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Why You Should Give Yourself A ‘Vaginal Self-Exam’

The next time you do a breast self-exam, make a point to see what's happening down below too.

Women's Health

I'm pretty sure you're well aware of the fact that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This month definitely reminds us all about how necessary it is to perform breast self-exams. Also, if you're 45 or over, hopefully you've scheduled a mammogram (if you haven't had one already this year). Remember, although we are diagnosed with this particular form of cancer at a slightly lower rate than white women, the reality is our mortality is noticeably higher.

As I was reflecting on the fact that I am now in the age bracket where annual mammograms are important (gee, where does the time go?), it got me to thinking about something else that is important for all of us to do. Something that doesn't seem to come up nearly as often, but can be just as life-saving—vaginal self-exams. I try to give myself one about every 3-4 weeks or so. When's the last time you did it?

If the answer is "never", here are the reasons why you should, along with how to go about making it a routine part of your proactive self-care routine.

Why You Should Be Looking Down There More Than You (Already) Do

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I'm not sure if it's a generational thing or what, but I find it to be interesting that whenever I ask the women in my life who are over 50 if they look at their vagina, they act like I'm speaking German; meanwhile, if I ask a woman in her 20s if she does, I darn near have to keep her from spreadin' it wide right in front of me. I have pried a little when it comes to a few older women by asking them what the big deal is with looking at their va-jay-jay. Usually they say something along the lines of, "I barely wanted to see my own baby being born" or (if they are down with receiving oral sex; some aren't), "I'll just let my man tell me if something is up. He's there more than I am anyway."

Me? I'm kind of a natural picker. I had to train myself to leave pimples alone. Every time a new age freckle pops up (a "gift" from my maternal grandfather), I almost immediately notice. And yes, I am neither hesitant nor ashamed to say that whenever I am doing my own up-close-and-very personal lady-scaping, I usually get a mirror to check out what's going on down below. It's not so much that I'm worried that something is wrong; it's just that I find my vagina to be really fascinating. Dope, even.

Now if you're someone who is like, "I may not be in my 50s but I don't have a desire to look at my hoo-haw either" and your main rationale is because "that's what pap smears are for", here's something to think about. Although there used to be a time when pap and pelvic exams (mostly to check for cervical cancer cells) were recommended on an annual basis, most health professionals now agree that if you are between the ages of 21-65, every three years is fine. For those of us who kinda sorta hate pap smears, that's good news. But OK, what about all of those months in between your visits to the doctor; especially if you are sexually active?

This is where a vaginal self-exam comes into play.

While there is nothing quite like the technology of medical equipment and the knowledge of a medical professional, performing a vaginal self-exam can help you to see if there is a noticeable change in your discharge, if there are growths (including bumps, sores or "weird-looking spots") or drastic changes in color when it comes to your clitoris or your labia majora (inner lips) or labia minora (outer lips).

If there's a part of you that is still giving push back by saying, "OK, but if there were issues like that, wouldn't I feel it?" Eh, maybe. Maybe not. But since some STDs including chlamydia and HPV are typically asymptomatic, and even bacterial vaginosis is asymptomatic in nearly half of all women, it can never hurt to 1) get used to what your vagina—well, technically your vulva; your vagina is the inside part while your vulva is the outside part—looks like when it's healthy so that 2) you are able to detect fairly early on if something appears abnormal in anyway. After all, when it comes to your overall health and well-being, early detection of anything always works in your favor.

How Do You Perform a Vaginal Self-Exam?

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I really am hoping that I've compelled you to at least consider giving yourself a vaginal self-exam. Trust me, it's not that hard to do.

What you'll need is a:

  • Handheld mirror
  • Pillow
  • Small flashlight
  • Gloves for your hands (like the ones you would use to perm your hair with)
  • Diagram of the vulva (you can look one up online or download this one here)
  • Journal or smartphone
Then it's time to follow through with these steps:
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and/or apply a pair of sterile gloves.
  • Remove all of your clothing from the waist down (some people like to do this after the shower, but you can't always detect your discharge that way; right when you wake up is probably your best bet).
  • Whether it's on your bed or the floor, put a towel underneath you and then prop your butt up with a pillow.
  • Pull your feet back towards your butt as far as they will comfortably go and spread your legs wide.
  • Relax your pelvic muscle. Then, with your mirror, start inspecting, beginning with your mons pubis (the top of your vulva where most of your pubic hair is), then your clitoris, then your lips (outside and inside) and then the opening of your vagina and anus. Look to see if there are any noticeable changes that you haven't seen before (or if it's your first time, take note if anything alarms you). If there is, jot it down in your journal or smartphone (by the way, smartphones are pretty gross, germ-wise. You might want to clean it before conducting your self-exam; just to be on the safe side). Don't be afraid to gently pull back the folds of your vulva, to peek into your clitoris' hood or to even stick a finger into your vagina to make sure that your walls are a pinkish color and the texture is smooth.
  • Once you are done, if something seems different to the point of slightly alarming, write it down and make an appointment to see your doctor. Again, the sooner you notice something "strange" and your physician is made aware, the sooner your vulva and vagina can get to feeling like their normal self (plus, it can prevent you from infecting someone else, even if you've got something as simple as a yeast infection). After getting the hang of this, it should take no more than 15 minutes tops.

After you've completed your vaginal self-exam, treat you and your vagina to a homemade strawberry and avocado smoothie (it'll help to keep your vagina's pH in check) or a nice pair of organic cotton undies (since you need to swap those out every six months anyway). You've taken super responsible measures to keep "her" happy. You've certainly earned it!

Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:

15 Things I Bet You Didn't Know About Your Own Vagina

10 Things Your Vagina Wishes You Would Do More Often

These Common Habits Are Actually BAD For Your Vagina

Keep Your Vagina Like A (Literal) Fountain Of Youth

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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