I visited the gynecologist this morning, like I have done many times before, but for some reason on this visit I was reminded of my very first trip, and how far I’ve come since then in being able to achieve comfort in the gyn’s office ““ even with my feet held high and wide by a set of stirrups.
As I considered all the little tricks and tidbits I’ve picked up in the last decade plus, I thought about how it would have been nice to have known some of the info I have today when I went in for my very first pap.
So I decided to write a guide for first time pappers as well as for those who have had many annual lady business exams but who still find themselves uncomfortable, or even frightened.
I present to you, in no particular order, the best pieces of annual pap advice I have to offer:
1. Wear socks. This might not seem like such a big deal, but trust me, having your feet covered will actually make you feel less naked. When you’re already topless (except for a paper vest) and pantsless (except for a paper sheet) why leave your ashy heels exposed? Bare feet have a way of making people feel vulnerable. And if you’re prone to self-consciousness, having your un-pedicured toes mocking you from a pair of chilly, unyielding stirrups isn’t going to help. Besides, the stirrups are a combination of metal and smooth plastic and, yes, they are cold. Cover those tootsies.
2. You are not gross. During your first visit to the gyno your anxiety addled brain might try to tell you that there’s something weird or icky about your lady business, there isn’t. And even if there is something out of the ordinary going on with your lady business, like an infection or an unexpected discharge, your doctor has seen whatever it is before. And she’s seen worse. And she won’t react badly.
3. Your doc doesn’t care if you landscape, but if it’ll make you feel better, do it. Your crotch is of purely scientific and medical interest to your doctor, so please know that she won’t care whether you’ve been recently waxed or not. But if being buffed and trimmed up will make you feel more comfortable, it’s worth putting in some prep a few days before your appointment. Don’t, however, do your bikini area grooming on the day of your appointment, because a) if any irritation occurs you’ll be less comfortable than you would have been otherwise; and b) irritation could potentially be mistaken for a non-shaving/waxing related ailment.
4. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a woman doctor. First of all, women still get short-changed in the medical profession, so there’s nothing wrong with instituting a little grassroots support for women MDs. And, second, you have every right to choose the doctor you want to see. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s juvenile to seek care from women gynecologists, or physicians in general, exclusively. Your comfort level is personal to you. Ask for what you need. That said, if you do see a male gynecologist, he, like the grooming-ambivalent doc in the previous paragraph, is interested in your genitalia for purely scientific and medical reasons.
5. Use the language that’s normal for you. You may have noticed that up until this paragraph, I had not used the word vagina. It’s not because I think vagina is a dirty word or because I’m in some way ashamed of my body or my reproductive bits, it’s because vagina is not the first word that comes to mind when I think about my, well, vagina. Whether it should or not, the word vagina sounds more detached or formal for me than say, lady business, does. And because “lady business” is the way I talk normally, it’s also the way I talk to my doctor. Once I start concentrating on whether the terms I’m using are the most correct, mature, accurate, appropriate, etc. my focus begins to shift away from asking the questions I need to ask and conveying the information my doc needs. So I choose to unselfconsciously talk like myself when at the gyno. And, basically, at all other times.
6. Find something to talk about during your introduction to the speculum. Now, I’m not suggesting you converse with the actual instrument the gynecologist will inert into your vajay in order to facilitate a physical exam and pap smear (there’s no point in attempting small talk with a speculum, they’re all business), what I am suggesting is that you make small talk with your doctor. Many doctors ask questions unrelated to your exam as a way to help you feel comfortable. But if you don’t have a doctor with this particular bedside manner, there’s nothing to prevent you from having a few friendly and benign questions to ask if and when you’re uncomfortable. “It looks like it’s going to be sunny, I hope you have fun plans for the weekend,” and, “I really like that “˜Hang In There’ kitten poster you’ve got on the ceiling, do you consider yourself a “˜cat person’?” are the type of niceties that can help make your appointment easier on you.
7. Tell your gynecologist the truth. Your doctor is interested in your health and well-being. She’s not interested in whether you’re what mean folk would call a tramp. So when you’re filling out medical forms, don’t feel the need to downplay the number of sexual partners you’ve had or say you’re in a committed relationship if you’re not. Your doctor is probably also not interested in how smart you are, so don’t pretend to know stuff that you don’t. I used to tell my doc that I did regular breast exams, even though I didn’t, because I had absolutely no idea what I was looking for. One day, I said to my doc, “Um, I don’t actually do self breast exams, because I don’t really know what I’m poking around for.” And, wouldn’t you know, she did not mock me. And she showed me how to do a proper breast exam (FYI, I had been doing it wrong, very wrong, what I was going was more like a really poorly executed self breast massage, maybe useful in soft core porn, but not useful at all in detecting unusual lumps). So, please, provide honest and accurate information. Your doctor will rely heavily on what you tell her when making recommendations and even diagnoses. [I feel like this one deserves the NBC “The More You Know” jingle.]
8. Relax. Shit, you’re not the first person who’s ever been to the gyno. Whenever I’m in a potentially awkward or scary situation, I like to, more or less tritely, ask myself, “What’s the worst that can happen here?” The overwhelming majority of the time, even the worst case scenario is not that big of a deal. If you’re not actually worried that there might be a serious medical condition that needs to be addressed at your annual women’s exam but are mostly just worried about embarrassment, it’s important to acknowledge that. What’s the worst that can happen in that scenario? The doctor may ask you some questions you find uncomfortable; you may experience a bit of physical discomfort, though not likely any pain; and you’ll have to undress. All of this will last no more than an hour. That’s the worst. And if an awkward hour is the worst thing that happens to you this year, you’re doing a lot better than fine. The best case scenario is that your doctor will be easy to talk with, making any Q&A time feel natural and purposeful; you’ll have thought of a great ice breaker for speculum time so that you don’t even notice the discomfort; and your doctor’s office may actually have cloth robes instead of paper, which will make disrobing far less unpleasant. On the other hand, if you are worried about a health complication, it’s important to put that into perspective too. Knowing what is wrong is always better than not knowing what is wrong. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can put a plan in place, and your doctor will have information you need in order to do that. Besides, a burden is better when shared with someone who cares about you, and in a best case scenario, the people who care about you and your future will include your doctor, who chose a helping profession for a reason. Oh, and me too, I care about you. I realize I don’t know you, but you’re a people, and I like people. And our both having vaginas binds us (I said vagina).
By the way, if my count is correct, though I said vagina a number of times, I managed to say smear only one time in this post (although the mention in this sentence makes two). I was aiming for no smears (that makes three), but I guess that leaves room for improvement for next time.
DISCLAIMER: The author of this post is a lawyer, not a doctor. Which means that everything stated above could be entirely wrong. Although, it seems unlike that this mostly common sense info is entirely wrong, even if it’s partly wrong. Also, because the author is a lawyer, there are more than a few doctors who don’t like her, but she actually likes most doctors she meets and has a great deal of respect for their difficult profession. Oh, and this author has never been a medical malpractice attorney, so doctors really have nothing to fear from her personally anyway. BUT she is not in favor of “tort reform” ““ though that is another post altogether. Talking in the third person has grown tiresome. The author of this post will now cease. Happy papping.