Stress. You’ve certainly heard of it. You are honestly probably stressed about something right now. In this day and age, it seems that everyone we know is stressed and moving at a fast pace, fluttering between deadlines and projects, working themselves to the bone. People can feel stressed from their personal lives as well. It seems like “stressed” is most people’s default state of being, and let me tell you, this is having a bad effect on your health. 

What are the effects of chronic stress?

Stress is “a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.” When stress isn’t totally dealt with, it can cause long-term effects on your physical and mental health. In the book “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” author Emily Nagoski talks in-depth about the stress response cycle and how stress can affect your sex life and reproductive health. Nagoski writes that if left unmanaged, chronic stress can suppress your menstrual cycle, decrease fertility, increase the chances of miscarriage, and even increase pain during sex. That’s a big deal, people! Outside of this aspect of your life, chronic stress can exacerbate depression and anxiety, cause digestive problems, increase headaches, cause trouble sleeping, and impair your memory and ability to concentrate. 

What is the stress response cycle?

Stress is part of a cycle, and in order to feel and deal with stress in a healthy way, we must complete the stress response cycle. Nagoski also has an entire book dedicated to this topic called “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.” She writes that our bodies are wired to react to stress in a way that will protect us from attacks, like how back in the day we needed to fight predators or run away from a lion. When your body perceives a threat or stressor, it will cue your hypothalamus to sound the internal alarm. The hypothalamus is in your brain and tells your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. The adrenaline increases your heart rate and boosts your energy, while the cortisol increases glucose in your bloodstream to enhance your body’s ability to repair tissues. The cortisol will also quiet things in your body that you won’t need in a survival-type situation, such as your digestive system. 

When all of this is happening in your body, this cues the classic fight, flight, or freeze response to determine how to protect yourself from the stressor. It is important to note, however, that your nervous system chooses this response for you. In Nagoski’s example of being chased by a lion, your body quickly determines which response gives you the best chance of surviving: fighting the lion, running away from the lion, or freezing and playing dead (like a possum). This intense, intricate process goes on in your body whenever you feel threatened, and yes, even a small stressor like a work deadline triggers this cycle. 

How can I complete the cycle?

When you’re feeling stressed and all of these survival hormones are dancing around in your body, you need to do something with this energy to complete the stress response cycle so it won’t negatively affect your health. Keeping all of this energy and hormone-induced survival-level alertness in your body is not good. Nagoski recommends completing the cycle by exercising, meditating, or doing a “primal scream.” The first time I did a primal scream, I was in my car so no one could hear me, and I burst into tears immediately after because I was so surprised by myself. It was a little too primal for me. I prefer exercise or meditation to complete my cycle. You can also do a leisurely activity you know will help you relax, such as reading or gardening, or even talking about your stressors with a friend or therapist.

So many people experience different stressors multiple times a day and never complete the cycle, which can have adverse effects on their reproductive, mental, and physical health. You likely have tell-tale signs your body throws out when you’re feeling too stressed, so pay attention to those signs and make sure you make time to complete the cycle. You’ll be more productive and healthier because of it.

You’ve probably seen commercials for the HPV vaccine. Hopefully, you’ve gotten the series of three shots to help prevent certain types of human papillomavirus that could lead to cancer. 

What is HPV?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and if you are sexually active, you will most likely get HPV at some point in your life. GASP! That sounds bad, right? It’s not bad in most cases. HPV is so common because it’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, and most of the time it doesn’t show symptoms. Most strains of HPV are no big deal and go away on their own, but some strains are harmful because they can turn into cancer.

Think of it like the common cold. Most people will get many colds throughout their lifetime. That’s not shameful or “dirty” or scary. No big deal. It will go away on its own, but in some cases, that cold could turn into something more serious like pneumonia or a sinus infection. That’s when you need to seek medical attention.

Types 16 and 18 of the human papillomavirus can lead to cervical cancer. If you have a vagina and are age 21 or over, or sexually active, you should be getting regular Pap smears to test for unhealthy cells on your cervix. If your doctor detects abnormal cervical cells, they will likely do an HPV test to see if that is the cause. Although HPV can cause unhealthy cells, HPV tests and Pap smears usually aren’t done together unless there is an abnormality. 

How does HPV relate to cancer?

You might be wondering, what even is my cervix? Where is it? Your cervix is a small area of tissue that connects your vagina to your uterus. Your vagina is the internal part of your genitalia and your uterus is also known as your womb. The cervix is kind of like a little cap at the top of the vagina. This is what prevents tampons or other things from getting lost in your body forever. The cervix is an important part of your body, so that’s why checking for healthy cells is so essential. 

If you have unhealthy cells on your cervix and have a positive HPV test, you’ll likely undergo something called LEEP. You and your doctor will of course discuss the best course of action to treat your unhealthy cells, but LEEP is a very common procedure to remove unhealthy cervical cells.

LEEP, or Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure, is done by your gynecologist in their office and removes unhealthy cells from your cervix. LEEP uses a wire heated by electrical current to scrape away the unhealthy cells. Sounds high-tech, right?! You don’t need to do anything to prepare for the LEEP procedure, although it is usually done when you’re not on your period, so if you have LEEP done, schedule it so it doesn’t happen while you’re menstruating. LEEP might hurt a little, so you could also take some Tylenol or Advil prior to the procedure. 

