Written by Tash Nikol.
Art by India Elle.
“I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love.” – Ancient Indian text (Rām., vii, 71.12)
When reflecting over this expression, one can only imagine the affection that should be associated with the sense of smell. For me, smell has always felt uncertain. It was something that held requirements oppressing the most natural parts of me—my breath, so as not to speak; my underarms, to stay small, closed off; and my vagina, held to idealistic standards of “normal” and “clean.”
As a teenager, I grew up with the assumption that having any vaginal smell other than no smell at all was not a good sign. As an adult that meant I often wondered — without being comfortable enough to ask — if the changing smells of my vagina meant something was wrong.
As a teenager, I grew up with the assumption that having any vaginal smell other than no smell at all was not a good sign.
I received a hint to this one month after a relationship split. I’d spiraled quickly through many emotions after that break up — it was completely unexpected. One distinctly emotional night, I thought I’d get through to him with a slew of destructive texts. I was having a hard time processing what was an abrupt pivot from the never-ending love he’d revealed days before.
My texts did get through to him, but his response wasn’t the “I met someone else” confession I’d anticipated, instead it read: I couldn’t stay because of the body fragrance you were giving off.He explained in his most “nice guy” way that he didn’t feel we were sexually compatible because of the scent… from my vagina.
He explained in his most “nice guy” way that he didn’t feel we were sexually compatible because of the scent… from my vagina. He thought he’d given me hints by gifting me an arcane douching product that I never used.
I re-read those texts several times that evening—letting it all marinate in my mind. The only thing that I could seem to read was: my vagina smells bad. It was something I questioned from time-to-time—a hidden curiosity, a personal fear. And although I never quite concluded on the smells being displeasing, it was one that he perceived and I now had to accept as my reality.
He explained in his most “nice guy” way that he didn’t feel we were sexually compatible because of the scent… from my vagina.
As devastated as I felt that day, the reality of the situation was that it brought to light a hidden concern I had: I was unaware of what a “normal”, or what should actually be expressed as a healthy, functioning vagina smelled like—even with being intimate with them myself.
What followed, besides a brief shutdown of all sexual interactions for fear that others would deem my vajayjay smelly, was my own immersion—or obsession—with exploring the world of vaginal health and the products around it.
During my search, I found most products labeled for feminine care to be expensive, poorly stocked, and, most often, full of perfumes and other harmful ingredients. Although the selection was slim, I came across a few gems—The Honey Pot Co, a brand of plant-based products made by humans, specifically WoC, with vaginas with the intention to support the bodies natural pH balance, being one of them. As a lover of herbalism, finding products that I could trust, like Honey Pot, brought me joy.
All these discoveries were things I probably should’ve had more general knowledge around earlier on in life, but I didn’t because of the lack of adequate sexual education classes in my community’s schools and my parent’s avoidance of having any direct conversations about my sexual anatomy (besides giving me pretty outdated sexual health books after my first period.)
What I stumbled on during my search was the realization that my insecurity, and “ex-diagnosed” smelly vajay, were pretty common. So much so that it’s one of the top sex-related Google searches, by many, for a number of reasons—from health to infidelity. “Did my ex take my smell for cheating?” Probably not, but the alternate standards of what makes a normal smelling vagina didn’t exist directly in search results. Instead, what exists online is a slew of very opinionated posts and content about what is and how to maintain a “healthy” or non-odored vagina (often promoted by men without vaginas) and more PC health articles linking vaginal odors to STDs only.
After visiting my gynecologist and leaving with a diagnosis of nothing, I mainly felt annoyed. I felt annoyed because the shame I felt toward any smell associated with my vagina belonged to someone else—not me. That shame belongs to anyone who feels that being odorless or floral-y fragrant is the normal standard for sexual anatomy.
According to OB/GYN and author of The Vagina Bible, Dr. Jen Gunter, an increase in reports of abnormal vaginal odor are being seen beyond Google searches to OB/GYN offices. However, she states, “there has been no change in [diagnosed] cases of genital odor over the past twenty-five years.” She explains that, “ what has changed is the proliferation of products designed to shame women… and tame the female genital tract for some misogynistic ideal.” That basically sums up what I discovered.
The truth of the matter is: like many things having to do with the human body, vaginal odor is relative. It’s relative to many factors that affect your body’s natural balance. Many of these factors, Dr. Gunter shared, are unidentifiable by medical tests—not because of an abnormality, but often due to things such as quitting smoking, using long-term contraceptives, removing pubic hair, and spermicides.
The truth of the matter is: like many things having to do with the human body, vaginal odor is relative.
Just like morning breath or sweaty armpits, vaginas have many odors. And since there are still cases when an odor may be linked to something you need to be aware of, it’s always good practice to check in with your gynecologist or another health professional if you have concerns.
One of the most important things I found through my exploration is that I enjoy the scented variety of my vajay. It has many ways of being, as my body — this temple of mine — transverses through it’s ever-changing moods and phases. There are times when her scent is faint, and others when her fragrance is strong. One scent is often not a signal of “norm” over the other, but always something I am attentive to.
And to those D-bags who think they can set the standard of what makes a vagina “normal”, fuck off! Feel empowered to get to know all your smells and love your sexual anatomy in each moment of sweat, sweetness, musk, and beyond. I am, and I’ve happily found others who enjoy it too.
Tash Nikol is an Atlanta raised, Brooklyn-based writer and tech designer working around the intersection of art, data, and literature as vehicles for disrupting colonial systems. Through visual and literary storytelling, she aims to shed light on the history of trauma, those “weird” postmodern concepts, and the use of art in social justice. She has a particular love for plant life, Atlanta music, James Baldwin and science-fiction.