When Dr. Nicole Williams set out to write her first book, she planned to create a simple guide for patients with vaginas. But as Williams, who’s been working as an ob-gyn for almost 20 years, dove into her research, she realized there was so much more she needed to say.
“It was supposed to be just me writing, ‘Okay, your vagina is itchy. It could be this or that,’ but then it turned into so much more,” she said. “There were just so many myths I wanted to dispel.”
Many women and AFAB individuals remain in the dark about their reproductive parts; per one poll, an estimated one-quarter of US women said they didn’t even know where their vagina is. In the same survey, 46 percent of respondents couldn’t point out the cervix, while 59 percent couldn’t identify the uterus. Beyond simple anatomy, myths about vaginal scent and cleanliness abound in popular culture.
Williams, who’s also the founder of the Gynecology Institute of Chicago, has just released the culmination of all her hard work. In This Is How You Vagina: All About the Vajayjay and Why You Probably Shouldn’t Call It That, she delves into the cultural history of female genitalia (including some ancient beliefs that vaginas had teeth!) and brings readers into the present day, analyzing developments in the medical world surrounding vaginas and how they’ve been portrayed in pop culture.
She also pays homage to the Black women that early doctors experimented on to create the foundations of modern gynecology. She wanted people to understand, she says, “‘Wow, this is why we know what we know.”
Below, Williams debunks some longtime myths patients still may believe about vaginas and offers some expert advice.
A lot of your book touches on how people with vaginas take in a lot of external messaging and then internalize fears about their genitalia. They may think, “Is it pretty? Is it functioning correctly?” What are some of the modern myths you debunk in your book?
Well, here are some of the big ones: Douching isn’t necessary; wearing panty liners for discharge isn’t necessary; peeing after sex isn’t necessary. One big thing I get from patients is “Does my vagina look okay?” Well, no two are alike, even in twins. Asymmetry over symmetry is the norm. Large hanging labia are just as common as smaller labia. There is no ideal!
Many of my patients also think that any change in vaginal odor indicates disease. But something that’s underlooked is that the flora of the vagina will change not only with diet, stress, but also with new sexual partners. So if someone comes in with a question about odor, I always ask if they’ve been sexually involved with a new partner. No matter their sex, if you’re involved with someone new, your naturally occurring bacteria will mingle and you might come up with a new signature scent.
If you feel that you’re experiencing more potent odor, then please get it checked out. But know that more than likely, it’s probably okay.
What are some “cures” people used to treat vaginal issues in the past? Do any of them still work?
Well, there were leeches, garlic and pelvic massages. Generally, my rule of thumb for home remedies is if you can eat or drink it, don’t put it in there. Before trying anything new, talk to your doctor.
Also no steaming, no yoni eggs or pearls, don’t use any of these little things that are supposed to “detoxify” your vagina. Your vagina is not toxic in the first place.
Can you explain why douching, or rinsing out the vagina, can be harmful?
The vagina is generally slightly acidic. If you douche, you can kill good bacteria that naturally occurs in the vagina. When that happens, other types of bad bacteria, like the kinds that can cause vaginitis, can proliferate because they are a little bit hardier than our wonderful little cute lactobacillus. Your vagina is generally a self-cleaning oven. When we give her just basic things like soap, water and sunshine, then she’ll be okay.
What do you suggest for anyone grappling with period cramps and other PMS symptoms?
Magnesium is one of my go-to recommendations. If you integrate it into your diet, it can actually help with painful cramps. In some instances, it can even help with flow reduction. Also, invest in a good heating pad and make sure to exercise regularly. Of course, this will all be individualized. I always say if you are bleeding through more than one sanitary pad or tampon, emptying your menstrual cup, once an hour, then that’s too much, and you should seek care.
You write that the 28-day menstrual cycle isn’t set in stone. The average cycle could be last between 21 to 35 days.
Yes! My patients often think that if my period doesn’t come at exactly 5:30 p.m., then there’s something seriously wrong. But we’re human, we don’t have perfect periods. They’re going to ebb and flow with stress, with diet or just with life. As long as your period is still coming, generally every month, know that your hormones are probably doing what they’re supposed to do.
What’s the single thing you want people with vaginas to take from your book?
I want them to know that vagina knowledge is vagina power. If you know your anatomy, understand your physiology even a little and respect your health by eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, avoiding panty liners and/or any plastics in that area, then your vagina will be fine.
We don’t want to overthink our vaginas. It’s not your fault that you’ve overthought your vagina — it’s society’s fault.
This interview has been edited and condensed.