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.