The old phrase “mother knows best” has continued to be proven right as we have grown up learning from our mothers to now raising our own children. Most of us learn about puberty, sex and hygiene practices directly from our mothers or other maternal figures in our families.
These health messages, however, especially among Latina and Black women, are often rooted in cultural beliefs that a ‘clean’ or ‘attractive’ vagina means it smells ‘fresh’. Women of color are often raised with cultural beliefs that the vagina is unclean, particularly during menstruation or after sex. Many of these women thus pass on generational lessons to their daughters that include daily feminine hygiene practices or washing with fragrant soaps, douching and using other products to eliminate odor.
However, my sexuality research throughout the last decade has led me to realize that many women, including myself, should revisit important lessons about sexual wellness with ourselves and our daughters. As a Latina mother of an almost 10 year old mixed daughter of Black and Latin descent, here are the key takeaways I will share with her as she begins to form her own perspective on her development, and matures into an amazing, educated, young woman. I encourage other mothers to do the same.
1. Your Menstrual Cycle Should be Celebrated.
It is your body’s way of cleaning out your uterus and telling you that you are healthy every month. Create a positive association with your period by doing a few extra nice things for yourself around that time of the month (e.g. go on a special hike, eat a meal you love, buy a new book).
2. Know Your Menstrual Fluid
It will take a couple years to have a regular cycle; it will be every 30 days or so. Once it is consistent, look at your menstrual fluid. Become familiar with your own consistency, odor and color. As you grow up, this will help you know when something is different and should get checked by your doctor.
3. You Do Not Need to Mask Your Natural Vaginal and Vulvar Odor
Black and Latina women tend to use products that hide odor (washes, sprays, wipes) more than women of other races. Don’t be afraid of being yourself and smelling natural. When you use products with heavy fragrance, you expose yourself to very toxic chemicals in a part of your body that is very sensitive and can cause infections (e.g. bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections).
4. We Should Have Many Sex Talks
We shouldn’t just have one big, awkward sex talk. Your development and curiosity will be ongoing, so I will have lots of talks with you and will answer any question you have, when you have it.
5. Don’t Use Douches
You may hear about douches, especially because they are popular amongst minority women (they are used by up to 58% of Black women and 36% of Latina women). Douches are sprays or washes that are used to rinse out the inside of your vagina. These are not healthy for your body and your vagina does not need to smell like ‘fresh roses’. It should smell like your vagina. The only time you should use a douche is if your OB/GYN is prescribing a medicated douche and you are under her care.
6. Stick to Clean Products
Hopefully by the time we are talking about these issues, using non-toxic products is the norm. If it isn’t, remember to check the label for anything you put on your body or vulva area. Stick with organic products whenever you can (organic cotton, organic aloe, organic oils, etc.) and never use anything that has parabens, phalates, sulfates, fragrance or any ingredients you don’t recognize.
7. Our Bodies Never Stop Changing or Evolving
During puberty, we experience significant hormonal changes but those changes don’t stop. From our breast size, to monthly hormone changes to developing new sensitivities or allergies, our bodies will continue to change. You should pay close attention to how your body reacts to products and ingredients as you age. Just because a skin moisturizer works really well when you are a teenager doesn’t mean that it will have the same effect as your body changes.
Women have passed down their wisdom from generation to generation ensuring that their daughters have the information, knowledge and access to living their best life. I hope with that, we are able teach our daughters important lessons about their sexual wellness.