The pelvic exam — complete with the stirrups and the speculum — isn't anyone's favorite thing about having a vagina. But it's really important because it's how your gynecologist checks the overall health of your sexual organs. The pelvic exam is also when your doctor can do a pap smear, the screening test for cervical cancer.
Your first-ever gyno appointment is actually supposed to happen way
before your first pelvic exam, according to the guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
. At this visit, which is recommended at the start of puberty around age 13, you're just supposed to have what amounts to a meet and greet with an ob-gyn (aka a women's health specialist), during which you simply chat with the doctor about your changing body before she does an external genital exam.
The more invasive and scary-sounding pelvic exam and pap smear tests aren't needed until you become sexually active or turn 21 (whichever comes first), explains Cheryl Iglesia MD, director of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
It's totally normal to be nervous, even scared, the first time you go in for these screening tests — but it doesn't have to be that way. Like any doctor's visit, you'll feel more comfortable if you're more prepared for what's going to happen.
For the pelvic exam, the doctor will use a speculum (the duck-billed device illustrated above) to look at your vagina and cervix. She will insert one or two gloved fingers to feel your cervix while pressing down gently on your abdomen with her other hand. For the pap smear, she will use a swab to grab cells from your cervix that she can send to the laboratory to be checked for abnormalities.
All of the above is what any gynecologist will tell you. To help you feel even more prepared, though, we asked a few women to share with us what they wish they'd known before their first appointment. Their experiences, plus the advice we got from Dr. Iglesia, should help you feel as comfortable as possible as you sit waiting in that paper dress. Click through to learn what to expect.