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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

Feature image by Shutterstock

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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