What can I expect from the LEEP procedure?

When you arrive at your doctor’s office, you’ll go into an exam room and undress from the waist down, similar to your Pap smear visit to the gynecologist. You’ll wear a gown and put your legs in stirrups so your doctor can see into your cervix. Your doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina to hold the vaginal walls open to have a clear view of your cervix. A speculum is made of metal or plastic and it honestly looks like a little beak that props open your vagina. Speculums are also used during Pap smears, so if you’ve had a Pap before, it’s the same thing. Once the vagina is open and the cervix is in view, your doctor might spray your cervix with a vinegar solution. This isn’t done with every LEEP procedure, but this solution turns the unhealthy tissue white, making it easier for your doctor to locate and remove it. After the solution is put into your cervix, you will be numbed. Your doctor will inject a numbing medicine into your cervix, then begin with the LEEP wire.

While holding very still, your doctor will put the wire through the speculum and into your cervix. Some doctors will also use a magnifying tool in your cervix to help see the unhealthy tissue clearer. The wire will take off the unhealthy tissue, your doctor will collect it, and send it to a lab for more testing. Because the wire uses electrical currents, it seals your blood vessels as it removes the unhealthy tissue, so you won’t bleed a lot during the procedure. The whole procedure takes about ten minutes and isn’t too painful. Since numbing medicine is used, most people only experience slight discomfort during the procedure. 

What happens after the procedure?

It takes about three or four weeks for your cervix to heal after the procedure, so don’t have vaginal sex, use tampons, or douche during this time. You should never douche ever, so don’t even worry about that one! Additionally, you’ll probably have some cramping for a day or so after the procedure, and you will probably bleed a little and have some watery discharge. The discharge can last for the whole healing process, and it might smell a little. This is normal! It’s also recommended to take it easy in general during the three to four weeks following the procedure. Don’t do any super intense physical activity. You need to allow your body some rest so it can heal. 

Are there any possible risks?

LEEP is a safe procedure, however, some serious complications could happen, although they are rare. Some people have pelvic infections, heavy bleeding, intense cramps or belly pain, fever, discharge that smells very bad, or bleeding that’s heavier than ever the heaviest day of your period. Additionally, LEEP may increase the risk of preterm birth in pregnancy. If you are currently pregnant and find abnormal cells, your doctor will wait until the pregnancy is over to do the procedure. 

If these possible side effects seem too severe or risky, talk to your doctor about other methods to remove unhealthy cells. LEEP isn’t the only method, although it is very common. Because HPV is so common and these unhealthy cells can turn into cancer, it is imperative that you get regular Pap smears! Encourage other people with vaginas in your life to go as well. Our vaginal and sexual health is super important, and although it might be uncomfortable or intimidating to think about, you need to stay on top of it.

People feel weird talking about sex. There’s a lot of worry about whether or not we are “normal” when it comes to sex: Do I want it enough? Do I want it too much? Am I having sex the “right” way? If you’ve been here around long enough, you know I’m all for talking openly about sex and sexual desire without shame. Discussing sex creates a more sex-positive culture, which leads to better sex lives for people because we are informed and confident. Because people feel so self-conscious talking about sex, there are a lot of misconceptions about how you “should” be when it comes to sex, and if you don’t fit into this box of how you “should” be, you might feel ashamed.

What is spontaneous desire?

We grow up being taught that we should experience spontaneous arousal. Spontaneous desire is when you feel aroused and interested in having sex spontaneously or out of the blue. Perhaps you are watching tv and all of a sudden you’re horny, or you wake up in the morning and feel super aroused. Most people probably feel a good amount of spontaneous arousal when they are first being intimate with a new partner, but how spontaneously you experience desire will change throughout your life. 

What about responsive desire?

Responsive desire is when you feel desire and arousal in response to pleasure. Perhaps you are watching tv and your partner snuggles up next to you and starts kissing your neck or massaging your shoulders. You think “wow that feels nice,” and you start to feel desire in response to what they are doing. 

Is one desire better than the other?

Neither form of desire is better or more normal than the other. Culturally we are told that men typically experience spontaneous desire and that women don’t experience desire at all, which is untrue. All types of people can experience either type of desire at different points in their life and throughout different relationships. 

One of my favorite sex educators, Emily Nagoski, has written extensively on responsive and spontaneous desire, and writes about it in her book “Come As You Are.” Nagoski points out that despite the cultural idea that spontaneous desire is correct and any other type of desire means you have a low sex drive that needs fixing, there is no scientific evidence to back up these claims. She has done research interviewing men and women about their sexual desire, and both men and women experience both spontaneous and responsive desire, and both types of desire are healthy.

In an article for the New York Times and another for Medium, Nagoski writes about a drug called Flibanserin, created in 2015, which is also known as the “female Viagra.” The drug is intended to create a spontaneous desire for those who take it. As she mentions in her articles, the drug was created to treat low desire in women, as if lack of spontaneous desire is a disease — which it isn’t. The clinical trials of the drug were fairly unsuccessful and had several side effects.

How to communicate your pleasure needs

As Nagoski reminds us, focusing on spontaneous desire distracts from what is really important when it comes to sex: pleasure. We get too caught up in how much we do or don’t want sex when really the focus should be on the quality of sex being had. 

