This Vagina Smells Like My Candle

This Vagina Smells Like My Candle

What do vaginas smell like?

In 2020 Gwyneth Paltrow’s infamous wellness company, Goop, debuted a $75 candle with the inscription, This Smells Like My Vagina, scrawled in large, chic font across the front. It was instantly engulfed in a wave of media attention and think pieces, internet humor and criticism. I think this is partially due to the fact that anything with the word Vagina meant to be displayed prominently on a coffee table is thought of by a lot of people as a taboo. Goop opted not to use a vaginal euphemism and for that I do respect the effort. 

However, the other side of the coin and, I think, the real reason why it lit a flame of internet fury, is that one would be hard pressed to find any vagina in the world that actually smells like this candle. Per the product description: “With a funny, gorgeous, sexy, and beautifully unexpected scent, this candle is made with geranium, citrusy bergamot, and cedar absolutes juxtaposed with Damask rose and ambrette seed to put us in mind of fantasy, seduction, and a sophisticated warmth.” 

…..Okie dokie. 

I don’t know anyone who owns this candle nor was I about to purchase it at that price tag research purposes. Bad journalism? Perhaps, but based solely on the product description and the bold inclusion of floral scents, I can already tell you that getting a whiff of this candle would rub me the wrong way. It’s not that I believe Gwyneth and her collaborators at perfumer, Heretic, actually think this is what a vagina smells like. It’s that there is an ever-looming cultural pressure for a vagina to smell not like vagina but like a flower, specifically (walk down the aisle of any store that sells vaginal washes to see how deeply ingrained this floral-vagina concept is). The makers of this candle are feeding directly into this flower-spiracy by selecting the scent palette that they did. Vaginas are not a “fantasy,” though the culture at large treats them as such (not to reference my own writing…but I’m about to reference my own writing). They do not constantly exist in a state of “seduction.” They are, in fact, lived all day everyday by the people who have them.

The candle.

All that said, this is not a Goop-bashing article. I will not continue to drag this candle any further than it has already been drug, because that’s not the point. The point is actually that this whole vagina candle rabbit hole led me to one essential question; What do vaginas actually smell like? Perhaps this seems like a very easy question. Just stick your finger down there and find out, but the more I asked around the more evanescent the answer seemed to be. How do you describe something that is both of you and constantly in flux?

I wrote out a long template text message asking people, within their comfort zone and boundaries, if they would be willing to describe the scent of their own vagina and/or that of their partner’s. Sort of a wine-tasting vibe. One of my friends received the text while at a bar and proceeded to pose the question to her entire extended circle of tipsy friends. Note to fellow researchers; there is no more candid focus group than a pack of dear friends out for a drink.

Dude fuck what does mine smell like? Not me going to finger myself in the bathroom at the bar…

While I waited for her contribution to science I was flooded with texts from other friends around the country. I was genuinely moved by the unique tenderness of their answers about their own vaginas and that of their partners’. They didn’t lean on the cliche poeticism of geraniums and roses and also never said the smell was outright good or bad. Their answers were real, complex, uncanny, humorous. Poetic in the way that ordinary, everyday life can be if you take a moment to stop and appreciate it.

People wrote of their own vaginas:

Pastry dough without the sugar.

Buttermilk and pencil eraser.

Umami and musky. Like miso or chicken broth. Meaty like dinner is ready.

Sweet but not like baked goods. More like something light and airy. Kinda like honey where you have to really sniff to smell it.

Tart.

A very mild, natural smell similar to when I haven’t washed my hair in a few days or when I wear the same clothes all day that I slept in.

Saline / slate / whetstone / saltlick / rolled oat / loam / ironous / mulberry.

Soury, savory umami. Yogurt. But a light yogurt. Sheep’s milk yogurt with pomegranate seeds and a little bit of granola.

Pillsbury Crescent Rolls.

Metallicy, like pennies almost.

