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My Better Half

10 months ago by

Photos Sonia Sieff

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.

WHAT.

NO.

I CAN’T.

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?

_________________

Main image copyrighted by Sonia Sieff from her breathtaking book, Les Francaises.

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25 comments

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  • Last time I went for a pap smear I was told that my cervix was middle-aged! I did not need to know that!

  • hahaha! This made me laugh. My friend, who is 35 and pregnant, is mortified that all her charts are marked AMA, aka Advanced Maternal Age.

  • Luisa Fernanda February, 21 2018, 10:49 / Reply

    Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! “We are creating a stigma around such things by not talking about them — we are making them taboo and shameful”, I’m really taking these words as a navigation map. Very powerfull words indeed.

  • I was just recently told to wash only with water, and I was similarly shocked! Why is this information not more widespread??!! (No pun intended.)

  • People used to get yeast infections when that vaginal spray was popular. All you need is water, no chemicals please.

  • Ok, so it’s time to feature some midwives on AD. And maybe y’all are too young to remember The Vagina Monologues, so it might be time to bring Eve Ensler on here too. Because this is all important information, and yes, you should know and love your vulva!

  • oh Garance! C’est vrai que parler de sa vulve est difficile mais qu’est ce que c’est bon de te lire à nouveau.

  • Europeans don’t tell their kids to use toners….

  • Yeah, I came here to say that same thing. I’m European and I definitely didn’t hear about toner until I was maybe 15, at which point I did start using it daily. As for the only-washing-the-lady-bits-with-water part, well that I’ve known since I was a kid. I think it helps to have bidets, it becomes more of a normal thing to just wash with water and nothing else.

  • Hey ladies! Teenagers are “kids” to me! I was speaking to the fact that it’s at least introduced to you as as teenager in Europe. In the U.S. it’s more like when you’re 25 and that’s only if you seek it out. Never considered a part of your daily routine. I wish bidets in the U.S. were a normal thing!

  • Agreed.
    I’m from The Netherlands and had never heard of toner before reading this post.

  • Haha! I had the same reaction! (like, what are your sources here?) And come on, you can’t generalize Europeans. But apart from that, great post and keep on shouting on rooftops about vulvas! We need that :)

  • Most people’s bathrooms in Europe (at least the ones where I live) have bidets and are visibly stocked with bottles of ph-balanced soap labeled for “sensitive areas.” I don’t know if people talk about it per se, but at least it’s all there out in the open! Also after Trump got elected I vowed to start being more open about the abortion I had in my mid-20s. Obviously I don’t go around telling people I’ve just met, but all my friends and family know it happened, it was the right decision, it wasn’t traumatic (because I got excellent care and didn’t have a Republican state Legislature trying to interfere with the decision), and I have never regretted it.

  • Great foray into this topic. We really are pretty Victorain sometimes when it comes to women’s health.

    I love Rosemary Gladstar’s book “Herbal Healing for Women”. She gives so many alternatives for UTI’s , yeast infections and all the other imbalances we come across over the years. Rosemary and Dr. Christiana Northrup are probably the most open about our health and how to love our bodies.

  • Y’all need to get a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves. It was standard issue for hip chicks in the 70s. Plus a speculum.

    And, yes, I have had an abortion, and I am fine.

    Talk about everything.

  • Love this post. Veronica you rule!

  • I’m not so sure about shouting from rooftops ;)
    I grew up informed as it was considered part of hygiene! and here in Italy there are sections in supermarkets dedicated to washes for this part of body so it’s pretty normal, I’m surprised to read how little you(or Americans?) know about this., it is so important to know this part of your body and not be ashamed and I agree now the movement should be let’s tell our younger girls this stuff and normalize it.

  • Love this post, especially as an ob/gyn resident!!! Just FYI, you don’t need a yearly pap. Between the ages of 21-30, its a pap every three years, and between 30 and 65, you can space them out to every 5 years if you get HPV “co-testing.” After 65, if everything was normal, you can stop!

  • Has this changed recently? This year was the first a doctor ever mentioned this to me, while she was looking at me like I was crazy for having had a pap every year for the last 17 years – but I was always told this was necessary for birth control prescription refills!

  • If you must use anything other than water, try to avoid things with lavender. This is just personal experience, but it’s supposed to be anti-fungal, and perhaps, I don’t know, upsets the fungal balance down there? I hadn’t had a yeast infection in years, used lavender soap in the bath (for my feet and armpits! only!) and had a yeast infection the next day. Possibly coincidence, but I’m never going near the stuff again.

  • Hi Veronica, sorry you had this experience. I had an IUD in place in 2005 and then found myself pregnant, it was nerve racking as the IUD remained for my full pregnancy, I had no issues but it did not come out with the placenta. I gave birth to a healthy baby girl who is now 11 and my shining star! I had to go back for a scan a month after the delivery and the coil was back in the place it should have been all along.
    I do not say this to scare you but I never checked the strings, the coil was a flexi-t copper coil without hormones and I know my case is uncommon.
    I think it is always best to know your body… yourself! Best of luck, natural is always best.

  • Je lis “les joies d’en bas” écrit par deux gynécologues norvégiennes, on y apprend beaucoup sur le sexe féminin

  • J’ai l’impression qu’en France il est “facile” d’en parler. Du moins avec mes amies ont parlent de nos pertes, du fait de ne pas utiliser de savon sur sa vulve et tout pleins de choses comme ça :).
    Après je pense que ça dépend la façon dont on a été éduqué, et si on est pudique ou non !

  • What a terrific post! We must start talking about these things if not for any other reason then for health purposes! I’m ashamed to say that I still don’t exactly know what the vulva is (is it a synonym of vagina?)… and I’m in my 30s. I wonder what my gynaecologist would say if I told him I wanted to see my cervix – I’ve never heard of it being done here in Belgium.

  • Seriously laughing. Why on earth would you not inspect your vulva? She is your friend. My friends and I chat about caring for our lady parts all the time. It might seem odd ball behavior, but the more you ask the more you do learn. My response….Use the bidet, wash her with a pH balanced soap and rinse away!

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