It’s important to know what type of desire you experience so you can communicate that with a partner. If one partner experiences spontaneous desire and the other is responsive, the spontaneous desire partner might feel like their partner isn’t as interested in sex since they might not initiate as much. In reality, their partner is interested in sex, they just don’t feel desire until they experience some pleasure first. Communication is a great tool for a healthy sex life regardless because you can tell your partner what you want and they can communicate their needs as well. 

It’s also important to remember that neither form of desire is more correct. Responsive desire doesn’t mean you have a low sex drive or that your sex drive needs fixing. Pay attention to your body and what does or doesn’t make you feel aroused, then communicate that with your partner or partners for a more pleasurable experience for everyone involved.

This article discusses eating disorders and body image, including statistics.

As of 2021, at least 30 million people in the United States will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. This can range from anorexia or bulimia, to restrictive eating, to disordered eating habits. Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age and any gender. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Obviously, this is a huge and tragic problem. 

What is body image?

Although people affected by eating disorders have their own triggers or reasons the disorder develops, body image plays a large role in these disorders developing. Body image is the way a person feels about their body and the way it looks. It’s essentially the way you see yourself in this world, and how you feel about it. Your body image and sense of self might be totally different than how others actually see you, and most of the time, we are our own worst critics, so we likely judge ourselves more harshly than other people do.

Some bad body image habits could include excessively weighing yourself or obsessing over your weight or body mass index, looking at your body in an extremely critical way and comparing your body to how it “used to look,” or comparing your body to someone else’s body and putting yourself down because of how you look. Excessive dieting or exercise can also be an unhealthy and dangerous way to cope with poor body image. “Punishing” yourself for eating dessert or something unhealthy by working out extra hard the next day is also unhealthy behavior. 

Comparisons in social media and advertising

With social media, it has become far too easy for people to compare themselves solely based on looks. Even before social media became so popular, the media contributed to unhealthy body image for many people. Movie stars look perfect on-screen, while models look completely flawless in magazines. Luckily it has since become widely known and talked about that magazines often photoshop their models excessively. And it’s also important to remember that movie stars are literally paid to exercise and look a certain way for roles. It is literally part of their job. In the past several years, a few brands have done awesome work to contribute to positive body image for their consumers by featuring people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities in their ad campaigns. 

Aerie is one of my favorite brands that does this. Aerie is owned by American Eagle and sells bras, underwear, swimsuits, and loungewear. Aerie has models of all sizes on their website and in ads in their stores, and they don’t retouch any of the models in their photos. They have models with freckles, birthmarks, piercings, body hair, differently-abled models, and feature models varying in age, size, and race. A lot of Aerie stores also have post-it notes available to place positive affirmations on the dressing room mirror, contributing to feeling good while buying a bra and underwear. Not only do I really enjoy the clothing they sell, I like the experience of scrolling through Aerie’s website and seeing models that look like actual people I know. It’s like seeing your friends modeling awesome clothing for you.

Remember that Instagram isn’t real life

Although positive strides have been made to contribute to positive body image through ad campaigns, social media is, unfortunately, the perfect vehicle for comparing yourself to others. Instagram is literally made up of photos, and because of the nature of social media, people post their best bits and happiest moments. Although we all know intellectually that no one’s life is actually as perfect and curated as it seems online, it still hurts seeing other people look “perfect” if you don’t feel that great about yourself. Additionally, being an Instagram model is now a viable career. No shade to any of these models, but they will highly edit their photos so they look sculpted, smooth, and voluptuous. They are hired to sell products, so similarly to photos in a magazine, these photos are curated to perfection. The only difference here is that we scroll past these models while also scrolling past our friends, so it’s easy to forget that they are hired to model and edit themselves and that they actually don’t look like that.

Your body does not need fixing

Bashing your body is so normalized in our culture, especially for women. So many products are marketed towards us, promising to make our bodies look better as if they need fixing in the first place. Spanx, diet pills, neck exercisers (what the heck?), hair vitamins, products to make our eyelashes grow faster, waist trainers … truly I could go on and on. We are bombarded with products and “fitspiration” to make us think our bodies need all this fixing. That is untrue!! If you are taking care of your body and you are healthy, then there is nothing to “fix,” no matter your size. 

When thinking about body image and the way women are socialized to talk and think about our bodies, I often think of a scene from Mean Girls. It’s that scene where Cady first goes to Regina’s house and all of the friends are looking in Regina’s mirror and they go around one by one and say something they don’t like about their bodies. When Cady just stands there saying nothing, all of the girls turn and look at her, waiting for her to complain about her body too. I know Mean Girls is a comedy and it’s supposed to be satirical, but that moment is so true! Women are told we shouldn’t love our bodies the way they are, and we, unfortunately, bond over disliking ourselves. Let’s change that.

Body image extends to mental health too

When we talk about “healthy” bodies, we often just talk about size and weight, and feeling mentally healthy about your body is left out. If you weigh a certain amount, but in order for you to weigh this amount you eat way less than what your body needs, causing you to develop unhealthy eating habits and obsess over your weight, that is not a healthy weight for you! We need to incorporate mental health and positive body image into the conversation of healthy bodies. Negative body image can not only lead to disordered eating, but it can also lead to anxiety or depression

Body image advice from friends

So what are some things you can do to work on developing a healthier body image and feel good in your body? I asked some of my friends for tips for feeling good in their bodies. Here’s what they said…

One friend said they refrain from diet and body talk around friends and politely redirect the conversation when it comes up.

