Health is so in right now. So many of us are interested in living well through healthy eating, exercise, and mind-body wellness. So why don’t we, as a culture and society, talk more often and openly about reproductive health?
As sad as this is, I think that there is still a sense of shame attached to our bodies and reproductive systems. Remember that time when a 22-year-old artist Ruki Kaur posted a period photo that was removed from Instagram (which was re-instated by IG, following the media furor)? While I don’t think it’s necessary or advised for people to post bodily function photos on social media, just in general, the photo itself (see below) wasn’t gory or graphic, but aesthetically intentional. The fact that this was censored over so much inane overexposure considered “appropriate” served to highlight just how our culture views women’s reproductive system as fundamentally disgusting. There is so much irony here since we’re also constantly told that being sexy is empowering and amazing, and to own our sexuality, but also that those same parts should remain non-existent, veiled in secrecy until the moment of sex, when it is revealed to be this beautiful, perfectly groomed bed of roses. Does that even make sense?
Here is a personal example: I went to a Catholic school, so while we did get a health education including anatomy and how sex basically works, we also were herded into an assembly one day, where the motivational speaker talked about the wonders of abstinence. And at the end, we were all required to take an abstinence pledge card (like a library card) and sign the back. Even at 14 I remember hating how this was being forced down our throats. So out of principle I was determined not to take one, and the sophomore who was handing it out was like, “Oh, you’re not going to take it?” In front of everyone. So I took one and threw it out later.
The downfall of sex education is that the emphasis is so much on sex and not enough on education, and so with this general dark cloud over the mysterious, disgusting female parts (obviously being sarcastic here), girls and women often let their reproductive health sort of just tag along—even while being diligent about soo much else that pertains to their health and well-being.
Your reproductive health is obviously a huge and important part of your whole health. Here are 7 ways to take care of your reproductive health proactively.
How to take care of your reproductive system
1. Choose your birth control wisely.
Talk to your doctor about the kind of birth control you want. Birth control pills, while most widely available, might also cause side effects like low libido, mood swings, weight gain. A 2019 study on nearly 7,000 Polish women aged 18 to 35 found that 68% of those taking oral contraceptives experienced side effects, most frequently decreased libido (39%) and weight gain (22%). A 2014 Dutch study also found that women who take oral contraceptives are less able to do emotion recognition through facial expression, or numbed emotional intelligence. You can explore other options like copper IUD and silicone diaphragms, if you are not comfortable with hormonal birth control methods. You can also practice the Fertility Awareness Method combined with condoms.
2. Practice safe sex.
Birth control isn’t the same thing as STI protection. Always talk to your new partner about your sexual history *before* having sex. (And make sure he is someone who is comfortable and honest about his history—if he’s being shady, kick him to the curb—seriously). Use condoms every single time if you are non-monogamous—none of this, oh we’ve been having sex for a while and I’m on the pill so it’s cool (it’s not!). Remember too that condoms don’t protect against HPV. Young women from starting at age 11 can (and should) get HPV vaccination that protects against genital warts and cervical cancer. Another good news is that since 2018, even women over the age of 26 can get HPV vaccines. The process is simple, requiring a few rounds of shots about six months apart at your gynecologist’s office.
3. Track your monthly cycle.
Getting to know your cycle will change your life! For one, you’ll feel more connected to your body, which leads to feeling more empowered and self-loving. For another, when you feel exhausted and upset for no reason, you’ll be able to check on your calendar and know it’s because you’re close to your period. It’s a great way to understand how your body is related to your mood, skin condition, productivity, or even creativity levels. If you are trying to get pregnant (or avoid it), it’s also good to know your ovulation week. I use P.Tracker app and it’s made my life so much better.
3. Drink a lot of water.
Being adequately hydrated is key to maintaining a happy healthy reproductive system. Vaginal dryness can be caused or worsened by dehydration, which in turn leads to discomfort during sex, or increased risk of bacterial and yeast infections.
4. Use lubricants.
Level of lubrication varies between individual women, and also case-by-case basis. It might be caused by any number of factors including stress, not being aroused enough, menopause, certain meds, etc. Not enough lubrication can cause soreness and pain during sex—and if that’s the case, what’s the point? There is a kind of stigma over using lube, and that’s unfair. Using lube doesn’t mean you’re not attracted to your partner or that you’re not sexual enough—it’s a way for you to get the most out of your experience. If you’re with someone who thinks using lube is like a special birthday treat, kick him to the curb. (Feeling really into kicking insensitive partners to the curb, apparently.)
5. Go to your annual check-up, and do self-exams as well.
No one likes being prodded but it’s just once a year, so just do it. You can also do self-exams on your breasts every month, right after your period when your hormone levels are the lowest.
6. Have a better period.
Your period week doesn’t have to be one ridden with anxieties, physical exhaustion and pain. There are so many ways to have a better period. Pick the option that works for you—including menstrual cups (reusable, eco-friendly) or organic cotton tampons. Observe your monthlies in a holistic way, by relaxing and taking some personal time during your period week. I always give myself extra leisure during this time: less working out and strenuous activity, and more quiet and definitely some takeout. Drinking tea or practicing therapeutic yoga poses also help tune into your body.
7. Stay away from toxins.
Are you a woman who may have children one day? Then stay away from toxins that mess with your reproductive health including BPA, dioxin (mostly present in meat, dairy, and fish, which means vegans are already off the hook!), phthalates (in many beauty products), PFCs (on nonstick pans), pesticides (conventional produce) and parabens (also in beauty products). Choose organic whenever possible.
How do you care for your reproductive health? Did I miss any obvious ones?
Also see: Birth Control for the Health Conscious
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This article was first published on May 19, 2015 and most recently updated on September 28, 2019.
Photo: Ruki Kaur via Instagram; Bhumika Bhatia via Flickr