Written by Taylor Neal.
Who taught you that vaginal discharge was gross?
No really, think back for a moment, to those tender pubescent years when your body was changing, and you started to notice new, unknown substances in your underwear every now and then. Where did the shame come from?
I remember girls in middle school sharing clothes amongst one another, and then making fun of each other after seeing “the white stuff” in the crotch of someone’s yoga pants. That girl became the “dirty girl” and no one would share clothes with her again.
Why did we believe so strongly that “the white stuff” was dirty? Did someone teach us this? Or did the lack of anyone teaching us what it actually was cause us to associate it with dirtiness, because we had also been taught that our vaginas and everything to do with them were inherently dirty?
Perhaps the shame comes from still, even as adults in 2023, only ever seeing reference to, or discussion of, vaginal discharge, in association with discussion of STIs and other infections. If we only ever see something discussed in relation to infection and/or “poor hygiene,” it will become linked to these topics in our minds. Inevitably, it will become “dirty.”
Regardless of whether we have vaginas or not, we tend to keep matters of discharge hush hush. We’re just starting to be able to openly discuss menstruation in some spaces, and hopefully we’re moving toward a place where a 14 year old won’t get labeled as dirty if their blood leaks through their pants. Perhaps we’re starting to realize that blood is in no way dirty, and in fact accept and celebrate that the menstrual cycle is actually a vital sign.
But it is also necessary, as we have these conversations, to crack open the other forms of discharge that happen during the menstrual cycle as a whole. While we tend to consider the menstrual cycle as the period of the month during which the menstruating human is actively bleeding, the rest of the cycle and how it shows up in, and shows itself outside of, the body, is actually of equal weight and value to our overall health and wellbeing. It is an equally important communication tool between body and self.
To put it simply, the menstruating body is secreting various types of wonderful, vital forms of cervical mucus all month long to support in the healthy cyclical menstruation process, and these different forms of cervical mucus, or vaginal discharge, are actually one of our body’s primary ways of communicating with us.
Instead of regarding this powerful tool as dirty, perhaps we should tune in.
Understanding Your Body
By default, when our body is doing something and we don’t actually know what it means, we automatically assume there must be something wrong with us.
We have been taught over and over again that we cannot trust our bodies, that we must medicalize and take prescriptions and prevent so many of the body’s most natural processes; birth, hormone fluctuation, hair growth, etc. Amidst these learnings then, the body becomes wrong by default; something always either to be fixed or hidden away. Because of this, it is quite common for girls and young women to seek medical attention simply because they don’t know if their discharge is normal or not. It is equally common for women to not seek medical attention due to shame about their discharge, but to then live with a constant fear of something being wrong.
Because our menstrual cycle and cervical mucus is a vital sign, not only does it tell us when something is right, but it does also tell us when something may be wrong, so it can definitely be a useful tool to monitor our vulvar, and overall health.
To be able to use any tool properly however, we have to start by understanding how it works, and what it is for.
What is “Normal”?
Cervical mucus is important for regulating the PH balance of the vagina, and for flushing out any bacteria that could be harmful or cause infection in the body. Essentially, cervical mucus is the vagina’s self cleaning tool. Cervical mucus also aids in sexual intercourse and arousal, through self-lubrication to enhance ease and pleasure during sex. At different times throughout the menstrual cycle then, our cervical mucus/vaginal discharge will change to support the different process throughout the cycle.
The various types of vaginal discharge you may see throughout the month all have different meanings and functions. Let’s break it all down through the stages of the menstrual cycle.
Menstrual Phase (4-7 days on average)
As the body sheds the uterine lining, discharge will be reddish-brown. The shade of red will vary throughout the menstrual phase, from rusty brown to bright cherry red.
Most commonly, discharge will be darker and more brown at the beginning and ending of the menstrual phases, indicating old blood from previous bleed or current bleed as the uterine lining darkens the longer it takes to leave the body. The bright cherry red will come during the bulk of one’s bleed, indicating fresh, faster flowing blood.
Follicular Phase (10-17 days on average)
You may notice less discharge immediately following your bleed.
As the body enters the Follicular phase, the egg starts to grow and mature, and discharge may appear cloudy white and sticky.
As the body prepares for ovulation and fertilization once the egg has matured, cervical mucus may change to a more clear coloured, slippery texture.
Ovulation Phase (1-3 days on average)
During the ovulation phase, cervical mucus will become more clear in colour and quite slippery. This is often referred to as “egg whites,” due to the consistency and appearance, and is created by the body to help with fertilization of the egg.
