Have you looked at your vulva lately? Yes, you read correctly! Many of you will probably say you haven’t, and many more would probably ask what in the world is my “vulva” in the first place! That’s okay. I was in the same boat myself before venturing out on my journey to expand my sexual health awareness.
I recently traveled with the core members of the Patty Brisben Foundation team to San Diego for the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health Conference as part of my continued hunger to keep learning! (Below is a snapshot of me with Aran Mordoh, Pure Romance’s Sexual Health Education Manager at the conference.)
One of my biggest takeaways was the importance of consistently examining our own vulvas for any signs of irregularity. We are told by our mothers and the media from a very young age to take care of our skin, and told by our doctors to do annual breast exams at home, but how come no one has ever told us to regularly look at our our vulvas? We should be proactive about every aspect of our health and that includes every part of our body. During one session at the conference, they asked us to look at side-by-side photos comparing two vulvas – one of a woman in her 50s and another in her late 70s. Most would assume that the younger woman’s vulva would look healthier, but in this case, it was quite the opposite. It was fairly easy to notice and identify the difference in these two vulvas, but how do we know how to check ourselves when using a mirror in the privacy of our home? There is a great book called, “Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva” by Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick that will serve as a wonderful guide for learning about your vulvar health! Have you ever taken a look in the mirror and knew that you were getting sick? It shouldn’t be much different when it comes to recognizing the red flags associated with your vulva (as long as you know what to look for in the first place). We have to make the decision to be proactive when it comes to our sexual health, especially because it is a topic that people aren’t traditionally as comfortable discussing in public forums, and even with their healthcare providers.
Another big takeaway from the conference was a concept that I’ve been passionate about for decades, and that is the idea of “Use it or lose it.” Just like cardio is important to maintain our lung and heart health, we also need to make sure that we are actively “exercising” when it comes to our vaginal and vulvar health. As we age, our vulva undergoes a multitude of “wear and tear” experiences from tampon use to childbirth. It’s so vital to keep this part of our body stimulated, not just for the psychological benefits (such as helping alleviate stress and encouraging mental wellness), but also for physiological reason like preventing atrophy and dryness that can lead to pain in the future. Single people without a sexual partner might neglect to kegel or use intimacy products as a way to continue to keep their vulva and vagina “active.” Women in relationships sometimes wrongly assume that regular intercourse is enough; meanwhile couples in sexless marriages are also at risk. Whatever the scenario, it should be the highest priority to always stimulate the muscles in the vulva to prevent problems in the future.
Most women have been taught that they are never supposed to touch themselves, and they certainly were never told that it was a priority to maintain “healthy vulvas.” This kind of misinformation has been one of the biggest obstacles we have faced when it comes to achieving optimal health. By being more familiar with your body, you are not only prioritizing your physical and mental wellbeing, but you will also be able to better instruct your partner on what you enjoy. So do yourself (and your partner, if attached) a favor and pick up a mirror and the book I mentioned above to start the road to better health today.