Murtaugh: An examined vagina is a happy vagina

Taysha Murtaugh

I’m lying spread-eagle on an exam table with my feet in some stirrups, as a doctor peers into my vagina. She runs her fingers down my clitoris, labia and vaginal opening before inserting a cold metal speculum — a tool resembling a duck bill — which she uses to pry open my love hole and look at my cervix.

Yes, I’m getting a pelvic exam. And as if donning a ridiculous flowered hospital gown and showing a stranger my cooch isn’t humiliating enough, I’ve decided to describe it here to potentially thousands of readers.

So why would I risk becoming known as “that girl who wrote about her lady parts in the Iowa State Daily?” Because sexual health is important, and getting a pelvic exam or a Pap smear is all part of being a woman. Through an annual exam, your gynecologist can detect things like ovarian cysts, STDs, uterine fibroids or early-stage cancer. Think you’re safe from STDs because you haven’t experienced any symptoms? You’re wrong. One in four college students has an STD, and 80 percent of people with an STD experience no noticeable symptoms. This means many cases go undetected and untreated.

Most doctors recommend every woman get an exam by the time she’s 21 or three years after becoming sexually active — whichever comes first. You should also schedule a pelvic exam if you’re experiencing any unusual symptoms, such as bleeding between periods, pelvic pain, skin changes, abnormal discharge or urinary problems.

By now I’m assuming most of the males have stopped reading; in my experience, guys don’t especially enjoy thinking about foreign objects going into a vagina, unless that foreign object is them. That’s okay, because this one’s for the girls. Male sexual health is important, too, though, so to be gender neutral I’ll just throw in this line: “Drop your pants, turn your head and cough.”

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk vaginas.

First, you make an appointment.

There are three clinics in Ames that offer pelvic exams and pap smears as a service: McFarland Clinic, Thielen Student Health Center and Planned Parenthood. If you’re struggling financially, don’t have health insurance or can’t go through your parents’ insurance for privacy reasons, you may qualify for free services through Planned Parenthood.

The time of the appointment doesn’t really matter, but most doctors recommend you avoid scheduling it during your period. If you’re uncomfortable with having a male doctor, make sure to request a female. Personally, I prefer women — yeah, that’s what she said. Regardless of their sex, though, it’s important to remember that doctors and gynecologists have seen it all anyway, and they all do a pretty good job of making you feel comfortable.

While preparing for my appointment, I wondered, as I think every woman wonders: should I be shaved down there? I know that’s gross, but seriously. Think about it: it would be weird if I didn’t, but it would be weird if I did, too. After discussing the million-dollar question with a few different women, I determined the consensus is basically to go with somewhere in between. Either way, though, a doctor will be able to see everything he/she needs to see, and you probably won’t be judged anyway. Something doctors do recommend, though, is that you not have sex, use vaginal creams or douche for 24 hours before the exam.

Now, at the appointment, I’m waiting in a cold room, naked except for the thin, shapeless hospital gown the nurse left hanging on the back of the door for me. It took me a while to figure out how to put on the garment, and once it was on I actually found myself wondering why it couldn’t be more stylish. I mean, if I’m about to show someone my vagina, I want to look good when I do it. As soon as I shake off those incredibly weird thoughts, my mind focuses on what’s about to happen. I know what to expect, because I’ve done a lot of research beforehand. Maybe it’s just the student journalist in me, but I think every woman should do some prior research so she’s not completely taken off-guard while in such a vulnerable position.

Regardless of my research, I am nervous; nervous, naked and cold. At the same time, though, it’s all kind of comical to me. A painting of an iris by Georgia O’Keefe hangs on the wall I’m facing; the iris, along with several of O’Keefe’s paintings, bears a remarkable resemblance to a vagina. Although O’Keefe consistently denied these comparisons, the fact that it’s in this room tells me my doctor has a sense of humor.

Finally, I am joined by the lovely lady who is to become the first woman to see me “down there” since I was in diapers. She is helpful and friendly.

She asks me to lie down on the exam table. Standing beside me, she pulls down the top of my hospital gown for a breast exam. After a lot of kneading around my nipples and up into my armpits, I am pronounced lump-free, and she moves lower. It’s like foreplay — well, kind of.

She tells me to put my feet in the stirrups and scoot closer to the edge of the table as she takes a seat and puts on some rubber gloves. I am uncomfortable with having her face so “up close and personal” with my “special spot,” but I soon get over it and remember she is a professional.

After the external exam, she chooses a speculum from the drawer below me based on my body frame. Glancing into the drawer, I am shocked at the many different sizes of vaginas there must be in this world. She is gentle with me as she inserts the tool. It’s uncomfortable when she opens it, but not painful. I just lie there silently and wait while she has her way with me. She takes a swab of my cells so I can be tested for STDs. Results currently pending — fingers crossed, folks.

All joking aside, the worst part is over. She sticks her middle and forefinger inside me, signaling the final portion of the exam. With her opposite hand, she presses down on my lower belly. This is all to check my ovaries, tubes and uterus.

Apparently sometimes doctors check your rectum next, but I am lucky enough for this not to be the finale of my great adventure.

After exchanging a few words, she leaves. No cuddling whatsoever. I feel so jaded, used. She may as well have left some money on the nightstand.

I’m totally kidding, of course.

I am relieved it’s over; I get dressed and I leave. That’s it. The entire exam probably took about eight minutes. I couldn’t believe I had been dreading it so much, when what I should have been dreading was the hour-long wait in the waiting room.

I’m proud of myself for taking care of my sexual health, and I hope this column will help convince others to do the same. If you’ve already done all of this, then I hope you get a laugh out of my embarrassment or at least learn that you’re not alone in those awkward, naked moments at the hospital. Remember: it’s better to know if something’s wrong than to always wonder as a disease gets worse or spreads from partner to partner. There’s probably nothing wrong with you. But how do you know?