It is hardly surprising that Gwyneth Paltrow’s obsession with so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for the vagina is motivating women to try some of it. The consequences can be dramatic; not only for the wallet but also for the vagina!
Vaginal steaming made global headlines in 2015 after its promotion by celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow. One of many female genital modification practices currently on offer in Anglo-Western nations – practices both heavily promoted and critiqued – vaginal steaming is claimed to offer benefits for fertility and overall reproductive, sexual or even general health and wellbeing. We analysed a selection of online accounts of vaginal steaming to determine the sociocultural assumptions and logics within such discourse, including ideas about women, women’s bodies and women’s engagement with such ‘modificatory’ practices. Ninety items were carefully selected from the main types of website discussing vaginal steaming: news/magazines; health/lifestyle; spa/service providers; and personal blogs. Data were analysed using thematic analysis, within a constructionist framework that saw us focus on the constructions and rationalities that underpin the explicit content of the texts. Within an overarching theme of ‘the self-improving woman’ we identified four themes: (1) the naturally deteriorating, dirty female body; (2) contemporary life as harmful; (3) physical optimisation and the enhancement of health; and (4) vaginal steaming for life optimisation. Online accounts of vaginal steaming appear both to fit within historico-contemporary constructions of women’s bodies as deficient and disgusting, and contemporary neoliberal and healthist discourse around the constantly improving subject.
A recent case-report tells a cautionary tale. Here is its abstract:
Vaginal steaming has gained increased popularity as a method to achieve empowerment by providing vaginal tightening and to “freshen” the vagina.
A 62-year-old woman sustained second-degree burns following vaginal steaming in an attempt to reduce vaginal prolapse.
Clinicians need to be aware of alternative treatments available to women so that counselling may mitigate any potential harm.
As the full paper is not available to me, I had to rely on another report for further information.
The woman had been suffering from a prolapsed vagina and had been led to believe the vaginal steaming could help avoid surgery. Spas advertising “v-steaming” claim it has been used throughout history in countries in Asia and Africa. They claim the practice, which is sometimes called Yoni steaming, acts to “detox” the vagina, can ease period pains, help with fertility and much more. Experts, however, warn that it can be dangerous and point out that there is no good evidence for the health claims being made.
Dr Vanessa Mackay, a consultant and spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says it is a “myth” that the vagina requires extensive cleaning or treatment. She recommends using plain, unperformed soaps on the external vulva area only. “The vagina contains good bacteria, which are there to protect it,” she said in a statement. “Steaming the vagina could affect this healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels and cause irritation, infection (such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush) and inflammation. It could also burn the delicate skin around the vagina (the vulva).”
Dr Magali Robert, who authored the case-report, said the injured woman attempted to steam her vagina on the advice of a traditional Chinese doctor. The woman, who gave permission for her case to be shared, sat over the boiling water for 20 minutes on two consecutive days before presenting at an emergency department with injuries. She sustained second-degree burns and had to delay reconstructive surgery while she healed.
Dr Robert, who works in pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery in Calgary, said word of unconventional therapies like steaming can spread through channels like the internet and word-of-mouth. “Health care providers need to be aware of alternative therapies so that they can help women make informed choices and avoid potential harm,” she says in the article.