How My First Pap Smear Made Me Realize I Needed To Get In Touch With My Body

Photographed by Brayden Olson
"Just relax. You need to relax."

My legs shook as they hung in the stirrups. I kept wanting to close them. I could only see the top of my doctor’s head as she attempted to start the exam. My partner stood next to me, and I held his hand tightly.

"Take a deep breath," the doctor said.

As soon as she started the procedure, I immediately freaked out and — in a totally embarrassing moment of anxiety ­— I bit my partner’s hand.

"Are you biting him? Don’t do that!"

You would think I was giving birth to my first child, but I was actually just getting my very first pap smear, that dreaded rite of passage into womanhood (at least, in a medical sense). This was a big-girl exam — a necessary evil, because I was sexually active. But I felt like a scared child. Tears rolled down my cheeks until my doctor finally finished.

She told my partner to step out before asking me, "Is there something you want to tell me? Has anyone ever hurt you?"

The only logical explanation seemed to be that some form of trauma caused me to react the way I did. I felt embarrassed explaining that I wasn’t hiding anything; I just really didn’t like gynecological exams. In fact, I didn’t even like talking about anything to do with the female body. My own body often felt foreign and mysterious to me.

During my next visit, another doctor told me my record stated that I didn’t do well during such procedures. That made me feel even more self-conscious and ashamed. I couldn’t figure out why I reacted so strongly. I felt like a crazy person.

Initially, I only told my sister and a couple of close friends about the experience, and we laughed about it. They recalled their first pap smears and how they went just fine. They echoed what my doctor said: I just needed to relax. But relaxing felt nearly impossible — I didn’t like thinking about what was going on with my body, much less having a complete stranger examine it.

Eventually, I found other friends who admitted their first pap smear experiences had also been hellish. One of them told me she actually fainted during the procedure because she felt so anxious. I realize now that my doctor didn't give me the patient empathy I needed in that moment; instead, she seemed annoyed during the whole examination.

There was clearly a larger issue at play. I was not in touch with my body, and I didn’t have the language to talk about it.

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But there was clearly a larger issue at play. I was not in touch with my body, and I didn’t have the language to talk about it — which meant I wasn’t fully aware of or expressing my needs.

Each time I went to a gynecologist’s appointment, I waited until the very last instant — the moment when I was sitting in my gown, waiting for the doctor to open the door — to try and relax. I made it through each exam as best I could (naturally, not very well) and didn’t talk about my discomfort until the next time I needed to schedule an appointment.

And when I did discuss my problem with friends, I usually used humor to skirt around the real issue. In therapy, I finally talked through it, and my therapist suggested that my body was trying to protect itself from what I perceived as harm.

Of course, no one really enjoys the experience of propping up her legs for an examination by a doctor she just met a few minutes earlier — let alone trying to relax and breathe while said doctor uses a cold object to complete an internal exam. But I started to realize that my fear went beyond that uncomfortable situation. I grew up in a strict Catholic family, and I never got a real "sex talk." The only discussion had been a non-discussion: a warning not to get knocked up. Many of my family members had gotten pregnant young, so they repeatedly made sure the girls in our family knew not to make the same mistake.

In high school, my hope of getting a real sex talk in health class was quickly destroyed. I sat in a room packed with uniform-clad girls as a woman showed us slides with photos depicting the effects of STIs on the body. We weren’t taught how to use condoms, and we definitely didn't learn anything about female orgasms or having sex for pleasure. After that, I viewed sex as a scary and dangerous activity — not something to be talked about or explored.

I remained a virgin until I got drunk one night, and one thing led to another. I went through a string of bad relationships and even worse sexual partners. Not everyone was horrible, but I often felt like I couldn’t speak up about my real wants and needs. I didn’t say anything when I was in pain during sex — which was most of the time. Even in a committed relationship with someone I trusted, I started to notice that I would tense up for no reason, and I couldn’t enjoy myself.

I learned that I didn’t need to simply relax; I needed to allow myself to really embrace my body, which also meant embracing my sexuality.

It wasn’t until I got to college and met people who were self-aware and in touch with their bodies that I realized I had so much inaccurate information — and so much fear. My friends would playfully tease me about my lack of knowledge, which made me realize it was something I needed to work on. With no real, personal connection to my body, it’s no wonder that I freaked out when others (doctors or significant others) engaged with it.

With time, I learned that I didn’t need to simply train myself to relax; I needed to allow myself to really embrace my body, which also meant embracing my sexuality.

So I started taking little steps. I admitted to my partner that I often felt uncomfortable during sex. He’s now open to helping me discover ways that I can feel more secure and relaxed. I began reading about other women’s experiences and what helps them create healthy and happy sex lives. I talk to friends about my discomfort. Essentially, I am creating my own version of the sex ed I never received.

My vagina still remains a mystery to me in many ways. But little by little, I am learning to accept my sexuality and my anatomy — with all of their quirks. Now, I make an effort to pay attention to symptoms down there, and I call my doctor right away rather than waiting until the symptoms are at their very worst. I’m slowly undoing the shame I felt growing up, and I'm realizing that my health and pleasure are more important than any stigma.

I still have a long way to go, but at least now I feel confident enough to listen to my own needs. I’ve given myself permission to explore my sexuality in full. I won’t feel overjoyed when I make the appointment for my next pap smear, but I finally know my body, and I can handle it.
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