Gyno 101

“It’s called a speculum,” my sister said. “They use it to split open your vagina.” We were looking at the book my mother had used to explain why the stork didn’t deliver babies. There was a terrifying picture of a long, silver contraption, like medieval torture tongs alongside the words, “pelvic exam.” It was during these fumbling years of late elementary that I have one of my clearest memories of childhood—laying on the bathroom floor, my back pressed against the cold tiles, a mirror between my legs and me trying to imagine anything going into that unfathomable part of my body.

Many women, particularly in their early teenage years, experience a disconnect with their vagina. And that included me, even with my second­wave feminist mother who insisted my sister and I “get to know our vaginas.” As she put it, “How will you know if anything’s wrong if you don’t know how it feels normally?” But in a country consumed with respecting its Puritan roots and a culture that teaches women they don’t have the rights to their own bodies, the discourse surrounding the vagina remains hushed. This includes conversations specifically about female bodies, such as in 2012 when Lisa Brown, a Democratic state representative, was barred from continuing to speak after using the word “vagina” in a debate regarding anti­abortion legislation. In my health classes in school, I was taught more about male anatomy and sexuality than my own. As Erini Katopodis ‘17 affirms, “I knew how to put a condom on a banana before I knew how to put a tampon in.”

The general rule is, you go to the gynecologist when you turn eighteen or when you first become sexually active. But with the vagina­taboo culture we breathe in every day, this first appointment is often a source of anxiety and fear. Whether it comes from embarrassment of vaginal odors that don’t resemble tropical fruits or roses, or a feeling that a gynecologist is intruding because of questions regarding sexual history, many women avoid the gynecologist altogether. For me, my mind kept returning to the faded picture of the speculum I’d puzzled over, and I imagined myself shivering in a scratchy paper gown, standing in a dark torture chamber filled with similar devices.

I was right about one thing—I was shivering in a paper gown, but it wasn’t dark and there was no Iron Maiden waiting for me. Nothing but a regular doctor’s office, bright with fluorescents and my bare toes curling on white linoleum. A box of rubber gloves on the table, a sink, and to my surprise, an ordinary stethoscope hanging on a hook.

What to expect once the doctor arrived, I didn’t know. I’d witnessed my older sister endure a painful transition from pigtailed girlhood into a kind of adult female hell where my mother dragged her, kicking and screaming, to the gynecologist. I’d gone through the whole adolescent ordeal quieter. However, between health classes and a dramatic older sister I relied on for this kind of information, the narrative of my vagina was not one of delicate ph balances, health, appreciation, or even understanding. Instead, it was defined by the uterine blood of monthly menstrual cycles, pain, and humiliation.

My doctor was a young woman with blonde hair pinned back, and she grinned at me when she entered with her clipboard. “Nervous?” she asked when I tried to smile a hello; instead it seemed to have more of a panicked, don’t­you­go­near­those­rubber­gloves sort of vibe. She didn’t at first, and I learned that gynecological exams don’t even begin down under. They begin with a breast exam, which includes a quick lesson on how to perform a self­examination. This is there for the same reason every single step of a gynecological exam exists: because it’s important. After the breast exam, my doctor sat me up and, with me eyeing her carefully, dragged a stool over and sat down beside me. “So let’s talk about why you’re worried,” she said.

If there’s one thing I learned from my first gynecological exam, it’s how good it feels to talk about one’s vagina with someone. Despite my mother’s pro­vagina stance, I’d never fielded any questions or confided any fears to her. The shame I learned from everywhere but her had overpowered any support she radiated. I opened up to my doctor for one basic fact—she’s a doctor. What often gets lost in the shame and the fear is that the gynecologist is just another doctor. The most important rule with doctors is they cannot help you unless you talk to them.

So I spilled my guts, asking question after question, like how much discharge is normal and why do I itch down there sometimes, especially after gym class? How come my cramps aren’t as bad as my sister’s? Is sex supposed to hurt? Should I go on birth control? If my period is late, am I the new Virgin Mary? She answered all of them, patiently and thoroughly. Then the big question: What kind of tests can I expect?

This last question was answered by gently guiding my feet into the stirrups at the end of the exam table. While explaining what she was going to do, my doctor slid on a rubber glove, dipped two fingers into some kind of lubricant and held them up so I could see. “Just to make sure everything feels normal,” she said, sitting between my legs. “This might feel cold, but remember,” and here she tapped my knee to ensure I was paying attention. “This isn’t supposed to hurt. So tell me if it does.”

It didn’t. It was cold, for sure, and it felt strange—but that was just me tensing my muscles until my neck ached. There was a few more seconds of probing, her other hand pressing on my stomach, and then my doctor stood up, peeled off the rubber glove and threw it in the trash. She threw up her arms. “You did it!”

I sat up on my elbows. “No speculum?”

Not until I was twenty­-one, apparently, for my first pelvic exam which would include a pap smear—a gross­sounding combination of words that my doctor explained isn’t as bad as it sounds. Once the speculum was carefully inserted, she would inspect the vaginal walls and reproductive system, then swab the inside to take a small sample of cells to test for cervical cancer. Not something for an eighteen-­year-­old first timer. Instead, I was handed a period calendar, my clothes, and it was over.

Later I learned that the word “speculum” comes from the Latin word for “mirror,” and I was reminded of myself as a little girl, flat on my back, craning my neck to see the reflection in the mirror I held between my spread legs. I like to think of the speculum this way—just another tool to understand my own vagina, updated from my childhood. Another way of seeing myself, instead of feeling like I had the Bermuda Triangle between my legs. Now, instead of a star-shaped mirror I’d dug out of my sister’s makeup box, I had a full­fledged vagina doctor, armed to the teeth with health equipment and with an ear always willing to listen. At my next annual appointment, I greeted my doctor with a smile, chatted about the latest movies and my period cycle while she snapped on her rubber gloves, laid down on the exam table, and relaxed.

Illustration by Taylor Robers