Last October I woke up with the acute pain that any woman over the age of eighteen can quickly pinpoint as a UTI. I drowned myself in cranberry juice while hoofing it to my local City MD (New York’s version of urgent care) where I promptly announced to the nurse that I have a UTI and would love some of those magic pills that numb your bladder so the weird must-pee-but-can’t-pee-so-I’m-just-in-pain-because-my-body-is-so-confused-sensation subsides. To prescribe said pills I had to take a urine test. Fine. Except that the urine test came back negative for a UTI.
What. The. Hell. Did. My. Boyfriend. Give. Me.
That was obviously my first thought. My second thought probably would have been how I will decapitate him, but lucky for him at that exact moment an older, female doctor appeared in my room to do a full examination. The following conversation followed:
Doctor: Did you perform a self-exam before coming here?
Me to the Doctor: Oh, yes. Of course.
Me in my head: Why the hell would I do that? I came here for you to do the examining.
Doctor: Well, was there anything abnormal down there?
Me to the Doctor: Nope, she’s great. You know, minus the constant pain.
Me in my head: Hm, when was the last time I gave myself a self examination? I think I looked down there once with a mirror when it was assigned as homework in health class. So, like, 8th grade? Yeah. That seems about right.
Doctor: You’re sure you didn’t see or feel anything abnormal I should know about before I examine you?
Me to the Doctor: She’s just like any other clam.
Me in my head: Isn’t all this examining business my boyfriend’s job, anyway? I mean, he’s down there a lot more often than I am. Seems more efficient.
I don’t think the doctor appreciated the clam joke because she gave up on the interrogation and put my legs in the stirrups. I was in the position where all dignity is lost and your butt cheeks are spilling over the ledge of the examination table for all of .5 seconds when she said, “You have a yeast infection. This is a visual diagnosis. Your vulva should not look like this.”
Oh right. Of course not. I know that. Wait — do I know that? What is my vulva supposed to look like? What does my vulva look like? Has it like, grown, since that one time in 8th grade? Wait — am I scared of my own vulva? Because even when she’s screaming for attention I can’t bring myself to give her a quick once over to see what’s wrong. My face and body get approximately 30 minutes of scrutinizing every morning as I wash my face, brush my teeth, pile on serums, sunscreens, lotions and potions that claim I will age gracefully. If I have a new freckle in the middle of my back — you bet your ass I know about it. That is the level of scrutiny I give my body.
Well, apparently every part of my body except for the part I should probably be giving the most attention to. I’ve spent all of ten minutes with her in eighth grade and most of those ten minute were suicidal because I couldn’t comprehend how a man would ever come within ten feet of… that. Where are the petals?! Those are not petals! Petals are the good kind of fragrant and wisp thin. Venus Fly Trap seemed much more accurate.
My level of comfort with my vulva and vaginal canal rests somewhere between I’m totally fine using a non-applicator tampon but I refuse to go spelunking to check on my IUD strings (again, that’s the boyfriend’s job in my mind — not to mention I think if that thing moved I would feel it, considering the pain it took to lodge it up there in the first place).
Once my butt cheeks were no longer flapping in the wind but my bottom half was still only being “covered” by a “gown” about as soft and comforting as printer paper, the doctor proceeded to urge me to “spend some time with myself” which basically made me want to crawl out of my skin (probably not the reaction one should have when being asked by a professional to look out for one’s vaginal health).
I think it’s time I grow up a bit.
Growing up also meant learning how to properly care for my vulva. Apparently my lavender scented body wash is what caused this whole mess in the first place. The doctor explained that some body washes can upset the natural pH balance down there by stripping away too much. Along with the meds, she prescribed washing my vulva with only water from here on out.
So I’m clearly having growing pains. But apparently she’s a self cleaning oven down there and the healthiest thing you can do for it is simply use water. Why did I not know this? Why is no one talking about this?! Is this another American prude thing? If so, this is a problem because this is basic body care! (Did you know Europeans teach and insist their kids use toner daily?! Kids! I learned of toner when I was twenty three and drowning in cysts and it was “prescribed” to me by a women in a white lab coat at Kiehl’s. To think for some it’s as daily a necessity as toothpaste.)
After this incident I started being a lot more vocal about vaginal health and noticed the reactions I got from other women were similar to when I ask them if they use, or ever want to use botox. (Yes, everyone uses botox. No, they still won’t talk about it.)
We are creating a stigma around such things by not talking about them — we are making them taboo and shameful. Another example would be abortions. 1 in 3 women will have one in their lifetime but saying the word out loud in a group of women is still creates a record scratch.
In January 2017 I drove from New York to Washington D.C. to march alongside thousands of other women in a sea of pink pussy hats. I marched because I wanted to protect the rights of my body, specifically my uterus and vulva. But how ironic now looking back, that I could march for the rights to a part of my body I could barely look at in the mirror. I’m proud to report, thanks to a monthly mirror date, I now know what my vulva looks like, and could even pick her out of a lineup.
My next step is asking to see my cervix during my yearly pap smear. Yep. You can do that. When the speculum is inserted they can place a mirror down there for you and you can meet your cervix. How cool is that?
In the meantime I’m shouting from the rooftops all about vaginas and vulvas to do my part to get over this societal stigma that too many women (myself included) fall prey to. So, come on — let’s talk vulvas! How do you feel about yours?