We're kicking off the first segment of our four-part series celebrating all things menstruation for the month of May. Sexual health, particularly vaginal care related to our periods, is often disregarded or ignored. There remains a widespread lack of access to reproductive health care like abortion and menstrual products while STI stigma and sex worker prejudice pervades our culture. Not only do we often lack the physical items and access to help us care for ourselves, but we are not often empowered (let alone encouraged) to prioritize our feelings about our sexual and mental health. We want to change that conversation, and we’ll be covering everything from the pleasure gap to the tampon tax, so stay tuned.
This week, we’re talking puberty and menopause (and everything between and beyond). These periods of transition—puberty, perimenopause, and menopause—are often talked about with lowered voices, or not talked about at all. This needs to change, because these changes affect everyone—people who have vaginas, and those who know someone with a vagina.
We don’t want our voices to hush and our cheeks to flush when we ask for a tampon in public. We’re tired of hearing that if you’re over a certain age, you stop having sex, or can’t have sex. We want to change the way we talk about our periods and tampons for blood, and pads for urine. We want to discuss dry vaginas and sagging breasts, and how our sex drives and lives ebb and flow.
We’re here to remind you that change is good. Change is normal. Everything you’re experiencing is normal, and normal is different for everyone. Ultimately, we want to talk about and celebrate every life stage as both the beginning and the (happy) end—of a lot of things. Goodbye monthly periods. Hello sexual exploration.
Age: Usually between 8 and 15
Duration: on average 3 to 6 years
Symptoms: menstruation, vaginal discharge, hair growth, weight gain, breast development, voice change, acne, hormonal mood shifts
Puberty is the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Despite the telltale physical changes your body will undergo, puberty actually begins in a part of your brain known as the hypothalamus. A hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) kicks off a hormonal chain reaction, stimulating your pituitary gland (a pea-sized gland situated in your brain between your eyes).
The pituitary gland then releases follicle-stimulating (FSH) and luteinizing hormones (LH) signally your ovaries to produce sex hormones, namely estradiol, or estrogen, and progesterone. The production of these hormones spurs a number of bodily and emotional changes. This usually happens between the ages of 9 and 14, but can begin as young as 7 and as late as 15. Puberty can be unpredictable, and doesn't always follow the same pattern for everyone. Just know that doesn't have to be scary once you understand how it affects you.
Puberty can be unpredictable & doesn't always follow the same pattern for everyone.
For many people, the first physical sign of puberty is the development of breast buds, just beneath your nipples. As new breast tissue grows and your breasts develop more fully, they may be tender and sore, which is very totally normal and nothing to worry about, albeit uncomfortable!
The growth of pubic and axillary (armpit) hair is also an early sign of puberty. You’ll begin to notice soft, straight hairs popping up in these areas which will soon get longer, thicker, and coarser as you mature. It’s totally up to you how you want to care for your new body hair— whether you grow it naturally, trim, shave, or wax everything off!
Pro tip: If you do choose to remove your body hair, we recommend applying our pH balancing tonic oil as needed between shaves (or waxes) to keep skin moisturized and alleviate any itching or irritation as hair grows back.
You will also likely experience a growth spurt, both in height and weight. Typically, more fat is deposited around your breasts, thighs, and hips and you’ll grow considerably taller. Your voice is also likely to lower (again, attributed to estrogen and progesterone). These newly active hormones also cause your sweat and sebaceous (skin) glands to produce more oil. When your sweat mixes with the bacteria on your skin (which is totally normal and healthy) and oxygen, it produces a smell that people refer to as body odor. This excess oil, or sebum, often clogs our pores and you may experience acne breakouts on your face, back, chest and shoulders.
Pro tip: spray our refreshing hydrosol on your face and in hard to reach places. With antiseptic and antibacterial properties, it can help regulate sebum and control shine on oily skin without drying your skin.
About two years after you begin puberty, you will begin to notice vaginal discharge, or sometimes blood spots in your underwear. At this point, the pituitary gland releases FSH and LH more regularly, and your ovaries will begin to ovulate.
These hormones cause the lining of your uterus to build up, biologically preparing your body for reproduction. The same hormones prompt one of your ovaries to release an egg, which travels through the fallopian tube to the uterus. If the egg is fertilized by a sperm cell, it attaches itself to the wall of your uterus, where a fetus will begin to develop. If the egg is not fertilized, your body breaks down the uterine lining and bleeds. This is your period, or menarche (meaning first period).
Interesting fact: everyone born with two ovaries and a vulva is born with all of the eggs they’ll have throughout their lifetime!
This process usually takes about a month for the lining to build up, then break down, which is why most vagina owners get their periods once a month. Everyone’s cycle is different, though, and it’s completely normal to have irregular periods for the first two to three years until your body regulates. You may continue to experience irregular periods for a variety of reasons, including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), hypothyroidism, your type of birth control or other medications, stress, or even too much exercise!
The sex hormones FSH & LH prompt one of your ovaries to release an egg, which travels through the fallopian tube to the uterus. If the egg is not fertilized, your body breaks down the uterine lining and bleed, exiting through your vagina.
