Growing up, my mother would go on verbose tangents about the disadvantages of having sex as a way to dissuade me from doing it and, in her mind, becoming a contender for Teen Mom. My vagina was the Bermuda Triangle of body parts. I knew bad things happened down there because of mysterious circumstances, but I didn’t know why. This, in turn, contributed to a complete disassociation from my own body.
Sex education in the Los Angeles Unified School District school system wasn’t any better than my mother’s anti-sex TED Talks. In sixth grade, our class watched a thirty-minute “documentary” about childbirth meant to educate us on the beauty of the reproductive system. The video’s intention was to depict the joy of a precious child being gently birthed into this magical world by its loving, married, missionary-style-sex-having parents. But as John Milton so brilliantly wrote, “Easy is the decent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.” There was nothing beautiful or precious about the video, deceptively titled The Miracle of Life. There was no magic. No gentleness. No miracles.
Instead, for thirty hellish minutes, I watched what could only be described as a pregnancy snuff film. The footage was a collection of grainy, poorly composed shots looking directly into the sinister chasm that is this unknown woman’s womb as a vicious baby-shaped creature emerges. The baby is screaming, the woman is screaming. The only one with a smile on their face is the husband, who was obviously taken over by pod people. At that moment, my labia clenched like a vice grip, and I vowed to never speak to my vagina again.
Like all complicated and toxic relationships, my vagina and I had a brief reconciliation in my first year of high school. I decided I wanted to understand what it was about that part of my body that made me so. What’s the word? Fucking horrified. I read in a magazine that it is helpful for a young woman to take a small compact mirror and look at her lady lumps, an official medical term, to get to know that area. The magazine said doctors recommend this in an effort to prevent disease and help ease the anxiety of the mysterious happenings as our bodies grow and change. It was time to meet my most insidious frienemies: My Vajayjay (also a medical term.)
After school one day, I locked myself in the bathroom, took my small Hello Kitty compact mirror, and came face to face with It. As my eyes focused on the pinkish folds that resembled a creature from Labyrinth, or, to put it in layman’s terms, a poorly made roast beef sandwich, I gasped and dropped the mirror, shattering it on the floor. Just then, like a young Jennifer Connolly to Jareth the Goblin King, I denounced my vagina and sent it back to the darkest pits of the underworld, from whence it came.
I started a game in my head to rationalize why getting to know my body is silly. And more importantly, why going to the doctor is just a waste of time. First of all, the horror film shown in sixth-grade health class said that you don’t have to get checked unless you’re sexually active or twenty-three years old. This was perfect! I was still a bright-eyed virgin, living a disease-free life, hymen intact.
But by the time twenty-three rolled around, I was in a long-term relationship, and well, you get the picture. If pop culture has taught us anything, it’s that only indecent, unattached, sexually deviant, single women got diseases. Femme Fatale I was not, so I told myself that if my boyfriend dumped me and I found myself being unusually promiscuous, I would go to the doctor and settle this old score once and for all.
The curious thing about getting older is conversations move away from things like what happened on last night’s episode of Dawson’s Creek (Team Pacey!) and onto more important topics like doctors and health. Gynecologists came up often among friends and co-workers. Knowing that I would be shamed with a scarlet “V” if anyone found out, I would join these conversations with well-intended lies. Oh, interesting, I’ve been looking for a new one, could I have the number to yours? It was my way of easing the silent embarrassment I felt each time the topic came up. I must have received dozens of recommendations that I never called. I added that to the list of rules. Anytime someone brought up their OBGYN, I would ask for their number and reward myself by not calling.
The closest I ever got to a proper vaginal exam was when my friend offered to take me to get a bikini wax. It was the first time I had ever gotten one, and with little hesitation, I said yes. There was something anodyne about allowing a wax technician to see my vagina versus a doctor. In both cases, a stranger sees my patty wagon (it’s scientific, you guys), but only a doctor has the authority to look under the hood and make me feel humiliated about not taking preventative measures to keep the car running in top condition.
To prepare for the appointment, I took a thorough shower, sandblasting any nooks and crannies that would tip off my waxer that I had never seen a gynecologist. I went into the room, took off my underwear, and lay on the table. I looked intently at the technician’s face as she waxed. I mean, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, she was practically a gynecologist because of the thousands of vaginas she sees every day. She would know if something looked abnormal.
As one technician lathered my birthing bits with oil, another technician came into the room with two Venti Somethings from Starbucks. They looked down at my vagina with furrowed brows, the way a ballistic expert on CSI does when they finally find the piece of evidence to solve the case. I recoiled, held my breath, and tensed all my lips. This was the moment I found out I had cancer, and it was from two petite Asian women sipping ice coffees. Their brows straightened. They spoke quickly in Chinese and then laughed about something else. False alarm.
My resistance to the lady doctor reached its zenith when I got a phone call from my best friend saying they found pre-cancerous cells during her last pap smear, and she had to have a biopsy to make sure it wasn’t something more serious. I cried silently on the phone as she explained the procedure. She insisted I should go to my OBGYN and get checked, just in case. I lied and told her I would. I didn’t sleep that night.
I was concerned for my friend but more so for myself. If she had cancer and went regularly to the doctor, I could easily have it too. I made a promise that I would make an appointment first thing in the morning. If it turned out I did have cancer, I would deal with it with dignity and grace the way Susan Sarandon did in Step Mom.
That morning came, and instead of following through on my promise, I started playing the irrational game in my head again. OK, I rationalized that if she does have cancer, there’s no way that the universe would allow two people with cervical cancer in the same social circle. The world just doesn’t work like that. I mean, there was only one Miranda in Sex in The City. Then I thought if she didn’t have cancer, well, then there’s no need for me to go either. She didn’t have cancer. That was two years ago.
If I’m being honest with myself and my vagina, if I unpack all the feelings of anxiety and shame associated with my genital region, it isn’t society, movies, or school health classes that keep me from seeing the doctor; it is the fear of regret. At thirty, my friends and I are being faced with important adult decisions about careers, life partners, money, and starting families. When I look back on a highlight reel of my roaring twenties, all I see is the time I’ve wasted. And how my life, my career, and my relationships could have been better if I did it all differently.
At this age, I have to put to rest the fantasy that I will be a twenty-something prodigy and that my reckless behavior is actually romantic. The most reckless behavior of all is not seeing the doctor. I’m terrified he or she will find a carnival of disease living inside me, complete with a one-eyed whiskered carney running the herpes tilt-o-whirl. If I avoid the doctor as I have been, I ultimately avoid coming to terms with aging and the things I didn’t accomplish because of my poor choices.
I recently confessed to a co-worker that I had never been to a gynecologist, and I was terrified that I could have cancer. It was the first time I said this out loud, and I immediately became flush with shame. She didn’t judge me or embarrass me like I thought she would. She smiled and said she understood. She gave me the number of her gynecologist and assured me that the doctor was very gentle. She said to trust her and that she would go with me if I wanted. I have the post-it sitting on my desk, and I’m mustering up the courage to make an appointment.
Makeup Expert & Manicurists, Contributing Editor
Jessica is a writer who feels it is a job requirement to own every shade of nail polish. She thinks any bad day can be improved by a trip to Sephora–provided there aren't 10 people giving themselves makeovers, in front of the new lipsticks.