Several friends said they focus less on actual “weight” and more on how they feel. If they are feeling anxious or sluggish, they’ll go for a walk. They’ll eat more vegetables because it makes them feel good. They pay attention to what they body needs and act accordingly.

So many friends said they remind themselves of all of the amazing things their bodies can do. Running, walking, digesting, existing. 

Several friends said they like to wear clothes that make them look good and feel good. One friend said they like to wear things that are bold and out of their comfort zone to prove to themselves they can pull anything off. 

Several friends said they unfollow accounts on social media that make them feel bad or over-edit their pictures and follow people that are body positive instead.

One friend said listen to Lizzo. (Great suggestion)

Another friend said they practice “body neutrality,” which is acknowledging a thought about their body without judging it as positive or negative, but simply recognizing that thought then letting it go, kind of like in meditation. 

Several friends also said they don’t weigh themselves and tell their doctor not to say their weight out loud when they have a check-up.

I personally recommend going for walks, eating vegetables, and spending more time naked: sleeping naked, looking at yourself naked in the mirror at least once a day, and checking yourself out because by golly you look so good!! I also suggest wearing your body hair however you like it.  I also love the idea of health at any size and think this is a great mindset for the body-positive movement. That means being as healthy as you can mentally and physically, no matter your size. This allows for so many people to look good and feel good in their bodies! 

Follow some body-positive social media accounts and remind yourself of all of the amazing things your body can do and does each and every day. Compliment yourself the way you would gas up a friend! 

If you’re struggling with body image or disordered eating, please ask for help. The National Eating Disorders Association Helpline is 1-800-931-2237 and is available to call Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., and Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. EST. You deserve to be healthy, care for your body, and love yourself no matter your size. 

“Ingredients: Rayon and/or Cotton Fiber. Polyester or Cotton String, Polysorbate 20.” Those are the ingredients in my tampon of choice, “Playtex Sport’ unscented tampons. My “U by Kotex” menstrual pads don’t list any ingredients anywhere on the box. Even though I use these products every month, and have used them for YEARS, and will use them for years to come, I’ve never considered what ingredients I’m putting inside of my body.

Organic Ingredients?

If you’ve ever listened to literally any podcast with women on it, you’ve probably heard an ad for Lola. Lola is a subscription-based period product company that uses 100% organic tampons. With Lola and other organic cotton period products becoming popular, there’s been a lot of talk about what ingredients are in menstrual products and whether or not they are safe for us.

Several years ago the Menstrual Products Right to Know Act of 2017 was created. This act proposed that manufacturers had to list all of the ingredients of period products on the box so consumers could be one hundred percent informed. I didn’t realize this wasn’t already enforced, and because the pads I use don’t list ingredients, it seems this act didn’t get passed, so it’s hard to know what you are putting in or close to your body each month.

Finding Research on these Ingredients

From all of the research that I’ve done, it seems people are very unclear about which chemicals in period products are actually bad for us. I found numerous conflicting reports about similar ingredients, so honestly, I’m still not sure which ingredients are truly “good” or “bad.” It is important to note, however, that most of the articles I found talking about how toxic tampon and pad ingredients are were written five or more years ago. This shows that more research needs to be done on this topic so we can have more conclusive and definitive answers. I think part of the reason extensive research on this topic hasn’t been done is that there is such a stigma surrounding menstruation and so much shame in talking about it. We need to talk about periods, and we need to get that research done! But I digress…

Toxic Shock Syndrome

If you use 100% organic period products, obviously you don’t need to worry about any chemicals in your body. Although organic cotton period products don’t have chemicals in them, it is still possible to get Toxic Shock Syndrome from leaving a tampon in for too long. Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security and leave your tampon in for more than eight hours. You’ll still be at risk for TSS, even if your products are organic. Menstrual cups are also recommended as alternatives for tampons and pads that are full of chemicals. Most menstrual cups are made of body-safe silicone or rubber, last for up to 12 hours, and don’t have the same chemicals in them that tampons do.

From what I’ve found, it seems chlorine, dioxin, BPA, rayon, and “fragrance” are the most harmful chemicals overall. Although there are some misconceptions about chlorine and rayon used in tampons.

Chlorine 

This was used for bleaching tampons in the 1990s, but actual chlorine is no longer used. All brands use chlorine-free bleaching agents to clean their products, and according to the FDA, this is safe. When it comes to tampon production, “bleaching” is used to clean and purify the fibers of cotton or rayon used in the product. The tampon being “bleached” white isn’t the goal or reason for using chlorine in this part of the process.

Bleaching is done to reduce the levels of dioxins in these products. Dioxins are “chemically-related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants.” What does that mean? Dioxins are a grouping of dangerous chemicals present in our environment that can be very damaging if high levels of exposure persist. Through these chlorine-free bleaching methods, the levels of dioxins in tampons are severely lessened to a supposedly safe level, and the levels of dioxins in our environment pose a much greater threat than those in our tampons.

BPA 

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in plastic. You probably see refillable water bottles advertised as “BPA-free”— this is that same thing. BPA has been linked to disrupt hormones and cause other health issues. BPA would only be present in your applicators and not in the actual tampon itself, so look for BPA-free applicators, or use cardboard applicators or applicator-free tampons instead if this is a concern.

