One afternoon, while relaxing in the premises of Godavari Hostel, Jawaharlal Nehru University, my roommates-cum-friends were discussing about oral sex and the much needed requirements to pursue it. The women spoke about pubic hair, shaving, smelling nice and sniggered at the women who would leave their pubic hair on while receiving oral sex.
The stigmatising of the vagina ostensibly begins with name calling such as ‘down there’, ‘cunt’, or even ‘pussy’ for that matter. It is interesting how the most natural odour emanating from any part of our body becomes an element of shame and disgust. The dislike and embarrassment is often used as an opportunity by the market to sell its products under the garb of ‘smelling good’, thereby claiming to aid us in ‘saving our vaginas’. Nonetheless, it has to be comprehended that vaginas don’t need saving, more than anything else, they need claiming, an acceptance and embracing.
Dr Puneet Bedi, a New Delhi-based gynaecologist, says, “The common perception that poor genital hygiene leads to vaginal infections and foul smell is not wholly true. Actual vaginal infection will produce a foul smell and needs to be diagnosed and treated, but normal vaginal discharge is odourless and healthy. The narratives have been twisted to suit the marketing of various ‘female Hygiene’ products like scented napkins, or those sprayed with antiseptics and intimate washes. These are useless and potentially harmful. These can lead to vaginal infections and allergies. ”
As a gynaecologist, Dr Bedi opines that complaints regarding vaginal hygiene are so common that women grumbling about its odour often forget that it is the natural odour of vagina.
Let’s go back to days when there were no toothpastes – did we worry about mouth infections then? It is a natural saliva which prevents mouth infections and bad odour, similar is the case with the vagina. The natural way vagina cleans itself is by producing secretions and maintaining an optimum pH balance like other body parts, be it tongue or nose.
Dr Puneet Bedi, a New Delhi-based gynaecologist
“Often, I hear from my friends that unless they apply intimate washes, a feeling of dirtiness encapsulates their brains,” says Samridhi Chhabra, a physician. She continues to add, “There is a strong need to inculcate an understanding about loving one’s body, along with the need to have gender sensitisation in education curriculum”.
The advent of intimate washes in the present day scenario has spread like a wildfire in the capitalist market. It is enthralling to see how patriarchy interacts with capitalism when it comes to the huge demand of intimate washes. “The classical example of toothpaste tells one how the market is invented first, and then the demand is created to sell the product, quite akin to the market of vaginal hygiene,” says Dr Bedi.
When one uses intimate products on their vaginas to smell good or to become attractive, it ends up disrupting the pH balance. It is same across both the genders, so scrotum and vagina have natural their odour. Thus, in order to have oral sex, all one needs to do is to smell like themselves, and take a normal bath.
Dr Puneet Bedi, gynaecologist
Apart from that, shaving pubic hair can often lead to other concerns like irritation, and infection of private parts, rather than leading to raunchy make out sessions. The justification for shaving must be to ensure no fungal infection develops due to humidity, and not because a clean vagina is demanded by your lover.
Biologically, vagina is very much like the mouth and nose openings. One needs to come out of the realm of porn movies explicitly showing women having hairless genitals. “Pubic hair are healthy and normal,” says Dr Bedi.
While it is definitely one’s choice to whether have pubic hair or not, however, the whole notion of ugliness and pubic hair is a misconception that market has reaped in our minds.
Samridhi Chhabra, a physician
The entire uproar regarding a clean and hygienic vagina is partially a product of social conditioning, and partially a demand taken up by the market. When it comes to health, the narrative is always twisted to suit the narrative of ‘free choice’, with super impositions of ‘self care, cleanliness, and hygienic body’. Nonetheless, the baits have to be evaded, for it is solely up to us to own our bodies. The wider process of controlling bodies is a bio-political agenda for manufacturing an even bigger surveillance regime. Thus, owning up odorous vagina would mean owning up one’s body, one’s hygiene, and also one’s sex life.
(Manisha Chachra is pursuing Mphil in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interest areas are gender, Indian politics and sexuality. She has previously worked at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)