. Vaginas smell, and the people in close association with them tend to get familiar with which smells are familiar and which ones aren't.

But a lot of people actively dislike natural vaginal odor, and actually go out of their way to make this known. If you toss a softball into a crowd of MRAs, you'll surely one who will happily pontificate on how much vaginas stink, but vagina-directed hatred, very bound up in misogyny, comes from all corners. Sadly, those corners include people who have vaginas, but feel like they need to look and smell like a CDC clean room.

Thanks to centuries of hatred targeting people with vaginas — and focusing specifically on cis women, who are strongly associated with the organ — people tend to experience a sense of shame surrounding their genitals, especially when it comes to smell. People in Ancient Egpyt, Greece, and Rome all used douching in an attempt to fight off STIs and pregnancy, in some cases, but also to address vaginal odor. In the Middle Ages, people used a thing called "vaginal fumigation" (and more about that in a moment). The Victorians were all about the douching, but on the plus side, they also considered vibrators a useful therapeutic treatment, so A+ for that, Victorians.

The practice of douching* endures to this day, but so do a variety of hokum, and sometimes actively dangerous, products and procedures to strip the vagina of odor. A company called Embrace Pangea recently released what amounts to herbal pessaries, which they call "pearls," encouraging people to insert them into their vaginas in order to "detox." The product preys upon the natural health community — which often relies upon a variety of products that provide little to no actual health benefits — but more than that, it actually endangers customers.

A bundle of herbs is not a good thing to put in a vagina, and can in fact trigger toxic shock syndrome, which has the potential to be fatal, as people learned in the 1980s when poor tampon design killed. Even today, a variety of firms make scented tampons to offset the dread period smell, despite the fact that scents can irritate mucus membranes, and some natural health companies/leaders even recommend soaking and pretreating tampons with herbal remedies.

Putting scented products into the vagina carries a double wammy of bad ideas. Just because a scent is "natural" doesn't mean it's not an irritant, as you'll find if you stick some stinging nettle or poison ivy up there, and materials used in these products may not be suited for the vaginal environment, which was one of the root causes of the toxic shock syndrome problem. Rely didn't just release super absorbent tampons that encouraged customers to leave them in for far too long, but also used dangerous materials in the construction of their products.

The detox myth is popular among the natural health set, raising the specter of vague and spooky "chemicals" interfering with your health and necessitating the use of herbal cleansers, bodywork, and so forth — in strict point of fact, any actual toxins in the body are handled by the liver and kidneys, which are specially equipped to deal with them. If hazardous chemical compounds can't be handled by the liver and/or kidneys, well, you're poisoned and should probably see a doctor, but chamomile tea will definitely not fix the problem.

Sometimes the liver and/or kidneys get overloaded — as for example in an overdose or in the case of extreme inflammation or infection — and patients can become seriously ill, but again, consuming herbal products is not going to help people in liver and/or kidney failure, and can in fact exacerbate it.

We've also seen a return of vaginal fumigation (I told you we'd be back!) in the form of "vaginal steaming," which involves forcing heated water vapor, often laden with various "medicinal herbs," up the vagina, which everyone really could do without. It's all the rage on any number of websites dedicated to ladybusiness, though, which is deeply perturbing, because at its heart, it's tapping into the fear and hatred of the vagina, and the belief that vaginal odor is a bad thing that needs to be stamped out. Spas offering the procedure often tout its "cleansing and detoxifing" properties, but also make a point of stressing that it will leave your freshly steam-cleaned vagina smelling daisy fresh.

Similarly, distributors of herbal products also sell tinctures, tablets, and teas intended to "fix" vaginal aromas, which in a technical sense, they can — depending on the ingredients, they can change the smell of vaginal discharge just like food can do. However, vaginal odor doesn't need to be masked or fixed, and herbal remedies can interfere with prescription medications or hide the signs of medical issues. This is not a good thing.

The fact that the fear of vaginal odor persists among sexists isn't a surprise — for them, vaginas are gross, suspect, and unpleasant, in addition to being public property to be used and abused as seen fit. It's more upsetting, however, to see it also enduring among people who consider themselves progressive and body-positive, and it's a stark testimony to how ingrained the fear of the vagina is, socially. There ain't nothing wrong with a body doing a natural thing, and trying to counter it can be dangerous for your health, in addition to perpetuating harmful social structures that we pass on to future generations.

So let vaginas be vaginas — and if you have one, get to know how it smells so that you can tell when something's wrong.


* As a general rule, douching is strongly not recommended for cis women, as it can be very dangerous for vaginal health. However, some trans women and people of other genders use douching while healing after gender confirmation surgery, and in other instances as well for vaginal health, usually in consultation with their physicians — with this exception, when it comes to vaginal health in this article, I refer to any and all vaginas.