Taking Care of my Gynecological Health Is a Feminist Act

Embarrassing. Gross. Painful. Uncomfortable.

These are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of all the things I’ve heard and read throughout my life about the experience of going to the gynecologist.

Since I’ve started taking charge of my own gynecological health, I’ve been thinking more about what these words. What do they mean in broader context of the female experience, the female body, and feminism in general?

My experience with feminism comes through academic and scholarly research, and through conversations with women from around the world about feminist issues. Through both, I’ve come to learn how important it is for women to be able to own their bodies.

The culture and religion around me have always told me that my body is bad, sinful and dangerous, and that I should somehow separate myself from it.

This message has had a particularly negative consequence in my life in relation to an anxiety disorder that began in childhood. Anxiety makes me feel out of control – and particularly out of control of how my body is reacting.

I’ve also been told by religion and culture that I should separate my body and my mind from my soul. Through my work in therapy and research however, I’ve been learning that I don’t have to separate these parts of me. They all work together to make me the person I really am. I cannot fully inhabit myself or fully be in the world if my mind, body and soul are disconnected.

And so, I’ve been learning how to inhabit my own body. Most importantly, I’ve been learning how to care for it – including for my gynecological health.

Uterus, cervix, vagina and vulva are not dirty or embarrassing words.

They are part of my body and of who I am, and to care for my overall health and well-being I must take care of them.

During my latest Pap test (also called a Pap smear or smear test), I experienced quite a lot of discomfort and even pain. (Most people don’t experience pain during these tests. However, there are some reasons why pain might occur, so it’s vital to be open and honest with your health provider.)

I spoke up as soon as I began to feel pain. I said it loud and clear and my provider heard me. She kindly apologized for the discomfort and pain I was experiencing and moved slowly while walking me through the whole process. She kept checking in on me – “How are you doing now? Are you hanging in there?” – and I kept speaking up whenever something hurt or became uncomfortable. In just a few minutes, the exam was over. The relief of knowing I had done something so important for my health was worth the temporary pain and discomfort.

At the end of the appointment, I felt proud of myself and empowered because I spoke up instead of keeping quiet when things didn’t feel right in my body.

Saying “That hurts!” was not just a good way for my provider to better care for me, but also for me to take some control of my body in a situation where I didn’t have full control of it.

Despite the discomfort, I felt connected with all parts of myself during the experience of my gynecological exam. Because of my anxiety, I had been doing a lot of grounding and breathing exercises to prepare. I made sure I was fully engaged in the conversation with my provider, listening to her advice and tips and answering her questions honestly and openly.

By taking time out of my day to focus entirely on myself and my body, I felt like I was finally validating my body’s existence and needs in all its complexities. The female reproductive system is a marvellously complex world of its own. I was speaking up against the voices that have told me that my body is dirty and shameful, and saying loud and clear, “No! My body is good and an essential part of me that deserves care and love.”

Taking control and care of my body are concepts that are becoming increasingly vital to how I live my life.

I wholeheartedly believe that doing so – even through something as routine as attending a gynecological exam – is a feminist act.

Women Who Do Too Much

The exhausted woman is a cultural trope.

It’s a scene repeated in books, movies, our own lives: she arrives, apologetic, to a lunch appointment or meeting, straight after her last appointment or meeting.

Somehow, between mouthfuls of food, she remembers what’s been going on in your life, updates you on how she’s been juggling her career and her personal life and her family responsibilities, periodically checking her phone to answer an urgent text, share that contact you needed, forward that interesting article, and then rushes to leave on time for another appointment or meeting or to pick up the kids.

Even looking at the mythological modern woman is exhausting. Being her is next to impossible. A whole industry has been spun around the herculean task that is living up the feat that is being a successful modern woman.

Artist Emma Clit, who followed up her viral comic You Should Have Asked with The Consequences, used both to brilliantly highlight the multitudinous invisible burdens women carry with them every day. The psychological wear and tear is hard to see, but significant.

Women of all ages – from as young as adolescents – may recognize the heavy psychological effects that stem from the expectation that they can be everything to everyone.

So, what can we do about it? Recognize this in yourself? Want to know what to do next?

Don’t Feel Guilty

If you’ve taken pride in being there for the people around you, taking time for yourself – even when you desperately need it – can feel like self-absorption or failure. A helpful trick is to think of ourselves as our best friends: if they came to us, worn out and frazzled, we’d insist that they turn off their phone and think about taking care of themselves for at least an afternoon.

Running or Swimming or Yoga (or Something Else)

We’ve heard this ad nauseum, but it really does help. Any kind of exercise helps lower stress levels and does wonders for our health. We don’t have to run marathons or join dance classes (unless we want to!) Free youtube tutorials teaching you how to stretch or moonwalk or kickbox or anything that gets you breaking a sweat are just as good.