Baked sweet potato, no sugar added, just a slight natural sweetness to her (my vagina’s) odor. When she’s tired from some activity or being in tight jeans (holding her back from breath) she smells like a community pool, not in a bad way but in a more nostalgic sense.

Describing the way the vagina smells kinda feels like trying to describe a color. The same way red is red, a vagina smells like a vagina. What does damp smell like? What does hot smell like? That’s how a vagina smells.

Partners wrote:

A very aromatic, perfect bite of baked brie with jam on a lil cracker. A sweet and savory snack.

The morning dew. Like grass in the morning.

Metallic and tangy.

$11 chardonnay and D-cell batteries.

Rolled oats, spiced rum, and ground sage.

After compiling lots of responses, the main takeaway for me was, as one of my friends put it, All vaginas - like all bodies, like all souls, like all fingerprints - smell different. There were some overlapping scent themes - a doughiness, dairiness (new word?), metallicness (this comes from the iron in menstrual blood), a damp, earthen musk, a certain sweet or savory sensory nostalgia - but truly, everyone’s body is unique as is everyone’s experience of scent and taste.

What creates this spectrum of odor is each person’s differing vaginal flora combined with the singular details of their life. Moreland OBG-YN writes, “Our bodies effuse odors based on what we eat, what we wear, the state of our health, medication, bacterial activity on the skin, and gland secretions.” What gives the vagina its smell is its fluctuating population of bacteria combined with the environmental factors listed above.

Vaginal flora under a microscope

Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of candida known as yeast, which is a fungus that appears as a clumpy, white discharge. It can also be extremely itchy and uncomfortable. While the discharge often has no smell, some people describe a yeast infection as having a very sweet smell or a strong beer or bread odor. One of the contributors for the article wrote, It would smell sickly sweet, like actual bread baking in the kitchen. Which is pretty acute compared to others’ descriptions of pastry dough and rolled oats.

There’s a lot of shame around vaginal scent, which is why I think floral-scented douching products are still so widely used. I’m certainly not saying that it’s fun or desirable to smell fishy or sickly sweet, but the reality is that a pungent vagina with an ever shifting odor is extremely normal whether there is a bacterial imbalance or not. And, there is a huge benefit to being able to recognize and identify what different scents indicate. It’s our body telling us something and we need to pay attention.

The same contributor wrote, The smell of my vagina is such a barometer for how I am functioning in the world at that point in time. My vagina’s smell changes when I’m stressed, when I eat healthy or like shit, when I’ve had sex, when I shave, when I change soaps, etc. etc. If I had to label the vaginal smells that I’ve identified throughout my life I’d broadly categorize them across a spectrum from fishy to metallic with the middle being odorless. She deals with chronic BV and yeast infections (resulting from the antibiotic treatment of BV. I know the vibes. The cycle feels like a cruel joke. Smh.) and has become accustomed to consistently monitoring the scent of her vagina as a way of staying proactive about her health. This sentiment was echoed by other contributors (The vagina is rad because it feels like a living, breathing thing that changes.), and even for folks who aren’t doing this in such a conscious way, people generally have a grasp of what is normal for them, and what isn’t. Biological information is power. Wishing away the kaleidoscope of vaginal odors would be a major loss for our connection to our own health and opportunity for self-advocacy.

Vaginas don’t smell like flowers or perfume or whatever soap we scrub the shit out of them with, one of my friends said. They have their own distinct smell that always comes back and is impossible to mask. I don’t know how else to describe it but like I said before, all I know is that I like it.

So, what would an actual vagina candle smell like? It could be literally anything, but based on the data I received, I’m going to land on musky, sweet buttermilk and oats with notes of sage, unwashed bedhead, and warm broth, finishing on a metallic sharpness and hint of pencil eraser. The label will read This Vagina Smells Like My Candle. Will everyone love the scent this candle omits? No, probably not. Will I always love it? Some days I probably won’t. Sometimes I will question whether my house smells good or bad when I burn it. But, ultimately, I will remind myself that good and bad are insufficient descriptors for something that is distinctly, complexly, memorably, and beautifully human.