No More Fears For Smears
on 11 Jun 2021
In the UK, cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35. It’s also one of the most preventable thanks to cervical screening, which is estimated to save 5,000 lives a year. So why is the number of people going for screening the lowest it’s been in two decades?
Lovehoney’s Anna Frost shares her personal experience, and her top tips for managing smear test anxiety.
Like many women, when my letter arrived inviting me to my first smear test, I felt a little bit sick. Growing up I always knew that one day I’d have to have a doctor prod at my bits, but I just reeeeaaally didn’t want it to be now. Or ever. I knew the importance of getting the test done, however, so after a couple of days of panicking and deep breaths, I called up and booked my appointment.
Dying of Embarrassment
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust surveyed over 2,000 British women on how they felt about getting a smear test done. Any guesses on how that went?
- 35% were embarrassed to attend because they felt self-conscious about their body shape
- 34% were embarrassed by what their vulva looked like
- 38% were worried their vulva would smell
- 31% said they wouldn’t attend a smear test if they hadn’t shaved or waxed their bikini area
I get it. I really do. I’ve felt incredibly self-conscious about my vulva since I was a teenager - am I normal? Is it “neat” enough? Would other people think it was weird or ugly? According to a new project on vulva diversity by Callaly, 1 in 5 people between 16 and 24 have considered cutting or bleaching their vulva, a statistic that surprised me - mainly because my warped understanding of “normal” vulvas meant I thought I was the only one who had felt like that.
The cold, hard truth is this - people are dying because of body image issues. People are dying because they don’t have an accurate understanding of what “normal” looks like - or more accurately - how incredibly wide the range of “normal” is. People are dying because they don’t understand that, unless you have 9 individual labia, each with their own set of teeth, the doctor has already seen endless fannies just. Like. Yours.
Dealing with Insecurity
I would encourage anyone with a vulva, whether you’re due a smear test or not, to spend a little bit of time scrolling through the galleries of illustrator The Vulva Gallery, and body caster Lydia Reeves. You can also follow both artists on Instagram - I can honestly say that my relationship with my vulva would be very different if it weren’t for their important work.
If you’re due a smear, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Here are my 3 TOP TIPS for kicking embarrassment to the curb and doing the life-saving no pants dance down to your local screening clinic.
Embarrassment tip #1
The person you will see has laid their eyes upon so, so, so goddamn many vulvas and vaginas in their time. So many. Much like brushing your teeth before going to the dentist, if you washed your bits beforehand, you’re already up there in the least offensive portion of said vulvas.
Also, what do you think they’re expecting? It’s not like you’re going to get to your appointment, drop your pants, and have them go ‘OH MY GOD WHY ARE YOUR BITS OUT?’. Which brings me to…
Embarrassment tip #2
If the person you’re going to see was even slightly, remotely, even a teeny little bit fussed about seeing your vagina, at the point someone asked them if they wanted to learn how to do smear tests, you know what they’d have said? “Nah, you’re alright, don’t really fancy seeing thousands of vajayjays”. Simple. Done.
The person taking your sample actively decided they wanted to learn how to do them. Why? Because they’re important. And these people want you to be happy and healthy and safe in your body. Again - these tests are literally life saving. Isn’t that cool?
Embarrassment tip #3
Let’s humour our insecurities for a second. Say that you walk into the appointment, fall into a weird parallel universe, and somehow, against the laws of nature, do actually have a vulva that is offensive in some way. Um... so? You don’t want to have sex with this person, right? You don’t want to lure them in with the power of your magic vagina do you? The ONLY role this person is going to play in your whole, entire life is looking for unhappy cells inside your body to - yet again - save your life. It literally does not matter what your vulva looks like.
My Personal Experience
When I called my GP I explained it was my first smear test, could I have a female nurse, and could they pick the nicest person there please. The woman who did my test was soft and gentle and purred at me like a kitten while she explained what would happen.
She left the room while I took my pants off, got on the table, and placed the little white sheet over my dignity. She then came back in, started asking me about my tattoos, and as I was chatting away, casual as pie she checked under the sheet to make sure I had full fanny to the wind. And.....oh. Well...oh. That was the bit I was nervous about, she's seen my prized possession and...well it's done. The ceiling didn’t cave in, and she didn’t even bat an eyelid, let alone recoil in horror like the little voice in my head told me she would. Okay then...
She inserted the speculum and gently opened it. This is the bit that some people experience discomfort during, but I made an effort to relax and breathe, and if you have ever used an internal sex toy, it really didn’t feel any different. She told me she was going to take the sample, and I felt a little tickle inside my belly as she counted to 5. Then... It was done. Honestly. She told me I could get changed and my reaction was just "...huh?"
I had my bits out for a grand total of 60 seconds. For me, it wasn't even uncomfortable, let alone painful. It’s important that I acknowledge that some people do experience pain, however don't let those stories put you off - every body is different. Try to relax, keep breathing, and communicate with the person taking your sample. Tell them you're nervous. Tell them to slow down. Ask for a different person. ASK FOR WHATEVER YOU NEED TO MAKE YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE. You can even insert the speculum yourself if that makes you feel more relaxed, or bring a friend to hold your hand.
Afterwards, I actually felt a little silly about how much of a big deal I'd made it in my head. It was just so, indescribably easy. The importance of these tests and what they do FAR outweighs the 60 second punani performance. Please book your test if you haven't. Just call up, ask, and do it. Then feel silly with me about how easy it was!
June 14th - 20th is Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust’s Cervical Screening Awareness Week. Their website provides a lot of in depth advice - including advice for having a smear test after experiencing sexual violence, information about what your results mean and what happens if abnormal cells are found, and screening information for trans men and non-binary people.
Everyone with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64 is entitled to a smear test - your sexual history, gender identity, and sexual orientation do not affect that.