I had a friend in university who grew a moustache because he liked going down on women and retaining their scent the day after in the hairs beneath his nostrils… I used to see him in my quantitative methods class stroking his moustache upwards and winking at me. He gloried in the smell of pussy. But when I was growing up he was one of the few who did. From all other quarters, jokes abounded about fish and smeg (we can thank Red Dwarf for that).
When my period started I was ill-prepared for the mess and the smell. During my first heavy period whilst reaching for a tampon, I bled down my legs. And as the blood fell, so did my tears. I was horrified and ashamed. The best advice from the magazines was, 'It smells when it hits the air so you can wear tampons [better to stuff it up than to smell it]. It smells, but normally you're the only one who can smell it [just to remind you what a sinner you are]. Wash twice a day between your legs when you have your period [extremely practical when you're at school]. Carry wet wipes with you at ALL times.' And so it began. A costly and mostly ineffective attempt to make my vagina smell like the rose it wasn't.
Nowadays I can smell myself throughout my cycle and I know what I smell like. It's not roses. Whether it's discharge or blood, it smells like vagina. Yes. Surprisingly vagina smells – well – like vagina. It changes according to what I eat, what I drink, my activity and the time of the month. Despite my best efforts at loving myself, I'm barely okay with the way I smell…and I'm still terrified when I meet a new lover to let him go there. In fact as I lie there looking at the ceiling during what should be a hot moment, the thought crosses my mind. How on earth can he like doing that? Is he cringing as he's doing it? And lastly…will he leave me if he thinks I'm disgusting?
It's not my smell that bothers me per se.
(FACT. I smell far less pungent than camembert and loads of people love that. Yes, I have actually used this justification to myself).
I know that every woman smells unique. I know that good and bad is simply a judgement. No. My fear is that he might be indoctrinated by the same system I am struggling to escape. And if I see my own insecurity mirrored in his eyes, I will feel once again the humiliation that I felt growing up. The humiliation of having a vagina and knowing that others know I have a vagina. Blood is evidence I have a vagina. Discharge is evidence I have a vagina. Camel Toe is evidence I have a vagina. And perhaps most insidious of all; smell is evidence…that I have a vagina.
My vagina smells like shame. Rancid and sickly. SHAME.
Since educating myself through my own personal project The Vagina Times, I've discovered so much about our systemic culture of shame which has prompted women to mutilate, bleach and douche their genitals to eliminate their natural shape, colour and smell. It's truly heartbreaking. Because shame stems from someone else's emotional repression. And their beliefs become internalized until we perpetutate them and shame our daughters.
When women perpetuate their own emotional repression on our girls, we're fighting a losing battle.
In fact, for me this is the worst aspect of vulval and vaginal shame. We not only betray ourselves, but we betray our daughters. In the most extreme examples, mothers hold down their struggling, screaming daughters with other female village elders to go through horrific female genital mutilation because those women are shamed so strongly, that they think it is better put their daughters through a mentally, emotionally and physically scarring procedure – to cut away all existence of the vulva and sew up the vagina like it was never there – than it is to admit that women were born with the capacity of enjoying ourselves sexually. And that we have a vulva and vagina specifically designed to do so.
But even for those of us who don't come from cultures like these, we are shamed in other ways. Here's what Eldiese, a self proclaimed lipstick lesbian in Australia had to say about it:
You also need to smell fresh as a daisy everywhere whenever you see her after that, and I mean everywhere! God forbid the lady is performing the ever sacred going down dance and doesn't like what she sniffs! My advice ladies, the sacred lotus flower is never going to smell like roses so breathe through your mouths!
Breathe through your mouths!!!
What I want is for my lover to glory in my smell. To breathe in my musk and feel the heat rising in his body. To lap it up even if i haven't had a shower 2 hours before, or even 24 hours before. I don't want him to do me a favour and breathe through his mouth. Or be disgusted… so much so that he might be able to fuck it, but never to kiss it.
What I want is to love myself and my smell and have him love it too. And so I must lose my shame.
Because the large majority of smells in themselves are neutrally perceived including natural bodily odour. It is our reaction to them which is a conditioned response. (I wouldn't have believed it before I had children, but they have no 'ugh' to poo, spiders or rotten food. And definitely not to vagina).
When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory — associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the pool or lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. How Stuff Works
For most of us growing up in this culture our response to vagina, it's shape, colour and smell, is SHAME. My mother made sure of that.
Here's the thing. Your vagina smells and tastes fantastic to those who love you (and even sometimes those who don't). If it doesn't, it only means that they are themselves buried in shame. And you know deep down, no matter how hard you scrub your vagina or how many times a day you douche, you will never be rid of shame. Because it doesn't come off with soap and water, it only dissolves with love. As if it was never there. So love you and your smell and others will too. It's really that simple.
This piece originally appeared on Postmodern Woman. Republished with permission.
Image by Jim Cooke.