by Emma Glassman-Hughes
A stand-up show at a Boston marketing conference is not the first place a grown woman should hear someone talk about vaginal discharge in public, but that’s how it happened for me.
In front of thousands of young, tightly wound, business-caj’ (I just spent a shameful amount of time googling the correct spelling of this abbreviation; thank you, Internet) professionals, comedian Amy Schumer got on stage and tore into her routine. Through the screams of adoring fans (me), Schumez pulled from her classic categories: excessive drinking, chronic UTIs, getting annoyed at men who have lots of sex (like her) but aren’t criticized for it (not like her), and vaginal discharge. Wait--the last one??? Did she just say...???
“Tonight, I had one goal. To take my underwear off at the end of the night and not make it look like I blew my nose on it.”
I was in brief disbelief--but in that moment, years of solitarily and shamefully examining my underwear at the end of a long day; years of not knowing how to answer questions from gynecologists about “normal” discharge because I didn’t know what “normal” looked like; years of subtly balling up and kicking away my undies so my hook-up buddy couldn’t sneak a glimpse; years of quiet humiliation melted away like a tub of cream cheese in a microwave (Obvious Child anyone?). My experience was validated, and my underwear was moist. A recipe for success.
I laughed through the rest of her impeccable show, but found the laughter stopped shortly afterward. Thinking about taboos of women’s health tends to kill the mood.
Why was Amy Schumer--queen of comedy, sure, but no medical professional--the first human I’d ever publicly heard not only hint at the idea of vaginal discharge, but accurately describe its appearance and consistency? This is something we all experience, but it’s something none of us are expected to acknowledge. And if we wanna get funky with someone else? We’re expected to “fix” the funky in our pants--AKA pretend it doesn’t exist and change underwear every 30 seconds.
Fine, you’re right. That’s a little extreme. But I’ve always had a hard time with the discharge on my underwear because I’d never talked about it with anyone else, I didn’t hear about it from adults or doctors, and the only underwear I ever saw in TV or movies was pristine and untarnished by lady cheese (I just made myself gag, FYI). If a sexual partner ever commented on my discharge, I would freeze up and not know what to say, paralyzed by embarrassment. The shame surrounding the natural functions of my vagina was overwhelming, and unnecessary. The Schume-sicle helped me realize that the discharge coming from my body is normal and common, and not something to hide at all costs.
Thanks for the visit, shame, but you’ve been discharged.
For those of you who, like me, want to solve the mystery of the mysterious gunk, we've included a handy guide on what you should know:
LARGE & DISCHARGE: A GUIDE TO CERVICAL FLUID
By Emma Glassman-Hughes & Kelsey Duchesne
WHAT IS DISCHARGE?
Discharge, also known as cervical fluid, is kinda like a cervix cocktail (sry for the visual). It is made up of different substances from glands near your cervix, and serves as a protector to your uterus. It affects your reproductive abilities (it’s a major decider on how long sperm can survive and their journey through the reproductive tract).
WHY SHOULD YOU KEEP AN EYE ON IT?
The quality and quantity of your cervical fluid change throughout your cycle. Ya know: ebb, flow, etc. These changes occur in response to the hormonal transitions that prepare your body for ovulation. Tracking the changes in your cervical fluid can be helpful to determine if ovulation has occurred. This method is an essential component of Fertility Awareness Methods (FAMs. And not the Kanye West kind). Think of this as kind of a DIY birth control method--but maybe a little less Pinterest-friendly.
Familiarity with how your cervical fluid changes during your cycle will also allow you to recognize when something about your reproductive health is unusual, like an infection. *foreboding music plays*
Luckily for us, there are several FAMs that teach how to identify cervical fluid. Each method has its own set of rules, but the common denominator is assessing a combination of:
- consistency (e.g., slippery, sticky or pasty, and stretchy)
- sensation (e.g., wet or dry)
WHAT DISCHARGE IS HEALTHY?
