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
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?
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
- 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
- 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!
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