Unlike their grandmothers, and even mothers, many ladies today are accomplished, high-flying career women who are balancing vibrant social lives and stable homes. They’re more educated than their mothers ever dreamed of being, and are well versed in politics and current affairs. The world is seemingly open and ours for the taking – but bring the conversation closer to home, to the vagina to be exact, and you’ll find women are still coming to terms with what’s “down there”.

“You can have a group of women and they’re having fun and are talking about certain parts of their bodies, but they always shy away from the vagina,” says Anisha Patel, owner of Midori, a salon that specialises in vaginal steaming.

Socialisation distances women from their vaginas says Jade Zwane, sex expert and life coach.

“Historically, women have been taught to keep their legs shut tight, as sex is only for the pleasure of the male and purely for procreation on our part. Our sexuality and bodies never belonged to us, so women were shamed and deterred from expressing themselves sexually until they were married. And even then, only in the bedroom when desired by their husbands. So of course women would feel shameful about their vaginas.”

Even without the influence of well-meaning mothers and grandmothers, women are still bombarded with unrealistic expectations and myths about that part of their body.

READ MORE: “Girlfriend allowance” – is it taking women back?

“Some of these myths include the idea that the vagina is dirty and stinks,” explains Zwane. “They’re actually self-cleaning, and every woman has her own scent. There’s also the belief that if a woman doesn’t have a ‘tight’ vagina, it means she’s promiscuous. Vaginas don’t change in size based on the number of partners or amount of sex they have or the size of the penis.”

The market is awash with products that claim to be able to clean and sanitise a woman’s vagina – from scented feminine wipes to douching agents. Most of these serve only to reinforce the idea that a vagina is a dirty, smelly thing that needs to be sterilised.

The Daily Dot says that unless you have an infection, there’s nothing wrong with how your vagina smells. Each woman has their own taste and smell. These tastes and odours vary according to different factors, such as diet, pH level, hormonal changes or where a woman is in her cycle – and such variation is 100% healthy and normal.

The deep fear of having a loose vagina and being seen as promiscuous has forced women to take drastic steps. Local news platform Times Live recently reported on a troubling phenomenon: women are consuming a “punani” fruit that promises to make their vagina tighter for their partners. The fruit supposedly makes sex better for the man.

READ MORE: When trying to be healthy goes wrong

Not talking about the vagina has other possibly fatal consequences. Research done by the Cancer Association of South African (Cansa), shows that the risk of black women in South Africa getting cervical cancer is 1 in 26, compared to 1 in 80 for white women. Early detection can save women’s lives. However, due to the stigma surrounding the vaginal area, many women don’t go for life-saving pap smears. Only 30% of South African women go for pap smears, according to Cansa.

“Issues around shame and stigma, relating to things such as unusual vaginal discharge, often keep women from seeking help until it’s too late to effectively treat the cancer,” Cansa’s findings state.

Andrea Thompson, spokesperson for Marie Stopes, says there are several reasons why women often delay or avoid seeking care when the symptoms they’re having relate to the vagina or to their sexual and reproductive health in general. This ranges from privacy concerns to fear of being judged or stigmatised.

“Another reason women often struggle to seek help with their vaginal health is the stigma around sex and sexuality,” she says. “Since many (but certainly not all) infections of the genitals are sexually transmitted, women often don’t want to have to reveal information about their sex life and partner history.”

Unfortunately, if left untreated, an otherwise innocuous illness can be devastating. “Left untreated, infections can result in serious health risks and even have permanent effects on future fertility,” explains Thompson.

Patel says the only way that women can empower themselves is to seek knowledge and talk openly about their vaginas.

“We should be able to open up and talk about our differences, and you’d be surprised to see that there are so many similarities among women today. We can help by [sharing].”

Sources: Daily Dot, Times Live, Gems, Cansa