Each individual has a unique cervical fluid pattern (#KnowYourFlow is forever, y’all), but the general trend is that cervical fluid increases in quantity and wetness in the days before ovulation. Cervical fluid is at the height of fertility on the day of ovulation, and may look a lil wet & stretchy. It's defined as being the most fertile, and is called "fertile type” (an improved nickname from her playground days as ‘Fertile Myrtle’). Fertile-type cervical fluid got this rep’ because it's the most receptive to sperm, even helping sperm reach the egg released during ovulation.
Buuuuut, checking after sexual activity may be misleading, because semen or the fluid you produce from being sexually aroused can look v. similar.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE SEEN BY YOUR DOC?
If your discharge is bloody, a surprising color (i.e. not in the white/beige family)or causes any pain or uncomfortable side effects like itching, burning swelling, go pay your doc a visit. If you experience abdominal pain along with tenderness or dizziness, please go ASAP!
TYPES OF DISCHARGE
Egg white -- (rly, that's what it's called. It's stretchy, slippery, wet, translucent).
Egg white is typically the most fertile type of cervical fluid, and it occurs leading up to and including the day of ovulation. Still stick to the real stuff for your omelets, though.
Sticky -- Gummy, rubbery but not wet
Progesterone is the dominant hormone in the second half of the cycle from ovulation to the beginning of your next period (also called the 'luteal phase'). In contrast to estrogen, which makes cervical fluid feel wetter, progesterone makes cervical fluid gummy. In contrast to the slippery cervical fluid more typical around ovulation, sticky cervical fluid is not hospitable to sperm. (I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T., do you know what that means??) You may also notice sticky or dry cervical fluid in the days right after your period. Discharge: because the fun never ends.
Creamy -- Smooth like hand lotion, may be watery or thin
Creamy is often used to describe fluid like, right before it becomes fertile-type. You may observe creamy cervical fluid a few days after your period and leading up to the time before ovulation (the middle of the follicular phase). Estrogen levels increase during this part of the cycle, and estrogen increases the water content of cervical fluid. Kinda like off-brand Neutrogena.
Atypical -- Something unusual or unexpected
Atypical cervical fluid is anything outside of your characteristic pattern. Atypical fluid observations may be due to things like medication, infection or allergies. Variations in fluid may range in texture (e..g, chunky, foamy), smell (e.g., foul, fishy) or color (e.g., green). We encourage you to take mental (or physical!) notes about the consistency and characteristics of your own discharge each day. Instead of just ignoring it and pretending like it doesn’t exist because we’ve been conditioned to think it’s gross, weird, or even unhealthy, discharge can be a really useful tool for monitoring our own health and taking care of ourselves.
SOOO the question to ask yourself (& maybe if you’re comfortable, ask others??): what does your discharge look like? We once again reached out to our coworkers at Team THINX and pushed office boundaries to get the white milky truth, just for you.
Team THINX Discharge Descriptions:
“Sometimes it looks like a smear of tapioca pudding. Like, I've somehow encountered some tapioca throughout the day and I look down at my sleeve and I wonder how it got there. Except it's not my sleeve, it's my underwear, and I have no desire to lick it off."
“My discharge is always a surprise and delight. Like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, when I pull down my underwear to use the bathroom, I never know what I’m going to get. Sometimes it is clear and sticky, other times it is opaque, white and slightly chunky (kinda like my body! *hehe* ). Seeing discharge is one of those gross things that I secretly enjoy. It reminds me that my body is a living, ever-changing ecosystem that is doing its own thing regardless of what minute human concerns are swirling through my head.”
“It kinda looks like Neosporin that I put on my knee after any scrapes- like looks greasy, but it doesn't feel greasy."
“Whipped cream that has been sitting out in the sun at a 4th of July picnic.”
“Gelatin. Like, straight up jello!”
“Milky, but a bit thicker. A milkshake?”
“A lil drop of tasti D-lite. :)”
“It looks like today.”
Another pro-tip from Team THINX? For daily discharge, wear the Cheeky.