Not only is turning 25 a reminder that you’re officially closer to 30 than any other decade, and that you can no longer say you’re in your ‘early 20s’ – but it’s also the time that dreaded leaflet drops through your door, telling you to book your smear test.
No-one really likes going to the doctors, but when it’s to have a clamp shoved up your hoo-ha and cells scraped off, it’s even less appealing.
That’s a sentiment backed up by research from the NHS this year, who shared here that as many as 1 in 3 women (or 1 in 2, in more deprived areas) that are aged 25-29 in the UK don’t attend their cervical screening. Given that over 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and that 900 die from it, that’s a pretty horrifying statistic.
The truth is that the ‘smear fear’ is killing women – but why are we so scared?
According to this BBC News article from earlier this year – and general opinion – it’s because women are embarrassed about getting their bits out and having a nurse poke around in there. And that’s completely understandable.
We live in a world where women’s bodies are commodities; judged on their size and appearance over their capability. Messages about the smell and look of our vaginas and vulvas are beamed into our subsconscious on the daily, and weight stigma in healthcare is rife – and this adds up to so much shame around our bodies that we’re reluctant to go through mere minutes of discomfort to save it.
Is body shame to blame?
Day after day, people in bigger bodies are mistreated by those in the healthcare profession – not listened to, given a diagnosis of ‘fat’ instead of what’s actually wrong, and prescribed the kind of dieting and disordered behaviours that would be considered a mental illness in those with much smaller bodies.
When you expect to be treated like that by your doctor, it becomes a thing to dread – and, eventually, avoid altogether. Combine that with an invasive exam in such an intimate area and it’s hardly surprising so many are missing their appointments.
Just a thought – maybe if we didn’t make women so hyper-aware and ashamed of their bodies in their entirety, they’d be less fearful about looking after them in this way?
What else are we telling women?
Whatever your size, it’s hard to avoid the messages in our society that your vagina is something to be embarrassed about.
The BBC reported that concerns about smell and being ‘adequately waxed/shaved’ were among the big reasons for women missing their screenings.
Products like Femfresh and cleansers for ‘intimate areas’, that promote the idea that the fact our genitals are completely self-cleaning just isn’t enough, and that their completely natural smell should be masked as much as possible, surely aren’t helping.
These products are sold to us on the basis of science, that our bathing-suit-area should be treated with something more sensitive than your usual shower gel, but this is a thin veil for what is actually a distinctly misogynist version of body shaming. Where are all the penis-friendly cleansers? Nowhere to be found, because the male anatomy is (mostly) considered acceptable just as it is.
Giving women a fictional body issue to be worried about and then selling them the solution is a greatest hit of the patriarchy, and it’s leading to women developing a terminal illness that could have been so easily prevented.
Shaving, too, seems to play a big part in this – not least because the images we’re fed on a daily basis are that pubic hair simply doesn’t exist. Body hair is a political issue in its own right, but the notion that we should be perfectly preened down there is one of the most prevalent, and around a third of women have said they’d miss their screening if they hadn’t waxed or shaved.
Why are we telling women that taming an unruly bush is more important than preventing cancer?
Why are we letting completely natural elements of the human body getting in the way of saving women’s lives?
The solution to tackle the lack of attendance to smear tests is complex to pull off, but clear to understand – stop making us feel so goddamn bad about ourselves, and maybe we won’t be so reluctant to show up for this life-saving procedure.
Illustration from Beta Mummy on Facebook
The lowdown – what is it actually like?
If you haven’t been for your smear yet, let me fill you in.
Firstly, it’s not the most fun way to spend your morning, lets be honest. But, it’s true what they say that it only takes a matter of minutes. It’s a super quick procedure, and nothing that short can be that bad, right?
Some things to note beforehand – I believe you can’t have the screening if you’re currently on your period, so try to bear that in mind when booking your appointment. Also, if you’re anything like me (came off the pill and having very irregular periods), you might have to take a pregnancy test just to make sure there ain’t a bun in the oven, as the smear can’t be done if this is the case. That added an extra fun element of anxiety to my experience as I waited for the result, lols.
Your nurse will ask you to take off everything on your bottom half and hop up onto the bed. You need to lie all the way back, and then my nurse said to put my ankles together and let my legs flop open. This may well be TMI, but knowledge is power – and the more you know, the less you have to be scared of.
Then, she’ll put in a speculum, which is like a plastic funnel. This feels pretty forceful (no foreplay, would have at least expected a drink first) and might take you by surprise but isn’t too bad.
Next is the worst bit. You feel a sort of scraping as the nurse collects the cells. I’ll be straight with you – I found this preeeetty painful. A lot of my friends said it wasn’t that bad, more of a discomfort than a pain, so everyone’s experience is different. I can’t say I’d look forward to it again and the thought of it will make you squeeze your legs shut for a while after – but remember, this is literally less than a minute of your life. Your nurse (if she’s a nice one, which she probably is) will likely talk you through it, try to distract you and reassure you that you’re doing okay.
30 seconds of pain, if that, and it’s done. You could have just saved your own life. That’s worth it, I’d say.
Then you get off the table and put your pants back on – try not to get your dress caught in them like I did, what a treat – and that’s about it.
Afterwards, I really didn’t feel great. In fact, I sat in the car park and had a little cry to myself. That’s mostly because I’m definitely a cryer/emotional wreck, but also, I felt (for lack of a better word) violated by the whole thing. It is intrusive and feels so, especially when it’s your first time – but again, the pros definitely outweigh the cons here. Just keep that in mind.
Here’s my best advice if you’ve got your first smear test coming up.
Book it for first thing, if you can – my appointment was at 8.30am. Now let’s be clear here, I’m normally still hitting snooze at that time (god bless working from home), but when it came to choosing between then and 2pm, I knew I’d rather just get it out the way. Don’t set yourself up to be dreading it all day. Get it over and done with, then use the rest of your day for better things.
Wear a loose fitting dress or long top – it means you won’t be chilling with your arse out when getting on and off the table, and makes undressing feel a bit less daunting.
Do what you need to do to try and feel more comfortable – for all my ranting and raving about the patriarchal pressure to shave, you best believe I went to town with my razor the night before my test. At the end of the day, I knew I’d felt more comfortable that way, and that’s okay. I also showered again the morning of the test to make sure I felt as clean as possible. I know this seems like giving in, but this is a nerve-wracking thing, and if you know it will help you feel prepared, then just do it. If you’re not too bothered, that is fine too. Obviously. Do whatever YOU need.
Go easy on yourself for the rest of the day – I felt properly shitty after my test, and so went to the shop and got ingredients for my favourite breakfast, some treats for later, and proceeded to work from the sofa with a movie I like for background noise. Everyone’s reaction to this will be different, but if it does affect you a lot, remember to be kind to yourself. Show yourself compassion, do what comforts you, and rest assured that you probably won’t need to go through it again for another 3 years – and when you do, at least you know what’s coming now.
I really hope this post has helped you feel a little less scared about your smear test. However you feel about it, don’t let it stop you from getting that appointment booked in. It’s over before you know it, and it could be vital in saving your life.
Or, you can talk to the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust about it too.
And another great resource that really helped to reassure me – the lovely Megan from Wonderful You created an incredible video back in 2017 for the #SmearforSmear campaign, which features lots of other bloggers talking about smear tests, their experience, and giving you lots of reassurance and bravery. Check it out below.