Sex Health Columnist
Note: While this article focuses on people born with female reproductive organs, it is certainly not the be-all and end-all of sexual/reproductive health for women. Womanhood is not determined by your physical body parts. There are many places to go for more information, resources, and support, some of which are listed at the end of this article.
Part of growing up can mean going to college and getting a job, but it can also mean going to the gynecologist for your first pelvic exam. It’s like getting your yearly check up, but for your reproductive system. My first visit happened when I wanted to get on birth control. I told the doctor I didn’t feel comfortable with a pelvic exam, but she very strongly encouraged it because I was sexually active, so I agreed. It’s a very vulnerable experience, and in the sterile environment of a doctor’s office, you can feel very alone. Although it can be a strange experience, it’s just as important (and at times, even more so) as going for a yearly physical checkup.
Typically, the doctor will start by asking about your medical history, then will do a basic physical, which includes checking your heart, lungs and blood pressure. Your doctor will also do an abdominal check to see if any spots are sore or tender, and then will do a breast exam to check for lumps or abnormalities. During the pelvic exam, the doctor will first look for discharge, swelling or redness. Then they may insert a gloved finger while pressing on your abdomen, which is called a bimanual exam. If you need to get a pap smear, the doctor will then use a speculum, which holds open the vagina so the doctor can inspect the vaginal walls and cervix. A pap smear tests for cervical cell changes and screens for cervical cancer. A pap smear is recommended after age 21 or three years after starting intercourse.
As a student, it can be difficult to get to a doctors office off campus, but luckily Student Health Services offers women’s health exams, which include a pelvic exam, pap smear, and breast exam. If your pap smear is abnormal, they’ll do a HPV (human papilloma virus) test as well. The cost of the exam is $75, and is covered with student insurance.
Even though it can be uncomfortable and awkward at first, it is important to get an annual exam. These visits can provide a safe space to ask your doctor questions and get resources to which you might not normally have access, such as various birth control methods. It is also important to go so that your doctor can catch things early, like STIs, STDs, infections and certain kinds of cancer.
Feeling comfortable with your doctor is also very important, so search around if you haven’t found one that you connect with. If you’re not comfortable with any kind of pelvic exam, speak up, and you and your doctor can just start with a consultation. Getting a pelvic exam is a choice, and it’s your body, so your personal comfort level comes first.
Even though I was apprehensive to go to the gynecologist at first, ultimately I was glad I went. I was able to ask my doctor things that I didn’t want to ask my parents, and since I was the first of my friends to become sexually active, I couldn’t rely on them for advice, either. My doctor helped me figure out what brand of pill I should get, since different hormone combinations affect your body in different ways. She also taught me how to properly check myself for breast lumps, which I now regularly do in the shower. I go get an exam every year now, and I leave with peace of mind knowing that I went.