Now that your body is producing estrogen regularly, it plays a key role in maintaining a healthy and happy vagina—and sex drive! Estrogen increases the blood flow to your vagina to help it stay lubricated while raising your libido. It also keeps your pH within a normal (acidic) range; it signals your vagina to secrete glycogen, which feeds the beneficial bacteria, which help fight off the bad bacteria.
You’ll find yourself sexually attracted to others, and you should explore your sexual desires safely and comfortably. Once you’re sexually active, you should get tested regularly for STIs, consider your birth control options, and visit a gynecologist for pelvic exams.
Hormonal changes can bring the onset of different issues affecting your vagina like bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections. While these can happen to anyone at any life stage, it’s best to have a preventative self care routine in place, especially when you’re dealing with all of the other changes happening throughout your body and in your head (or heart).
PREGNANCY & POSTPARTUM
We’ve covered pregnancy and postpartum with the help of doula and lactation specialist Yael Borensztein, so check out our condensed guide covering everything you or your partner can expect during pregnancy and after birth here.
Age: Late 30s to 40s
Duration: A few months to 12 years (although on average, 3 to 6 years)
Symptoms: see below
Perimenopause is the interim time leading up to menopause; your body begins to produce estrogen at uneven rates—sometimes more, sometimes less.
Although it is the longest of the three phases, perimenopause is perhaps the most misunderstood. It’s a process that may start, stop, and start up again so it can last as short as a few months but up to twelve years before you reach menopause. Basically, perimenopause is impossible to predict.
Often referred to as the “second puberty,” perimenopause mirrors adolescent puberty with common symptoms like irregular periods, breast tenderness, and hormonal mood shifts. Your body is going through a lot of changes all at once, once again. Be warned—it looks like a very long list of symptoms, but it won't happen all at once, and it affects everyone differently.
Because of the ebb and flow of your estrogen levels, some common symptoms you may experience during this transition phase are:
Without regular estrogen production, your sex life can become a little more complicated. You may find that your libido takes a nosedive; sex might not feel as good because the skin lining your vagina gets thinner and produces less natural lubrication with less blood flow (remember that estrogen helped pump blood to your vagina).
It follows that with less estrogen comes less bacteria regulation, meaning you’re more susceptible to infections. Vaginas become densely innervated with pain-perceiving nerves that further cut off blood flow.
We understand that this may sound like a lot to deal with. But so was puberty, yet we made it out alive—and had fun doing it! We just had to find new ways to keep the blood flowing and our vaginas healthy.
Pro tip: We always recommend talking with your doctor or OBGYN first, but if you’re in need of some immediate relief, try our soothing salve or take a soak in a tonic-infused bath. The mere act of drawing a bath and pampering yourself can help assuage some of the symptoms related to perimenopause.
Some doctor recommendations include stocking up on natural lubricants, applying moisturizing agents regularly, and having an orgasm, whether that be through sex with a partner, or masturbating. The extra stimulation triggers blood to flow to your vulva and vaginal tissues, delivering oxygen and sweeping away toxins. Having an orgasm also improves your vaginal elasticity and natural lubrication while boosting androgens and help regulate other sex hormones.
Age: Mid 40s to 50s
Menopause officially begins when your period has been absent for at least 12 months so you won’t know you’ve hit this stage except in retrospect! Your ovaries have completely stopped producing estrogen and other sex hormones like progesterone begin to wane. You'll continue to experience a lot of perimenopause symptoms, although less regularly.
We want to emphasize that menopause is not a disease or disorder—everyone with a vagina will experience this natural condition. As always, you you should be taking preventative measures and prioritize scheduling regular visits with your doctor and OBGYN for pelvic exams, pap smears, and breast exams.
Without monthly periods to prepare for, you can refocus your energy on whatever you like!
Age: 60s and beyond
Duration: the rest of your life
Symptoms: continued menopause symptoms, higher risk for health conditions, and experiential self-knowledge
Postmenopause is the name given to the period of time during which your period has been absent for an entire year. During this stage, menopausal symptoms often begin to ease up, although you may continue to experience symptoms for up to a decade longer. Everything takes time.
Think of postmenopause as a new adolescence of exploring yourself and the world around you—only better.
As a result of a lower level of estrogen, postmenopausal people are at increased risk for a number of health conditions like as osteoporosis, heart disease, and thyroid problems. Medication, such as hormone therapy and/or healthy lifestyle changes may reduce the risk of some of these conditions. Since everyone’s risk is different based on their genetics and health history, we urge you to talk to your doctor to learn what steps you can and should take to reduce your individual risk.
This final stage may sound like it’s a real drag, and many may experience a sense of loss in postmenopause. But it’s important to remember that transition of any kind is inherently difficult. You are entering a new stage of freedom and personal growth. You can think of postmenopause as a new adolescence of exploring yourself and the world around you—only better because you have the confidence and life experience to shape the remaining chapters of your life however you want.