Coping with the shame associated with BV

Shame is a powerful emotion that we start to feel very young. It is also a very normal and natural feeling that we have to learn how to wrestle, though we are never taught how to do this by anyone.

What wrestling with shame means is stepping back a bit from the icky feeling and understanding it for what it is, at least temporarily: it’s just a feeling. Shame is a human emotion just like being angry, sad, happy or any of the thousands of other feelings you could rattle off.

The point of shame, biologically speaking

Shame actually plays a really interesting role in our lives. It works in a complex way to encourage certain behaviours in us, and to abjectly deter others. It’s a tool we have developed as part of our evolution that feels so awful, we will do anything we can to get rid of it.

Shame helps us in many behavioural ways, particularly in our families, by keeping us safe, clean, and presentable to others. It is used to change our behaviour in a way that helps us survive and thrive, but conversely, also pins us to our parents’ agenda.

This can and frequently does work both good and evil in a child’s mind. That child then becomes an adult with thoughts and feelings and behaviours that can stem – or be stemmed – directly from the things we are taught to feel shame about as children.

Let’s use a simple example, but one we are all familiar with: parental shaming. This happens when we do something our parents don’t want us to do, and they scold us.

Let’s say we play in the dirt, which is fun and we like it and it’s normal, and our mother says, “Penny, stop that, it’s disgusting!” We don’t understand why playing in the dirt is bad or naughty, or worse, disgusting, but that it just is. We therefore avoid that behaviour in future, at least in front of our parent, because it is now associated with shame.

That is a powerful feeling that can change our behaviour for the rest of our lives, for better or for worse.

Shame is a tool that essentially keeps our clan together and ‘behaving’ themselves – it’s one of the ways we learn social rules and norms, at least according to our tribe. The only people who can make you feel shame are the ones you care about. That is usually a parent, but can be a friend, a relative, or another caregiver we are invested in in some way.

There aren’t that many people that can shame us, but shame occurs when we care – for whatever reason – about what that person thinks of us. It matters to us. The selectivity of our shame-inducers keeps us safe from being influenced from non-clan people, so a stranger on the street who says, “Stop that, it’s disgusting!” will be met with a tongue-poke and a sneer. You’re not my mother, you can’t tell me what to do. You know the drill.

Shame is used to tell us what’s ok and what’s not, according to our tribe rules. As you know, this training goes deep, and can affect us into our adult years whereby we still care what our parents think of us, even though we may be estranged from them, or just trying to be our own person. Welcome to being human.

We’re stuck with this until further notice, so we have to learn how to manage our response and where necessary, train ourselves out of it.

How this applies to BV-induced shame

Bacterial vaginosis is terrible. It’s often smelly, the discharge can be revolting, and it makes our ability to be intimate with someone we care about – or a stranger – often impossible. It can stop us from socialising, taking a lover, and being close to other people.

Humans are social creatures who thrive off connection, so becoming disconnected in this way crushes our souls and causes emotional pain. This is what makes vagina problems, particularly BV, emotionally destructive, while also being physically destructive.

Every health problem comes with its own emotional spectrum, but some are worse shame-bearers than others: having an unavoidable genetic kidney disorder doesn’t carry the same stigma as having a fishy vagina.

The characteristic BV smell isn’t the only problem BV-sufferers face. BV – whether it smells or not – has other impacts on our bodies, including the inflammation of our vaginal cells.

This inflammation and damage can manifest in many ways,  but it can be itchy and sore, or if you’re lucky, you may have had a straightforward asymptomatic BV diagnosis from the doctor after a check-up.

No matter what, BV causes you to not be ‘normal’ and to have something that is wrong with you that needs treating. Something wrong with the part of your body that you have been told – because we are all told – is dirty, you should hide, and that you should be ashamed of.

We are all told that we should be ashamed of our vaginas in some form or another our entire lives, and we are still being told. The boys in the playground, our parents, our peers, the media, all screaming, unless it’s tidy and clean and hair-free, put it away!

Vaginas are still taboo, believe it or not. People still feel weird talking about vaginas. This then makes something going wrong with your vagina a really terrible secret that you might not even tell your doctor, you hide from everyone, and try to solve behind closed doors.

This has got to change. Vaginas go bad, but it’s not the end of the world. Penises go bad too! Lungs go bad, livers go bad, kidneys go bad. When a vagina becomes unwell, it unfortunately comes with shame. It just does. But, we have the power to manage and maybe even eliminate the shame so it doesn’t ruin our lives more than the BV already has.

Naturally the first port of call is relentlessly trying to solve the BV problem – for each of you, this journey is different, because each of our biological make-up is different. What you all share is the shame. So let’s take a closer look at it and see if we can’t wriggle around it.

Understanding shame and the long history of body-shaming women have had to put up with

Women almost across the board feel – or have felt – shame about their vaginas, even when they are perfectly healthy and delicious. If it’s not the way they look, it’s the way they smell, taste or how loose or tight they may be, or the displaying of it. This is the society we live in, and it’s nobody’s fault, but at the same time, it’s everyone’s fault. We all participate in this, because not to is to feel – you guessed it – shame. Societal shame for not being like everyone else, all polite and coy and humble.

This whole virginal girl thing goes hand-in-hand with the big fat whore thing, and the whore thing ties in very neatly with a smelly, diseased vagina. If you sleep around, you end up with a smelly, loose, diseased vagina. (This is obviously not true, as any of our super-slutty brethren can testify!)

So when our vaginas go bad, we are lumped into a certain category of women that society still judges harshly. Those with the smelly, diseased, whore slut cunt vaginas. The promiscuous. The dirty. The low. The easy, the cheap and the worthless.

Starting to get it now?

Your vagina shame comes with a whole bunch of other shames that society holds against us. That’s one reason why vagina shame is so debilitating. It cuts to the core of outdated beliefs about women and what our vaginas are worth so long as they don’t smell, aren’t ugly, and aren’t loose.

Meaning, really, a vagina not touched by any man, or at least not more than one.

How to manage your shame

Saying out loud, “I feel shame,” is actually very powerful, because shame is our dirty little secret. Saying it out loud gives a name to the feeling that makes you nauseous every day. It allows you to step back from your shame for just a second to call it by its name, and understand that you are feeling something that is completely 100 per cent normal, and a part of our human lives. Once you say it, and name it, it makes it easier. Just a tiny bit.

Learning about shame

Brené Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability has become one of the most popular TED Talks ever, with over six million views.

Brene Brown is a vulnerability researcher, and she gave a very powerful talk that reaches inside of us all and talks to our shame. The shame can be from anything, including BV or other vagina issues.

Watch these in their entirety:

The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown on YouTube Listening to Shame by Brené Brown on YouTube

Putting your shame to bed, then getting in with it

There are lots of ways to cure yourself of shame, but it takes work, and self-exploration. The journey is sometimes a painful one, but one worth taking. Some options to help disassemble shame include work with a therapist, or the following:

  • Counselling
  • Psychotherapy
  • Meditation/mindfulness combined with the above

Shame can ruin your life more than BV can. Don’t let it get you.

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Jessica Lloyd - Vulvovaginal Specialist Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)