We Need To Talk About... Our Relationship With ‘Smear Tests’
The other day in the mail I received what has now come to be known as the ‘dreaded letter’, if you are a woman in your twenties then you may know exactly what I am talking about. I am indeed referring of course to our invite for a smear test or what it’s more pleasantly known as now, a cervical screening.
For years, the number of women attending their triennial cervical screenings has been declining. Considering the importance of smear tests in the early diagnosis of cervical cancer and the rate of women avoiding their examinations higher than ever, it is important that we break down the main reasons why women are skipping on our trips to the nurse’s office:
35% of women are too embarrassed to attend smear tests because of their body shape
‘As a plus size woman, I am always afraid of being judged for my body. This is obviously magnified in a space where you are so physically vulnerable, such as during a smear test, so I’ve been really nervous about them before.’ – Hannah 27, Web and Media Manager
34% said that the appearance of their vulva prevented them from attending their scheduled appointments
‘I think it is revolting in appearance – flaps, bleurgh’ - Anonymous
38% of women said that they were concerned over the smell associated with their vaginas
‘We’ve grown up in a world that makes jokes about how we smell “down there”’ – Anonymous
And the statistics don’t stop there! According to a survey carried out by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, a charity dedicated to women, their families and friends affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities, found out the following after interviewing 2,005 young women:
81% stated that they didn’t attend or delayed their smear tests due to embarrassment
71% said that the idea of going scared them
75% felt that the examinations made them feel vulnerable
So why is it that we have all these negative connotations to an examination that is potentially lifesaving? Based on the opinions above, the reason for why women avoid or delay smear tests are due to a myriad of reasons, although surprisingly many aren’t associated with the discomfort the examination can sometimes induce, instead what emerges as the common theme is embarrassment of our bodies and more specifically what makes us biologically women in the first place, our vaginas.
Body image issues amongst women have existed for a long time and is gaining increasing recognition, with many brands no pushing for diversity not only in terms of racial diversity but also in terms of body types. However, it seems that our self-judgement doesn’t stop there, we’ve now begun to push this mindset even further regarding the intimate aspects of our appearance, which may in the long-term be detrimental to our own health.
From reading around the declining attendance rate for cervical screenings, it is clear that we need to open up the dialogue surrounding the importance that it plays in our well-being and feel more comfortable talking about what is considered ‘normal’ when it comes to down below.
The truth of the matter is, there is no necessary ‘normal’, our vaginas aren’t all going to look exactly the same but guess what, no-one is worrying about it looks like as much as you. As difficult as it may be to remember, nurses carry out millions of these tests every year and whilst this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be considerate that it is a very sensitive situation for you, it should put your mind at ease that you have nothing to be ashamed of.
The death of Jade Goody, an English reality TV personality, in 2009 due to cervical cancer which was undetected for years, led to an increase in the number of women having smear tests to enable early diagnosis and detection but this has since decreased with rates being the lowest they have been in 20 years. Cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women under 35, with approximately 3,200 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the UK each year, all this points at the fact that it is time that we stepped up and put our health first above anything else.