L'origine du monde, Courbet, 1866
Today I went to
my local hospital to get a smear test done.
The process is
this: you go into the room, then you perch awkwardly on a chair while the
doctor interrogates you about your various bodily functions and irresponsible
lifestyle. Then you take your pants off, get on the bed, spread your legs and
let them at your cervix.
Except it’s not
that simple. What happens instead is – in full awareness that you’re about to
let the doctor in question inside
your vagina – you are ushered into a corner of the room and a curtain is pulled
around you so you can remove your lower clothing. I was told, “put your clothes
on the chair there and there’s the modesty blanket.” Let’s repeat that: the modesty blanket.
Now, I was
wearing jeans and a very long man’s shirt that comes down to my thighs. And
even if I’d been wearing a t-shirt, this blanket was apparently to make sure nobody
glimpsed my genitals in the less-than-a-minute transition from standing up and
having a clamp inserted into my vagina. (Ironically, the blanket didn’t fit
around me – it left my bum hanging out, Monty Python waiter style). It all
seemed pretty superfluous. But from the doctor’s tone, calling into my
curtained area, I understood that I was expected to put it on anyway.
So I put it on
and lay down and put my feet into the stirrups. Unsurprisingly, in this
position the blanket spread from knee to knee and presumably left my genitals
in full few for anyone bending down to look. Which I figured was fine because
that was exactly what the doctor was about to do. But the nurse who oversaw
this procedure had other ideas and said in a kind but stern voice, “I’ll just
adjust this” and moved some of the modesty blanket down so my genitals were
hidden. Ten seconds later the doctor sat down between my legs and pushed it
Now, I am not worried
about what the doctor is going to think of my vagina. I’m worried about getting
cancer. I’m being monitored because two years ago, at 18, my first smear test
showed medium levels of dangerous, possibly-cancer-in-15-years cells. This
means I’ve been having bi-annual smear tests for the past two years, as well as
several colposcopies. I’ve also been tested for STIs several times, as befits a
sexually active woman.
activities involve doctors and nurses looking at and poking about inside my
vagina and around my vulva. And that’s fine.
When I enter a clinic, the last thing I’m thinking about is ‘what if they see
my vagina while I’m standing up?’ or ‘what if they glimpse it while I’m lying
on the bed?’ Instead, I’m hoping they’ll get a very good look. I’d be more than
happy to do naked yoga or demonstrate my favourite sex positions for them if it
meant my chances of getting a life-threatening disease was lowered to any
So whose benefit
was all this ‘modesty’ for? I understand that some women might be uncomfortable
in this position, and it’s great that they provide an environment where allowances
are made for that. But the doctor knew me and I have made it pretty clear on
multiple occasions that I don’t give a shit. Nevertheless, the tone they used
for all these instructions for preserving my ‘modesty’ before they inserted a
clamp and removed some cells from my cervix made me feel as if any failure to
show a desire to be ‘modest’ would be a failure on my part.
Or was it for
them? Is it possible that the nurse and doctor – both women and sexual health
clinic workers – were offended by the idea of viewing my genitals for any
unnecessary period of time? Would I have made them uncomfortable if I had dared
to walk from the clothes-laden chair to the bed with nothing but a shirt on?
The doctor said
my cervix looked fine, and I’ll get the results in a few weeks, hopefully
saying I can finally be discharged (pun unintended).
But what I’m
left with is the sense that my genitals embarrass even health workers. Their
actions today reinforced the idea that my problem is something that has to be
For an 18 year
old woman to find out she has a potentially serious reproductive health
condition is confronting. What I needed then, and still need now, is a
supportive environment when I go to get tested. I need people who are
comfortable talking very directly about my genitals, because I need to be able
to see myself clinically, my vision unclouded by society’s ideas about my
vagina. If I go in and feel awkward about my own body, it becomes a lot more
difficult to think clearly about my condition, and most importantly – not to be
obsession about modesty? In the end, I was angriest that they used that word.
There is nothing immodest about failing to be embarrassed by the idea of a
nurse and doctor glimpsing my pubic hair. There is nothing immodest about
having my genitals visible when they are being examined. There is nothing
immodest about being treated for a disease.