I was seventeen, sitting in the doctor’s office, tugging the sleeves of my school jumper and averting my eyes as my GP vaguely alluded to my not-quite-happening-but-probably-in-the-near-future sexual activity.
“Do you need a pap smear?”
“No, not yet.”
“We recommend that you begin having pap smears when you’re twenty-one, or three years after you become sexually active, whichever one comes later.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Twenty-one was yeaaaaars away. I went home with my brand-spanking new prescription for the pill, safe in the knowledge that in three years time I would no doubt be able to do things with my legs and vaginal muscles that I would only dream of at this stage. Hoisting myself into some stirrups and having a cold medical instrument shoved up my vag would be easy-peasy. Twenty one-year-old me would be a-okay with getting a pap smear.
Here we are, three years later and whilst I can do some pretty impressive things with my vag muscles and legs, the idea of a pap smear has still haunted me. I know it’s essential to my health and ultimately not a huge deal but… I just don’t want to. Like, really don’t want to. It makes me feel squirmy and the desire to clench my thighs together for the rest of my life threatens to win out. But seeing as how the government is threatening to make me pay for the privilege of looking after my health, I thought I better get the first one over with.
I booked my appointment for 9:30 on Tuesday morning. I rolled up at 9:20 and as the minutes ticked by I noticed the jiggling of my legs against the chair was growing in intensity, to the point where I may have kicked the dude sitting next to me if I didn’t calm the fuck down. By the time I was called at 10 the contents of my stomach were worryingly jelly-like and I genuinely feared that I wouldn’t be able to relax my groin muscles enough for the speculum to do its work. I was embarrassed about being embarrassed, ashamed that I couldn’t embody my usual “Yeaaaaahhhhh bodies are super cool and fine and I am super in touch with myself” schtick. I sat down in my doctor’s office feeling like a fraud and wanting it to all be over so I could eat cookie dough and watch Bob’s Burgers in peace (as an underemployed student that’s what my Tuesdays usually consist of).
At this point I would like to offer my thanks for kind and understanding doctors – upon telling mine that it was my “first time” she gave me a full run down of the procedure and told me that I had no need to be nervous. Obviously telling someone not to feel the way they are currently feeling is rarely effective, but I appreciated the gesture. I was offered a free chlamydia swap (in for a penny, in for a pound) and shown the speculum which I can only describe as like a clear plastic crocodile/car-jack for your vag. A vag-jack if you will. I was told that the vag-jack (I’m sticking with it) would be covered in lubricant to make it slide in easily, and then the swabs would be taken. I slipped behind the curtain to get undressed and promptly had an internal freak out over how naked I should get. DO I TAKE MY SOCKS OFF OR LEAVE THEM ON?! ARE THESE QUESTIONS I SHOULD HAVE ASKED ALREADY?! Ultimately I decided wearing socks would only reinforce the rest of my nakedness, so stripped from the waist down and sitting on the little bed thingo I told the doctor I was ready. Or ready enough to get it over with.
There were no stirrups (IS EVERYTHING TV HAS TAUGHT ME WRONG?!), just me, with my legs spread, and my doctor chattering away the whole time to fill the silence. She told me that it wouldn’t hurt, but I’ll be honest – it did. It hurt in the way it does when you have something in your body that you don’t want to be there – pressure, a dull short pain that you know will go away soon but you’d rather never happened in the first place. Had I been less anxious it probably wouldn’t have hurt, but maybe I can work on that in three years time.
And then it was over. All done. I walked out full of the relief that comes with having gotten another “first time” over with. It wasn’t that bad, but then I always knew it wouldn’t be that bad – it really is just part of looking after your body, albeit an uncomfortable part. But even though I was rationally aware of the mundanity of this procedure, I was still scared. It scared me in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate, and I still can’t. My relationship to my body is fraught and complicated – it took me a lot of courage to stand up and take charge of my health by getting a pap smear, and the same goes for thousands of others. Looking after our bodies is scary and intrusive and not something that should be denied to those who can’t afford it. If we have to start paying for the privilege of basic preventative procedures, who’s to say we can maintain that courage? If these proposed changes to Medicare are implemented, you can ask me in three years time, and I’ll tell you if my courage and bank account are up to the challenge.
If you want to make your voice heard and keep pap smears and pathology services free, you can sign this petition.