During ovulation, the vagina self-lubricates to help with penetration, in the same way it self-lubricates, or “gets wet” during arousal. Not only does this help with the physical sensation of penetrative sex, but this slippery, clear discharge also creates more ease for sperm to move through the vaginal canal to fertilize the egg. During this phase, our bodies quite literally help the sperm along their journey.
Luteal Phase (14-18 days on average)
After ovulation, the body begins to prepare to shed the uterine lining once again, and discharge will go back to a white or yellowish sticky, even tacky, consistency.
Just as the body produces cervical mucus during ovulation to help with fertilization, this sticky white or yellow discharge during the luteal phase has the opposite intention. At this point, if the egg has not been fertilized upon its release, and conception has not happened, the body begins to prepare for another bleed. This sticky mucus is then produced to literally block sperm from moving through the vaginal canal. Basically, discharge during this phase is a giant “Keep Out” sign.
Right before the menstrual cycle starts over again with the menstrual phase (your bleed), you may notice less discharge.
How Do I Know If Something Is Off?
The above breakdown represents that of a “normal” menstrual cycle. If this resembles what is going on for you (of course not taking into account any other health factors that may alter your cycle of which you are aware), you are experiencing a healthy cycle of cervical mucus.
There are, however, ways in which our bodies communicate with us via discharge, that let us know when something is off.
If you’re experiencing pink or red discharge outside of your menstrual phase.
Pink or red discharge can occur outside of your menstrual phase without cause for concern in situations such as:
- During or after sex, if there is irritation or small internal tears
- Some people experience ovulation or post-ovulatory spotting
- Spotting immediately before or after a period
Pink or red discharge outside of the menstrual phase however, can also indicate something is off. If you are experiencing pink or red discharge that seems abnormal to you, it never hurts to seek medical attention.
If you’re noticing a stronger-than-normal odor in your discharge.
It is quite common/normal for your discharge to have a certain odor which can vary throughout the menstrual cycle due to hormonal and bacterial changes. Various odors can be caused by:
- Sexual intercourse
- Synthetic fibers in clothing
If you notice a stronger-than-normal smell that appears to be lasting, it may indicate bacterial infection, or other forms of infection, and you should consult a doctor.
If your discharge is yellow or green.
Pale yellow discharge is often considered normal, and can be caused by:
- Changes in diet/dietary supplements
- Hormonal changes
However, while white or pale yellow, sticky discharge is normal during certain phases of the menstrual cycle, if your discharge is bright or dark yellow, or your notice a greenish colour, this could indicate some form of sexually transmitted infection or other type of infection, and it is good to seek medical attention.
If your discharge is gray or purple.
Cloudy-white discharge is normal during the follicular and luteal phases of the menstrual cycle, but if your discharge is looking more gray than white, or leaning towards purple, then it is a good idea to see a doctor. Gray or purple discharge most commonly indicates a common infection called Bacterial Vaginosis, and is easily treatable.
If you are experiencing little to no discharge/lubrication.
All bodies are different, and produce different amounts of discharge both during arousal as well as during different times throughout the menstrual cycle. If you are experiencing little to no discharge, or are finding you can’t “get wet” during sex, this could be caused by:
- Birth control
- Menstrual cycle/the phase of your cycle you are in
- Lack of arousal/lack of foreplay
- Hormonal shifts
If you are noticing a lasting lack of mucus being produced, it is always a good idea to seek medical attention.
Collaborating With Our Bodies
Once I gained a better understanding of my cervical mucus and what it meant, I found I was able to collaborate more compassionately with my body throughout all phases of my menstrual cycle.
Not only did I stop fearing my discharge and my body’s natural processes, and learn how to notice when something actually is off balance rather than worrying about every little change, I also started using my knowledge of my menstrual cycle and various phases to support in my sex life.
At times in my cycle when I know penetrative sex will be more enjoyable, I am more inclined to enjoy penetrative sex and use this opportunity to explore this type of sex. At times in my cycle when I know I will not be self-lubricating as much or may not have the ability to get as wet, I now take this opportunity to have different types of sex, or explore different types of intimacy all together. Working in collaboration with my cervical mucus and menstrual cycle has led to some really interesting sensory discoveries!
It also really helps me to choose the fabrics I put on my body, as I am now able to recognize when my body is responding in a negative way to certain fabrics, and when things are feeling good.
Just like so many of the body’s natural functions, once we come to understand why our body is doing the things that it does, we can come to work and live in harmony rather than in opposition, and find a lot more pleasure, and pride, in our body’s innate intelligence.