How Should Vaginas Smell?
By Lissa Rankin, MD
Many women I meet absolutely despise their vaginas, as if they completely buy into whatever childhood messages they were fed about how the vagina is “dirty” and “bad.” For these women, any odor wafting up from down there acts as a big stinky banner of how much they hate their girlness. With vagina nicknames such as “fish taco,” “crotch mackerel,” “cod canal,” “fish factory,” “fuzzy lap flounder,” “tuna town,” and “raw oyster,” it’s no wonder we worry about how we smell and wonder “Why do vaginas smell?” But I say it’s time to change all that. Why should we hate what’s normal, healthy, and part of the rich female experience?
One of the most common questions people ask me regarding what it’s like to be a gynecologist is, “Doesn’t it stink?” They wrinkle their noses, furrow their brows, and raise eyebrows, as if there’s something wrong with me for loving my job. Lying underneath that question I often see something that borders on misogyny, as if women are nothing more than a vaginal odor to be avoided. From the time we’re children, we’re taught that normal bodily functions are “yucky.” Pee, poop, and privates all elicit a “pee-yew,” so it’s no wonder we grow up obsessed with how we smell.
Ladies, vaginas are supposed to smell. Let me quote my heroine, Eve Ensler, the Queen of Vaginas, whose Vagina Monologues have done as much for the vagina as Martin Luther King, Jr. did for civil rights:
“My vagina doesn’t need to be cleaned up. It smells good already. Don’t try to decorate. Don’t believe him when he tells you it smells like rose petals when it’s supposed to smell like pussy. That’s what they’re doing – trying to clean it up, make it smell like bathroom spray or a garden. All those douche sprays – floral, berry, rain. I don’t want my pussy to smell like rain. All cleaned up like washing a fish after you cook it. I want to taste the fish. That’s why I ordered it.”
Amen, sister. It’s supposed to smell like pussy.
Sure, hygiene plays a role, and just like washing your pits and your feet, cleaning yourself down there is part of being an accepted member of society (not to mention being a conscientious sexual partner). Most women even shower, shave, and primp a bit before visiting the gynecologist. I often notice wafts of perfume emanating from the nether regions. I appreciate the respect and notice the effort, but really, it’s not necessary. We gynecologists are not as sensitive as you might imagine.
So how is the vagina supposed to smell? It depends. When you’re straight out of the shower, your coochie may have no smell at all. When you’ve just finished running a marathon, it may have a strong musky odor from all the sweat glands. When you’re menstruating or giving birth, the flinty-iron smell of blood prevails. When yeast overgrows in the vagina, you may smell like freshly baked-bread or a good malt beer. Right after you’ve had intercourse, you may smell faintly bleach-like, as semen has a classic odor of its own. And when certain normal bacteria overgrow, they release amines that smell – yup, you guessed it – like fish.
Every vagina has its own special smell – a combination of the normal bacteria that live in your vagina, what you eat, how you dress, your level of hygiene, your bowel habits, how much you sweat, and what your glands secrete. Remember that the glands near the vagina also secrete pheromones, meant to attract a sexual partner. So you don’t want to deodorize your va-jay-jay so much that it smells like rain. Doing so thwarts the primal function of what your smell is supposed to accomplish. Plus, it interferes with the vagina’s natural pH balance and can lead to a whole host of gynecological conditions.
So own your odor, girlfriends. Sure, if you’re worried, see a gynecologist to make sure your vagina is healthy and normal. But as long as everything’s kosher down there, accept that your coochie smells exactly how it’s supposed to smell.