I'm Embarrassed of My Vagina, and It's Messing Up My Sex Life

In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sexiest questions — unjudged and unfiltered.

Vagina Shame
Photo: Eva Hill


I’m reluctant to let my boyfriend go down on me, mainly because I’m self-conscious about my vagina. I don’t like the way it looks, and I’m worried about how it smells. Is that normal? —Fears About Down Under


You’re not alone. Society gives women a lot of negative messages about their lady parts. Feminine hygiene is a multi-billion dollar business invested in providing women with sanitary options, yes, but also in making women think the natural smell of their vaginas is unacceptable. Despite the fact that doctors recommend against using them, internal cleansers, like the douche and intimate spray, are the fastest-growing product category in the industry. Meanwhile, labiaplasties — surgeries to alter the appearance of the vulva — are on the rise and fast. Between 2014 and 2015, there was an 80 percent increase in the number of young women who got the procedure done.

Little girls are often told not to touch themselves or that their vaginas are dirty, and I suspect that this contributes to the reason why boys masturbate more than girls do. In my clinical experience, I’ve found that boys tend to be fascinated by their genitals, while girls are at best ambivalent and at worst grossed out by their own.

That brings me to vagina language. I can think of dozens of names for a penis that are not only acceptable but that people would probably feel comfortable saying out loud on the street. I’m struggling to think of one for women’s privates. (Talk to me when a story about Big Pussy Energy gets shared on people’s Facebooks.) Researchers have also found important reasons to educate young girls about the proper, clinical terms for their genitals, including making sexual abuse less likely and equipping children with the language to report inappropriate behavior. But there’s another, even more obvious reason to: If a daughter is taught that “vagina” is a bad word, it reasons that she’ll think a vagina is a bad thing.

Vagina shaming doesn’t end with girlhood; many men are quick to reinforce those feelings throughout a woman’s adulthood. If you haven’t read OB/GYN Dr. Jen Gunther’s New York Times op-ed about what happened when she wrote about an ex-boyfriend who was critical of her vagina smell — spoiler: men bombarded her with degrading insults about her vagina and how to “improve” it — read it. And then there’s porn and grooming. It’s not surprising that watching a bleached or waxed, surgically altered, and perfectly lit vag in action can drive women to be self-critical. The current trend of fully or mostly shaven privates puts all our “flaws” out in the open; when a big bush was in, who even realized that their vulvas looked any different from the next girl’s?

But these are all relics of the philosophy that women’s pleasure should be a source of shame and judgment. At the risk of sounding like I'm about to make you do a trust circle, I want you to learn to love your vagina — and your vulva, the visible, exterior part of the vagina that most people are talking about when they say "vagina." Embracing this very feminine part of your body is crucial to embracing your sexuality, womanhood, and self. In order to have a healthy sense of identity, and a thrilling sex life, you need to get acquainted with all of you.

So what can you do to fall in love with your vulva? I have a few suggestions:

1. Study the female anatomy

Sure, you know what a clitoris is. But what else do you know about your magical triangle and all that is connected to it? Do you know where your mons pubis is? How about your perineal area? We fear what we don’t know, and gaining a better understanding of the layout of your vulva will remove some of that mystery. Take a close look at an anatomy diagram of the external female reproductive system, and while you’re at it take a glance at the internal stuff too.

2. Look at other vulvas

First of all, know that you’re looking at a vulva, which is often incorrectly referred to as the vagina. Research has shown that 50 percent of women don’t know what a “normal” vulva looks like, and 15 percent haven’t seen another vulva since those terrible sex-ed video tapes. Understanding that vulvas come in all different shapes, forms, and shades will help you accept yours. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of porn is not the best place to see what a real-life vag looks like due to the alterations and lighting. Instead, check out a site like Labia Library to see what the real thing looks like. Keep in mind, we don’t tend to be perfectly symmetrical down there. Having an uneven labia or labia minora that extends outside (a vaginal “outie”) is very common.

3. Ready of your close up

It’s time to pull out the hand-held mirror and familiarize yourself with your own equipment. Observe the shape and color of your various layers. Explore your crevices and get familiar with yourself. Familiarity breeds appreciation.

4. Understand the normal stuff that comes out

It is healthy for women to experience some discharge on a day-to-day basis, and it’s important to know what that looks like for you so you can pick out changes in your fluids. Cervical fluid has different consistencies at different points in your cycle, and understanding what to expect can help you take control of your fertility, whether you’re trying to get pregnant or actively avoiding motherhood. The consistency of this fluid can also change as a result of birth control pills, medication, sexual activity, and diet.

5. Know what your healthy vagina smells like

A healthy vagina has a scent of its own. So stop trying to neutralize it with douches and sprays — besides, women’s genitalia secrete pheromones to trigger sexual interest, and most vagina-seeking sexual partners are turned on by that. There are even some who prefer the smell after a long, sweaty workout; every partner is unique. Your natural, healthy scent is likely to vary depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, the kind of underpants you wear, your level of sexual activity, your workout, and even the foods you consume. That said, you should have a sense of what your spectrum of fragrances are. Certain smells can be signs of a sexually transmitted infections or other health issues, and knowing what normal smells like for you will help you spot drastic variation.

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6. Trust your vagina to take care of itself

Your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven. Doing things like douching, using feminine sprays, steaming, and the like can wash out the good bacteria and offset the pH balance that a vagina relies on to keep itself healthy, leading to potential infections. Most doctors recommend simply washing your vagina with a mild, unscented soap for sensitive skin that does not contain harmful chemicals or soap products.

7. Masturbate

There is nothing that will bring you closer to your vulva than experiencing pleasure from it. Spending time exploring it and learning what touch turns you on is the ultimate bonding experience. The clitoris — which contains 8,000 nerve endings, double than those in the glans of a penis — is made purely for pleasure and has nothing to do with reproduction, so put it to use!

8. Pick a good partner

Find a partner who makes you feel great about your vagina — and verbalizes how much they appreciate it. He or she should never speak about your vagina in a disparaging, critical, or degrading way. It's one thing to give some productive feedback (“It would really turn me on it your trimmed your bush” or “I would love it if you take a shower when you get back from the gym before I go down on you”). It’s another thing entirely to shame you, refuse to go down on you, or make you feel self-conscious or uncomfortable about this part of your body.

As for your current predicament — at the end of the day, keep in mind that your wonderful partner who wants to give you oral pleasure is clearly turned on by your lady parts even if you’re still working on it. Do not deny him, or you, that pleasure. It's worth working through your own self-criticism so that you can enjoy this act and connect with your partner and yourself on a deeply intimate level.

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