Getting to know a stranger: cervical mucus and more
The idea of finding and feeling my cervix had never even crossed my mind until a year ago when I found myself standing with one leg up on the toilet seat, poking my finger around the inside of my vulva, blindly hunting for something which would feel like the tip of a nose with a small hole in the middle. Prior to this moment, my cervix was merely a mysterious part of the body that I had never thought to locate or identify. Its rusting existence sat somewhere in the back of my mind, reminiscent of visits to the sexual health clinic, having a smear test or discussing with sisters who had intra-uterine devices (one of the most common IUD is the coil – a hormone-free contraceptive that is inserted into the cervix).
It was a close friend who drew my attention to this area of my female anatomy, explaining how she had started tracking her cervix’s position as a way of monitoring her fertility1. It turns out that, by feeling our cervix and checking our cervical fluids every day, we can map and read our hormonal changes and navigate our menstrual cycle. Documenting these changes over the months in apps such as inne where there are also visuals to identify and describe cervical mucus, helps build a bank of your body’s data which you can then read and map.
Accepting and Understanding Your Cervix and Cervical Fluid
Inspired by my friend, I started to hunt around for my cervix, overcoming my fear of the unknown so as to learn more about my anatomy. I found certain tips helped ease the process of finding this miraculous squishy lump of tissue; washing your hands and getting into a position such as a squat or placing one leg up on a surface makes it easier to guide your longest finger up inside your vaginal canal until you reach an obstacle of sorts. A good tip is to feel for a shape that either has the same firmness as the tip of your nose or the softness of pursed lips. Have a feel of these features on your face and recognise their springiness.
When feeling the inside of my vulva, I can still get a bit queasy and overwhelmed by the experience. I have to focus on my breathing and envision the space within my anatomy that I didn’t even know existed. With such a new encounter, everything can feel strange and alien so I find what helps me differentiate my cervix from the rest of my internal linings is the small hole that sits at the base, facing the ground. This hole is called your external os and it acts as a passage from your vaginal canal up to your uterus2. You will find it either feels like a tight indent or a softer, more squidgy opening. This is due to the os concertinaing between being closed and open as you journey through your menstrual cycle. What flows from the external os is a constantly changing mixture of cervical mucus, (often referred to as discharge), shifting in acidity and alkaline states so as to protect the vagina from infections and bacteria or preserve sperm. Pretty clever, right?
Moving through your Menstrual Cycle – Highs and Lows of the Cervix
When feeling your cervix, it’s good to remember the following: the cervix will shift in accordance with the hormones being released; a combination of six hormones working together3, acting like a gear stick shifting to accelerate into ovulation or slowing down to release menstrual fluids.
- Day 1 of your cycle, when you start to bleed, your cervix will be sitting lower, it will be firmer (tip of the nose) and the os will be open to allow the menstrual fluids to flow through.
- Once your period is finished, the os will close tighter and sit in the lower half of your vaginal canal.
- As you approach the most fertile stage of the menstrual cycle, the rising levels of oestrogen cause the ligaments around your cervix to tighten, drawing it higher up inside the body. This means it’s further for you to reach with your fingers. The cervix is soft at this point (like pursed lips) and the external os is slightly open, the cervical fluid produced at this time is thinner, clearer and tacky (to lick up the sperm). For many women this occurs roughly between Day 12 – 18 depending on the length of your full cycle.
- From this point onwards you enter into the luteal phase (the end) of your cycle. The cervix will start to lower again and the external os will revert to being closed.
During pregnancy, the cervix morphs once more3 becoming thicker and tightly shut, arming the entrance to the uterus until the point of birth, when it transforms completely. You may have heard that moment when a midwife has their fingers inside a heavily pregnant woman and they’re saying “She’s 10cms dilated”; they’re talking about the cervix. Each contraction draws the cervix higher, allowing the tissue to stretch open and a baby to squeeze through.
Seeing the unseen – Look, Learn and Love Thy Cervix
I’ll admit that, at the end of the day, I am more of a visual learner so seeing what the cervix looks like made my own cervical investigations a lot more enjoyable. I turned to initiatives like Beautiful Cervix4 which mails out vaginal speculums, hand mirrors, and mini torches to encourage broader understanding of our own female forms through self-examination. It also came with a step by step guide for photographing your cervix and a gallery of women’s cervices. This is a welcome change from the usual mysterious silence around this clever part of our anatomy, allowing you to gently gaze through images that look fairly similar to the back of our mouths – a canvas of wet, rosey, organic mounds.
“I’ll admit that, at the end of the day, I am more of a visual learner so seeing what the cervix looks like made my own cervical investigations a lot more enjoyable”
I understand now that the cervix is a part of the female body that we’re allowed to pay more attention to and be grateful for. Like the love I have with my hands and the bond I have with my face, I want to invest time and interest in building a relationship with my cervix, getting to know myself, from the inside out.
- Jamie L. Bigelow, Human Reproduction Issue 4, Mucus observations in the fertile window: a better predictor of conception than timing of intercourse, article consulted on March 13th, 2020 https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/19/4/889/2913645
- F.Martyn, Human Reproduction Issue 10, The role of the cervix in fertility: is it time for a reappraisal?, article consulted on March 15th, 2020 https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/29/10/2092/648095
- Joy Vink and Kristin Myers, Cervical Alterations in Pregnancy, article consulted on March 14th, 2020 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6282836/