From ‘vaginal splinting’ to ‘innie/outie’ labia chat, TikTok is discussing all things intimate health – we take a look at the not-so-good, the almost-accurate, and the plain bizarre tips and tricks
TikTok is a social media platform best known for lighthearted short-form video content. One quick browse through the For You Page (a collection of videos collated by TikTok’s algorithm based on your past behaviour) and you’ll find anything from celebrities parodying your favourite television shows, underappreciated songs from your favourite artists having a moment and even suspected industry plants.
However, it is quickly becoming the go-to for conversations surrounding the vagina and vaginal health. In a world where the vaginal anatomy, sexual pleasure, and periods are slowly becoming less taboo, there has been an increase in content dedicated to these long misunderstood parts of the body.
With schools failing to provide adequate sex education, the online world has been fundamental for curious young people. With teenagers teaching other about kegels as well as medical professionals taking to the platform to confirm medical advice, sex education on TikTok is more and more specific.
A technique that was later identified as ‘vaginal splinting’ went viral in February after @ambriaalicewalterfield posted a trusty vagina constipation trick. The video demonstrates how hooking the thumb into the vaginal canal can help ‘pop the poop out by wiggling it.’ Many thanked the user for this hack and numerous comments were from people saying they now felt normal knowing others do this. The top comment on the video was from a labour nurse: “I do this for my patients when the hubby isn’t looking so that it doesn’t happen when he is looking. #yourewelcome😄 ”.
Another video that went viral this year is user @gabygabss’ video on the differences between an ‘innie’ and ‘outie’ labia. It amassed millions of likes and thousands of affirming comments with messages from grateful teenagers like: “I literally cried my eyes and wanted to get surgery when I was a teenager because of the hate for outies”.
It’s clear to see TikTok is facilitating a way to normalise natural bodily functions we’ve been taught to be embarrassed or ashamed about. However, for every relatable video that promotes body diversity, there’s a dozen that keep dangerous myths alive. One video that urges users to ‘lay off the flaming hot Cheetos and bacon’ suggests that vaginas with high pH balance and discharge that ‘bleaches’ underwear must smell. This video that has thousands of comments is riddled with inaccuracies. pH is a measurement of how acidic or alkaline a substance is; the scale runs from 0 to 14 and anything less than 7 is considered acidic. For context, a healthy vaginal pH level is between 3.8 and 4.5. The acidic nature of vaginal discharge can ‘bleach’ underwear, but this is normal. It is actually a high pH level that would be likely to cause an ‘off’ smell as this provides the perfect environment for unhealthy bacteria to cause infection. Lastly, many doctors have debunked this theory that food impacts the vagina, Dr Staci Tanouye, MD tells me: “the vagina’s pH is pretty tightly regulated by the normal vaginal microbiome - a balance of different types of bacteria, lactobacilli, low levels of yeast, etc. The balance is controlled locally in the vagina itself. Food pH is neutralised in the stomach and would have no bearing on the vaginal microbiome.”
It’s not just misinformation about the anatomy that is accessible on TikTok, you can find recommendations for many unmedicated products too. One series of videos in particular feature vaginal suppositories. These aren’t anything new but their latest form is a range referred to as “vaginal moisturising melts”, which claim to make your vaginal smell and taste better. One TikTok user @britneyw24 recommended the melts for anyone looking to “make your downtown taste and smell like the flavour you choose”.
Tanouye says that patients come to her all the time with worries about their vaginas after seeing videos like this, she tells them: “Vaginas are not supposed to smell or taste like anything other than a vagina. The idea that it does stems from people with vaginas being shamed into thinking they are dirty and gross.” Another doctor, Jocelyn Fitzgerald, MD raises an interesting point: “Human beings all have a microbiome that produces some natural odours but you don’t see men apologising for it.”
There is also an increasing amount of self-proclaimed ‘women’s health experts’ on TikTok that spread misinformation. A more complicated myth that made the rounds was that people with a uterus must have one bowel movement every day in order to balance hormones (oestrogen in particular). This surfaced on an account that has over 45k followers and although the user didn’t provide sources or confirm their qualifications, many believed this to be true. When asked about her thoughts on this myth, Fitzgerald stated: “there is absolutely no science to show that is true. Hormones can affect bowel movements but not the other way around.” Dr Jen Gunter penned a response on her blog debunking this too.
Marketing preys on people’s vulnerability and shame for profit. With TikTok being a relatively new platform, ASA rules haven’t quite made their way to the app yet and it can make it hard to know who is genuinely recommending a product after using it or who is being paid to promote it. Additionally, a lot of myths surrounding the vagina stem from old wives tales. Part of the reason they’re still present today is due to something called the illusory truth effect. We tend to believe false information to be correct if we have repeated exposure. For example, many refer to cranberry juice as treatment for UTIs simply because it has been recommended so much. In reality, there are no studies to support this claim. Platforms like TikTok allow the illusory truth effect to kick into overdrive and also allow anecdotal experience to be dangerously taken for medical advice.
One example is this video that advises taking multiple birth control pills and ibuprofen to stop a period. Staci Tanouye, MD says: “social media becomes an echo chamber of anecdotal experience validating whatever misinformation is out there and it becomes like a pyramid effect. People see more and more perpetuating what they believe and take it as truth without any actual evidence or facts.” She also says that taking a combination of birth control pills and ibuprofen could potentially injure the kidneys as well as lead to significant side effects. “None of the home remedies on TikTok work to stop your period”, she states. Ignore them and talk to your doctor instead.
Huge platforms do not always translate to expertise but the nature of social media often makes us forget this. With marketing preying on this vulnerability and shame for profit, it makes this cycle harder to break. Oversimplifications are appealing but the truth is science cannot always be packaged in an engaging, 60-second video.