Schedule You Time

The way we’ve been told we need to make time for our jobs, our partners, our friends, is the same way we need to make time for ourselves. It is okay to say no to the party and stay in to rest if you need to (it really is). It is okay to tell your significant other you need some space to recharge.

Be Your Own Advocate

(Warning label: This can be the hardest one to do.) Learning to insist on helping and breaking patterns is a difficult thing to do, even when they’re patterns we don’t particularly enjoy, but it’s crucial to maintaining our mental health and the health of our relationships.

Further Reading on Girls’ Globe

Is Fear of Failure Holding you Back?

If I think back to roughly seven years ago, my barely-teenage self would have had Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ on repeat while walking home. The famous lyric, ‘When you try your best but you don’t succeed,’ made a mark on my adolescent mind back then and I guess it has never really left. I used to wake up with the thought of it, write it down and sing it out whenever I had the opportunity.

When the world around you tries to make believe that you aren’t good enough and don’t try hard enough, the worry that you’re failing starts to stick.

Recently, I have found myself spiralling back down into the toxic circle of conformity and self-pressure. Often new adventures and new life phases come with new challenges. These challenges are unfamiliar and can seem impossible to overcome. Thirteen-year-old me pops into my head, repeating ‘when you try your best but you don’t succeed…’ for some kind of comfort.

But now, older and wiser (or so I like to think), I know there is more to success than other people’s opinions and perception of the word itself. The question I ask myself now is – when will the fear of failure become too real? When will the consequence become not trying at all?

In today’s busy, fast-paced world, failure is often deemed unacceptable. We are encouraged to create and innovate but also to avoid making mistakes or ‘wasting’ resources like time or money. Surely, the only real failure in life is when you stop trying. When the fear of failure takes control.

If you haven’t heard this recently, let me be the one to remind you:

We were not made to be perfect. We were not made to be great at everything we attempt.

As crazy as it sounds, fear and failure are not your enemies. The fear is a biological response that is triggered by your brain when it perceives a threat in your environment. Your brain then makes a decision based on this perceived threat, regardless of whether or not it actually is one. The good news is that it is then up to you to decide whether to let it affect you.

Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from achieving and accomplishing for yourself. There is no need to achieve in order to please other people. In fact, the biggest success is to try solemnly for yourself and nobody else.

Tips for Supporting Someone Experiencing Depression

After I shared a list of the tools helping me handle depression, I started to think about what my experience has taught me about helping other people.

Do you know someone suffering from depression? If you do, it can feel difficult to know what to say or what to do. Based on what I’ve learnt so far, here are my tips for supporting someone you care about.

Dont…

…tell them to toughen up. Believe me, they are already trying their best. Being told to “fight back” or “be stronger” only makes you feel much, much worse. It is difficult to trust someone who clearly believes that you are not trying hard enough or that you are just ‘pretending’ to be miserable.

…judge them for taking medication. You can be sure that they have discussed doing so with professionals and made an informed decision. They don’t need you to decide whether or not their pain is ‘important’ enough. Someone once shouted at me and said she didn’t think I could be ‘unwell enough’ to need pills. Luckily for her, she was not in my head, so she could not feel my pain. None of us can really know what is best for someone else. 

…force them to go out, party or cheer up. Some days, it is simply impossible to fake it. So, unless you want to see them break down in tears in front of everyone at the party, drop it. Let them choose to hide for a while, be gentle. Just show them you are listening to them and there for them no matter what.

Do…

…be patient. Accept that they will have bad days, that their mood might change, and that they might refuse to tell you anything for now.

…pay attention and ask questions – gently. Check if their appetite has gone up or down, ask them about their sleep – a lot of symptoms are invisible. No one around me could ever even imagine that I have had suicidal thoughts, but I have. Try not to make assumptions about your friends, some people are really positive and enthusiastic, but it doesn’t mean they are at peace within themselves. Some of us have become masters at hiding pain.

…remind your friends to take some ‘self-care’ time and do it with them. Sometimes watching a movie, sharing nice food and going to bed at 9pm with your friend is just perfect.

…encourage them. Congratulate on every little step. Sometimes getting up in the morning is so hard. Opening up about their pain and feelings is hard. So if they trust you enough to open up to you, be grateful and proud of them.

…remember you don’t have to say anything. It’s very hard to find the right words to comfort someone. Sometimes it can be ok just to listen and be present.

…break the stigma. Every time you hear any of the followings, please speak up. For the sake of everyone, let’s make these false statements stop: “people who are depressed are weak”, “depression is a white person’s problem”, “you must experience difficult or traumatic external conditions for your depression to be valid”

One final point – remember to check on the men and boys around you. They feel pain too but gender norms and inequalities might be making it very difficult for them to open up about it!

Opinions and experiences published on girlsglobe.org are not medical advice. If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek professional help from a doctor. 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or if you know someone who is, please reach out for help immediately. Suicide Stop has a list of suicide hotlines worldwide, which you can find here