Rayon 

This showed up as a “bad” chemical in a lot of my research, but I also found just as many sources saying it’s okay. According to Tampax’s website and the FDA, the rayon used in menstrual products is completely safe. Rayon has been called unsafe because it’s a synthetic material, so people fear that it could increase the likelihood of toxic shock syndrome if any rayon fibers are left behind in the body. This is hasn’t been proven, and just as I said before, even organic tampons can still cause TSS.

Fragrance

You should never use ANY vagina products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient. Fragrances will not only disrupt your vaginal pH, which can lead to infections but products are not required to list what exactly goes into that “fragrance.” Always get unscented tampons, pads, or toilet paper, and stay away from vaginal hygiene products.

Oh and that polysorbate 20 that was one of the ingredients in my tampons? It’s apparently used in a lot of skincare/makeup/hygiene products to help with odor and is “supposedly” not harmful for your body.

Like I said before, it’s hard to know what levels of which chemicals are actually safe for our bodies because of the lack of scientific research done to regulate these products and all of the conflicting information out there. It seems that cotton and rayon tampons are okay, but if knowing completely what ingredients are in your menstrual products is important to you, using 100% organic cotton tampons or a menstrual cup would be the safest. These products don’t use chemicals found in other tampons, and they are fragrance-free.

As I mentioned before, the conflicting reports on ingredients I found while doing research just further show that menstrual hygiene and women’s health needs to be a priority so we can be fully informed on what we’re putting into our bodies.

I remember hearing about “That First Trip” to the gynecologist when I was younger. I wasn’t exactly sure what happened at the gynecologist, I just knew you had to take your pants off in front of some doctor, and this doctor had to stick things inside you to make sure you were healthy. I thought going to the gynecologist was guaranteed to be painful and uncomfortable, and my first trip to the gynecologist was something I was afraid of. When the time for my first visit came I was really nervous, but I was pleased to find all the mystique and scary rumors surrounding my visit were nothing like my actual positive experience.

What is a gynecologist?

A gynecologist is “a physician who specializes in treating diseases of the female reproductive organs and providing well-woman health care that focuses primarily on the reproductive organs.” Gynecologists provide patients with birth control, information about sexual health, menstruation, fertility, as well as treat conditions or vaginal health concerns, and provide Pap smears.

If someone hasn’t already made a visit to the gynecologist well into puberty, it is recommended that you start going for Pap smears either once you become sexually active or once you turn 21. A Pap smear is a test that gynecologists do to test for cervical cancer and overall cervical health. 

What to expect at the gynecologist

After checking in, you’ll be led into an examination room and the nurse will ask you if you have any questions for the doctor. This is a good time to voice any questions or concerns about your sexual health. Asking about contraception, STD tests, pain during sex, or any other sexual health concerns are all things you should feel comfortable asking your gynecologist. For example, I’ve asked my gynecologist how and why some antibiotics make birth control pills less effective.

People often feel uncomfortable talking about sex, but giving you information on your sexual health is what the gynecologist is there for. Even if it seems scary, it is totally normal and important to voice any questions or concerns you have while you are at the office and the doctor can take a look at anything they need to. You won’t be judged – it is literally the gynecologist’s job to help you! 

Asking lots of questions

You can also ask your gynecologist general questions about sexual health and birth control, even if they don’t apply to you. You can inquire about birth control methods you don’t use but have read about, or you could ask about managing emotional health along with sexual health in a relationship. I know that at Planned Parenthood, for example, they always ask questions about your emotional well-being within your sexual relationships, and I just love that.  

Next, you’ll be asked to take your clothes off and wear a robe of some sort and wait until the doctor comes in. You’ll be left alone for a while, then the doctor will arrive. The doctor will likely ask if you have any questions or concerns you want to address, then they’ll start the exam. You’ll scoot your booty to the bottom of the examination table and place your feet in stirrups so your legs are spread nice and wide. The doctor will then place a speculum or a metal instrument into your vagina to hold the vaginal walls open so they can see your cervix. The gynecologist should have various sizes of speculums and will likely use the smallest one when it is your first visit. The doctor will then look at your cervix and take a small little brush to take a sample of your cells. The doctor may also put a finger or two into your vagina and feel around to make sure you have no unnecessary pain or pressure.

It’s not as scary as it seems

I know this all sounds really intense and vulnerable, but it truly is not as scary as it sounds. The most important thing is to try and keep your body relaxed. If you tense up your muscles while the doctor is doing their business, it might be more painful than if you stay relaxed. The actual Pap smear takes less than a minute, so you will only be uncomfortable for a short amount of time.

You can also ask your doctor to explain what they are doing for the exam before they do it. During my first visit, my gynecologist showed me the speculum before inserting it, told me he was using the smallest one and described how he was going to insert it before he did. This helped me feel prepared, relaxed, and overall more comfortable. This visit is about you and your health, so you should feel empowered to ask for what you need to be most comfortable.

How often to go to the gynecologist

While you’re at the visit, the gynecologist will likely also feel your breast tissue to make sure there are no abnormal lumps or anything like that. After that, you’ll have a final chance to ask any questions, then you’ll get dressed, schedule your next appointment, and be on your way.

