On Modesty

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 back up.

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.

All these 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 degree. 

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 hidden.

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 ashamed.

Why the 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.

- Aurora