Elena Scotti/FUSION

Teen girls have so much to worry about today—their Snapchat game, their five internships, hoverboards. Oh, and protecting themselves against a horrifying sexually transmitted disease called Blue Waffle.

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Never heard of it? That’s because it isn’t real.

Like Slender Man, Charlie Charlie, and the notion that one can achieve Kylie Jenner’s lips with a shot glass, Blue Waffle is an urban legend, fueled by fear and the internet. And yet, for the past decade, teens have perpetuated rumors about the devastating effects of the mythical disease, which sex educators from New York to Seattle say they’ve had to squash—again and again and again.

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Before we go any further, let me state for the record: There is no such thing as Blue Waffle disease. There are plenty of very real sexually transmitted diseases that we should indeed protect ourselves against, but this breakfast food-inspired scourge is not one of them.

“I hear about it regularly from middle schoolers and high schoolers—and occasionally, someone in college,” says Katherine George, the director of education for Planned Parenthood Southeast, who is based in Atlanta. The assumption is always that Blue Waffle is real, she says—teens are just looking for some good information on how to avoid catching it.

Planned Parenthood Los Angeles recently received this batch of anonymous student questions during a sex education class. Blue Waffle was clearly on their minds.
Planned Parenthood Los Angeles

So what do believers imagine Blue Waffle entails? Depending on who you ask, the term describes one of a few equally alarming conditions. Some people will tell you it’s what happens when a woman gets several STDs at once, and as a result, her vagina takes on a blue and waffle-y appearance. (For those of you who aren’t well-versed in teen speak, “waffle” is sometimes used as slang for “vagina.”) Others will tell you it’s a specific STD that makes the vulva take on a Smurf-like hue. And still others will say it’s an STD that can only be passed from women to men and is caused by poor hygiene—a definition that reeks of slut-shaming.

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I polled several OBGYNs about Blue Waffle, and none had heard of the term—which may suggest that by the time teen girls see their physician, they've already separated fact from fiction. (Or they're too embarrassed to ask.) But as Dr. Amy Whitaker, an assistant professor of OBGYN at the University of Chicago Hospital, confirmed to the nonprofit Women's Health Foundation in 2011: "There is no disease known as 'blue waffle disease,' in the medical world. There is no disease that causes a blue appearance on the external genitalia."

Like most modern myths, Blue Waffle has taken on a life of its own on the internet. Google the term, and you will be barraged by memes, message boards—and an array of some of the most obscenely graphic anatomical images you have ever encountered. For many teens, it seems, the only thing worse than contracting Blue Waffle is stumbling on the grotesque photos that claim to illustrate it.

Blue Waffle memes abound.

“I first heard about Blue Waffle in 2010 or 2011—I was being bombarded with the question in every classroom I went to,” says Peter Serrano, the associate director of youth programs at Planned Parenthood of New York City. “It was like the Blair Witch Project—because the image was appearing on all these websites, it made it seem real. Meanwhile, plenty of trusted medical sites were saying, ‘This is all fake.’ But I would walk into a classroom of ten kids and five of the ten would want to know about Blue Waffle and whether it was real or not.”

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The explanations for where Blue Waffle originated are as varied as the definitions. One theory, according to Serrano, is that it began with a photo of a woman who used the antiseptic Gentian Violet to treat a yeast infection—the product is available over-the-counter at drugstores and, as Amazon warns, can create a hard-to-remove purple stain.

Another theory suggests it was inspired by a regular anatomical photo of a vagina that had been photoshopped to appear blue and gnarled, then shared as a joke. “Unfortunately, during that ‘having fun’ process, people who knew it was fake kept passing it around and a lot of people believed it,” Serrano speculates. “And it spread like wildfire.”

Blue Waffle was even thrust into the political spotlight in 2013, when an April Fool’s prankster called up New Jersey City Councilwoman Kathy McBride and demanded to know what she was doing to fight the allegedly ruthless disease. Unaware that she was being hoaxed, the lawmaker proceeded to raise the issue at her city council meeting, urging the group to take action. "It's already claimed 85 lives and there's a case here in Trenton," McBride said. "It is a virus that is 10 times greater at this point than the AIDS virus." (No, McBride. No it is not.)

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But can we really blame the lawmaker for falling prey to the Blue Waffle hoax? After all, sex educators have been trying for years to nip it in the bud, but teens simply keep believing. “I explain that it’s not real,” says George, “That getting multiple STDs won’t make a vulva look like that and there is no known STD that will make a vulva look like that.”

And yet, George says, regardless of how many times she preaches the truth, she always is met with the same reply: “Yes it is—Google it.”

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Given the shoddy state of sex education in this country, the internet can indeed be a vital tool for teens looking to self-educate about their bodies—and it can be tough to decipher what’s real and what’s fake. And so, some sex educators try to beat Blue Waffle at its own game, holding the myth up as the very reason why you shouldn’t believe everything you see online.

Andi Grubb, a comprehensive health and sex educator in Omaha, Nebraska, says sometimes when working with students, she’ll bring up Blue Waffle at the beginning of a lesson on STDs. “I’ll do a pretty quick, ‘How many of you have heard of this before?’ And then I'll say, ‘This is a great example of why the information we get from the Internet is not always reliable.”

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And George says she now uses Blue Waffle as an opportunity to start a broader conversation about knowing the signs and symptoms of (real) STDs. “We don’t talk about our bodies a lot, and not in a sexual or healthy way,” she says. “We don’t learn what is or what isn’t normal. There is no context around that conversation so that when a middle schooler hears an urban legend, there is no context to put together, ‘No way—that has to be false.’”

One of the tamer Blue Waffle memes.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Blue Waffle mythology is the derogatory messages it sends about women who are sexually active. In a cultural moment when community leaders, activists, and parents are toiling to combat victim blaming, slut-shaming, and the notion that women’s bodies are fair game for men to dissect, rumors about the disease are not helping.

“Women, especially, are taught that our bodies are dirty,” George says. “We hear that vaginal discharge is gross, periods are gross, we need to clean ourselves with douching—which is actually quite harmful—and then you have something like Blue Waffle that only affects women, and is just one more reason to add to the belief that women’s bodies are gross.”

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So perhaps teachers can use the rumors as an entry point to discuss respecting women—or even, as several sex educators suggested to me, harness it as evidence that sex education should be co-ed!

“A lot of schools want to separate boys and girls” for sex ed classes, says George, “But to us, that perpetuates the idea of mystery and shame, especially for female bodies. We want all students included in the lesson together so they can learn from each other and see what is happening to the other sex and see that it’s demystified.”

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Regardless of what action Blue Waffle sparks, the larger lesson is clear:

“There is no danger in getting Blue Waffle because it doesn’t exist,” says Serrano. “The danger is in not getting the right information.”

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Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.