Talk with your doctor about how often they think you need to get a Pap test, but for most people between the ages of 21 and 29, a test every three years is appropriate. For patients aged 30 to 64 a Pap test with an HPV test every 5 years is appropriate, and patients over 65 might not need Pap tests anymore. It is best to ask your doctor what they think is best for you and your body.

Although visiting the gynecologist isn’t always the most comfortable experience, I always feel good leaving my appointment knowing I’m in control of my sexual health. Knowing that my body is healthy and working correctly makes me feel good. 

If you’re anticipating your first visit to the gynecologist, take a deep breath, relax, and know that people get Pap smears done all the time. It’s important for your health, and after the first visit, you definitely won’t be as nervous.

You’ve likely heard about the menstrual cycle, also known as a period. Maybe you have a period, and even if you don’t, you definitely know someone who does. You probably know that once a month, the person having their period bleeds for about a week (sometimes more and sometimes less), shedding the uterine lining. Pads, tampons, or menstrual cups are used to collect blood and bloating or mood swings sometimes accompany this cycle. Although we know these stereotypical things about the menstrual cycle, how much do we know about ovulation?

Where does ovulation fit in the menstrual cycle?

Ovulation typically occurs about halfway through the menstrual cycle, releasing an egg through the fallopian tubes and waiting to meet up with sperm for fertilization. The typical menstrual cycle lasts between 28 and 32 days, so ovulation will occur between days 10 and 19, or about two weeks before your period. When someone is ovulating, that means they are most fertile because their egg has been released from the ovary and is essentially waiting to be fertilized. 

Although ovulation occurs within the female reproductive system, there are external signs that indicate when someone is ovulating. During this time water retention, changes in mood due to fluctuating hormones, and cramps can all occur. These are fairly typical and well-known signs. There are a few more, less obvious signs of ovulation as well.

How can you track ovulation?

During ovulation, the cervix, the area at the top of the vaginal canal connecting the vagina and the womb, becomes higher, softer, and more open. If you are someone wanting to track your ovulation, you can technically feel your cervix. A lot of people also note having a higher sex drive while ovulating, which makes sense because ovulation is the prime time to get pregnant if that is something you are trying to do. During ovulation, your cervical mucus or discharge might also change slightly. When ovulating, cervical mucus will be slightly stretchy and clear, which helps carry the sperm along to the egg. Tender breasts can also be a sign of ovulation because of the hormone fluctuations experienced at this time.

Besides these bodily changes, there have been studies proving a few other changes. Studies have shown that women who are ovulating are more likely to wear red or pink. Additionally, studies have shown that women’s voices often sound slightly higher when they are most fertile, and their natural scent is more appealing to potential sex partners. An increased sense of smell has also been cited as a sign of ovulation. Similar to your scent being more attractive to potential partners, you are more likely to pick up on their pheromones as well. Although all of these changes have been noted in various studies, they are often so subtle that you likely won’t pick up on them yourself.

How does birth control affect ovulating?

With all this talk of ovulation, it’s also important to note that some people don’t ovulate. If you are pregnant, on hormonal birth control pills, or if you are experiencing menopause, you won’t ovulate. Some women also don’t ovulate while breastfeeding, but some can. Additionally, other hormonal imbalances or medical conditions can prevent ovulation.

The human body is a truly complex landscape and taking a closer look at the menstrual cycle proves just how complex our bodies are. Although not everyone ovulates and not everyone shares every ovulation symptom, it is good to be educated and know what our bodies are up to.

The vagina is an absolutely amazing organ. It can bring life into this world, it helps facilitate your menstrual cycle to let you know your body is working properly, it can be used for sex and pleasure, and it’s totally self-cleaning. And since it’s a self-cleaning organ, that means vaginal hygiene products are totally unnecessary.

Why do vaginal hygiene products exist?

If your vagina is self-cleaning, then why do “feminine hygiene products” like Summer’s Eve and other brands exist? To be perfectly blunt, these products exist to make you think your vagina’s natural discharge and odor is dirty and unnatural so you’ll want to buy feminine hygiene wipes and douches to “cleanse” yourself. Not only do vaginal hygiene products use people’s insecurities and shame regarding their vaginal odor to make money, but these products also are harmful to your vagina’s health and can throw off your vagina’s pH balance, leading to infections or other complications.

The vagina is a self-cleaning organ, using discharge to flush out any bad bacteria. Discharge is one hundred percent normal and essential for your vaginal health. A specific odor likely accompanies this discharge, and for some reason, people are made to feel ashamed of the way their vagina smells. Vaginal odor is also completely normal and healthy. In fact, a person’s vaginal odor will likely change throughout their menstrual cycle, and can also change depending on diet. The only time you should be concerned about your discharge or vaginal odor is if either one changes drastically. If your discharge changes color or consistency and your vaginal odor change significantly, consult your doctor. You could have an infection.

Cleaning your vulva versus vagina

Although the vagina cleans itself, the vulva does not. Your vulva is the folds of skin (labia) on the outside of your body. The best way to clean your vulva is with warm water. Doctors also recommend warm water and mild soap. If you have very sensitive skin, unscented soap would work best, but again, just water is fine as well. Since all you need for a clean vulva and vagina is warm water, the chemicals in vaginal hygiene products can be harmful to users.

Summer’s Eve has a whole host of products such as cleansing wipes, sprays, cleansing wash, body powder, and douche products. It’s important to note that Summer’s Eve is not the only brand that sells these types of products. I am just using them as an example because they are very widely known and easily available. No matter the brand name, these products are unnecessary and can be harmful. 

Most importantly, do not douche

If you gather only one thing from this article, let it be this: do NOT douche. Douching is a method to wash out the vagina using a formula that is sprayed directly into the vagina. Douching products can contain water, vinegar, antiseptics, and fragrances, all of which can be harmful to your vaginal hygiene. People douche to wash out bad bacteria from the vagina and to feel “fresh and clean.” While you are washing out the bad bacteria, you also wash out the good bacteria your vagina needs to maintain a healthy pH balance. Side effects of douching include bacterial vaginosis, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, pregnancy complications such as ectopic pregnancy, and an increased risk of cervical cancer.

Summer’s Eve website contains no ingredients for any of their products, which I find alarming. Through my research, I found one source that listed some ingredients, some of which include “fragrance” (which the product does not elaborate on what makes up this ingredient), methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone, cocamidopropyl betaine, and many more. For a full list of ingredients you could of course look at the products in the store. However, if I am using something to clean my vulva or vagina, I would like to be able to pronounce it.

I also found that Summer’s Eve cleansing wipes contain octoxynol-9, which is a spermicide. There is no warning on the packaging that discloses this information. The wipes are not viable forms of contraception, however, it is unclear if the octoxynol-9 is strong enough in the wipes to affect someone’s ability to get pregnant. 

Your vagina’s smell is normal!

This is no joke! Your vagina doesn’t need to be flushed out with water and other chemicals. Your vagina is not smelly or dirty. This harmful narrative that vaginas are dirty and smell bad is incredibly harmful to your physical and mental health. Being told that your vagina is dirty and literally needs to be flushed out with fragrances in order to be clean and desirable harms positive self-image and feeling good in one’s body. I understand wanting to feel clean or wanting to “freshen up” before a sexual encounter, but as mentioned above, all you need is water for that. No chemicals or artificial scents are necessary.

I’m here to tell you that the messages sold to us by these hygiene companies are lies. There is science to prove how harmful these products are and to reiterate that vaginal odor is normal and healthy! Your vagina is not supposed to smell like flowers or baby powder. You are not a flower or a baby. Your vagina should smell like vagina! 

 

In this great year of 2021, there are many ways to manage your period. From pads, to tampons, to the period sponge, to period-proof underwear, you are bound to find an option that makes managing your period fit with your lifestyle and preferences. Menstrual cups have been gaining a lot of popularity in the last few years, and there’s so much to explore with this environmentally friendly invention.

When were menstrual cups invented?

Although menstrual cups have only become extremely popular recently, they were first invented in 1884! They didn’t hit the market until much later, but the first design was invented then. This first model, known as the Improved Menstrual Receptacle, was invented by Hiram Farr, and was designed to hold several cups of blood at a time. This first design never actually hit the market, but big thanks to Hiram Farr for designing this revolutionary device.

In 1937 American actress Leona Chalmers patented another menstrual cup design, and actually followed through on trying to get it to hit the market. This menstrual cup was similar to the menstrual cups we have today, but it was made from latex rubber. After a few redesigns, this menstrual cup was sold by the company Tassette until the 60s, then they went out of business. Menstrual cups made a comeback in the 1980s with the brand The Keeper and starting in 2003 with the Diva Cup, menstrual cups have become more and more popular.  

How do menstrual cups work?

Menstrual cups have clearly been around for a long time, proving they must in fact be an excellent idea. I first heard of menstrual cups a few years ago when I first learned about the Diva Cup. Unlike the early menstrual cup designs, Diva Cup and other modern brands are made of silicone. Not only is the allergy risk of silicone much lower than latex, but it is also super soft and easy to clean. There are many menstrual cup brands available—Diva Cup, Keeper Cup (that same brand from the 80s!), Moon Cup, Lunette Cup, Lena Cup, Lily Cup, plus some disposable cups or discs. Although there are many brands to choose from, they essentially all work the same.

Menstrual cups are made of flexible silicone material and are shaped like a small bell or cup with a little stem on the end. You place them inside of your vagina right below your cervix and they catch your menstrual blood. You use the short stem on the end to pull them out to empty and clean. Menstrual cups can be left in anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, and need to be rinsed and washed when emptied. When emptying your menstrual cup throughout the day, dump out the blood and wash it with unscented antibacterial soap and water before putting it back in. Some menstrual cup brands also sell cleaning wipes so you can clean your menstrual cup if you’re using a public restroom and can’t wash it thoroughly in a shared sink. Wipe that baby down in the privacy of your stall, pop it back in, and you’re good to go.

How do I use a menstrual cup?

There are different sizes of menstrual cups based on if you just got your period or have had any children. Some menstrual cup brands have more detailed size finders on their websites, and that can be a useful tool to find one that works for you.

To insert your menstrual cup, wash your hands and sit or stand. Similar to putting a tampon in for the first time, this might take a few tries, so you should give yourself plenty of time to get it properly inserted. If your vagina isn’t already slick with a lot of period blood, it might be helpful to use some lubricant to help slide it into place. Be sure to use water-based lube if you do so because other lubes are not silicone compatible and could eat away at the cup over time. 

Relax your muscles and body as much as you can, pinch the top of the cup (most brands come with their own set of instructions on the box and recommend pinching it so the top is a “C” shape), then gently guide the cup into your vagina. You will have to get really comfy with yourself here because you need to put your fingers into your vagina to get the cup in place. Once it’s far up in there, slightly rotate the cup and let go of the top of it and it should suction into place. If the cup is inserted properly, you shouldn’t be able to feel it. As I mentioned, this may take a few tries, so be patient with yourself. The first time you wear it, you may even want to wear a liner or pad just to make sure you don’t leak and see if it was inserted properly.

What about emptying and cleaning?

When it’s time to empty your cup, you’ll have to bear down a bit and activate those pelvic floor muscles. Reach your hand into your vagina and gently pull on the little stem at the bottom of the cup and it should slide out. You’ll have to pinch the cup slightly to loosen the suction at the top of the cup that keeps it in place. If you don’t break the suction it could be very painful to pull out.

In between periods, you can disinfect your menstrual cup by washing it with soap and water, and some people even boil their cup in hot water between cycles. Since your menstrual cup sits below the cervix, it won’t get lost inside your body, and even if it feels like it’s stuck, you can get it out! If you really have trouble getting it out, go visit your doctor and they can easily help you and give you some tips on how to get it out easier next time. 

Menstrual cups are a great option for people to manage their periods. You can reuse them for several years, so they are a fairly cheap option because you get a lot of bang for your buck. They are also good for the environment because they’re less wasteful than tampons or pads. If you’re interested in using a menstrual cup, check out some of the brands’ websites and find a size that works for you. 

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal condition that affects people with female reproductive organs. Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, can cause enlarged ovaries, abnormally long menstrual cycles, intense pelvic pain, excess hair growth, and loss of fertility. This syndrome affects about 10 million people worldwide, but the exact cause is unknown.

What is PCOS?

People are usually diagnosed with PCOS after puberty or when they are young adults—once their reproductive organs are up and running. PCOS is caused by an imbalance in androgens, insulin, and progesterone, but the exact cause of this imbalance is unknown. Doctors believe PCOS can be hereditary, can be caused by excess insulin in the body, low-grade inflammation, and excess androgens. This hormonal imbalance affects the ovaries and menstrual cycle, among other things. 

All people have a certain level of androgens (known as “male hormones”), but people with PCOS can have higher levels of androgens than the average person, which causes some of the symptoms of PCOS like acne, unwanted hair, and irregular menstrual cycles. Insulin also affects this syndome. If someone produces too much insulin, this causes an excess of androgens, which causes problems in the ovaries. And finally, if someone isn’t producing enough progesterone, this can also lead to problems with your menstrual cycle because progesterone is a hormone essential for your period. Even though this condition affects your ovaries, many people with PCOS don’t actually have cysts on their ovaries but do indeed have complications with this part of their body. Cysts on the ovaries are possible, however, and are caused by follicles or fluids on the ovaries that enlarge them and restrict their function.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

Unfortunately, PCOS has a lot of symptoms, but fortunately, they can be managed in a number of ways. Many people with the syndrome experience long last periods with pelvic pain that is present even when they’re not menstruating. Excess hair growth known as hirsutism is another symptom due to the increased androgen levels. This excess hair can be on the face, back, chest, and other parts of the body. Infertility is also a big symptom of PCOS, although people can undergo hormone therapy if they have trouble conceiving, and many women with the syndrome can still conceive naturally. Other symptoms include weight gain, fatigue, thinning hair, acne, mood changes, headaches caused by hormonal changes, and sleep problems. 

How can I treat my PCOS?

Because of the varying insulin levels and weight gain that can accompany PCOS, doctors recommend weight loss and a healthy diet to help treat it and avoid diabetes and high blood pressure. The varying hormone levels do make it hard to lose weight and keep it off with PCOS, but doctors say even a five percent weight loss will help treat the syndrome and manage insulin levels. Additionally, doctors may treat PCOS with hormonal birth control to help regulate your period and lower your androgen levels which will help with the excess hair growth.

A drug called metformin can also be used to treat polycystic ovary syndrome. Metformin isn’t approved by the FDA for treating this syndrome, but it is often prescribed to help lower insulin and androgen levels. This drug can also improve menstrual cycles and help with weight management. It won’t treat the excess hair growth though. Because this drug isn’t approved by the FDA, it’s important to have an in-depth discussion with your doctor about taking metformin. Another drug called clomiphene is also used to treat PCOS because it helps induce ovulation, which can help with fertility issues. There are also many products specifically made to treat excess hair growth. 

Getting support for your diagnosis

Although PCOS is a serious syndrome with many symptoms, there are many options for treating it and managing it. If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, see your doctor and they can help diagnose you with a blood test to check your hormones, as well as a pelvic exam and ultrasound. 

Polycystic ovary syndrome affects a lot of women and can cause serious problems such as infertility and diabetes if untreated. The PCOS Awareness Association has a bunch of wonderful resources on their website such as in-depth information on each PCOS symptom, as well as specialists who treat PCOS. Although there is no cure for this syndrome, there are many ways to treat it and manage the symptoms. If you have PCOS, talk to your doctor about ways to manage it and know that you are not alone.