You are supposed to get a pap smear when you become sexually active, or when you turn 21. I didn’t really know what pap smears tested you for – probably cancer – but I knew they involved something being shoved up your vagina. And since I’m as virginal as they come and at little risk of STDs, I didn’t think it would hurt to wait. I mean, why ask the nice doctor to stick the speculum up your crotch until you absolutely have to?
But a couple months ago I had dinner with a friend, and she told me about another friend who had finally gotten a pap smear, and she found out she had an inhospitable vagina. That’s not a technical term (I tried to webmd it) but I think the gist of this chick’s problem was that her vagina was so freakishly tight she’d need surgery if she ever wanted to have sex.
Surgery. In order to have sex.
I kept it together in the restaurant, but only barely. Not because I was at all empathizing with the girl with the screwed-up vagina. Of course not. I was convinced that my vagina was also messed up. Here I’d thought I’d been waiting to have sex, but what if it wasn’t waiting? What if the sex wasn’t even possible? What if I my vagina was totally defective, and my completely regular periods were just disguising the truth? I never get cramps; that’s weird, right? That should’ve clued me into something being wrong? You know, people act like everyone is having sex, but if you’re a woman with an inhospitable vagina, are you really going to go looking for recognition? I’m sure there’s a whole underground community of bitter, faulty-crotched women out there.*
With the inhospitable vagina talk, my friend realized that I was a little freaked out. I don’t know what gave it away. Maybe the hyperventilating. “Don’t worry, Rach,” she consoled. “This girl had never worn a tampon. I’m sure if you wear tampons, your vagina is totally hospitable.” And I said, “Oh. Phew. That makes sense. So silly of me.”
In my short life, I do not lie about much. I’m known for my honesty, even when it’s inappropriate. Even when it makes me ugly. But. I am not immune to the fear of judgment, and therefore we have the Tampon Lie.
In the beginning, it wasn’t a big deal to not wear tampons. I got my period kind of young. I didn’t feel comfortable in my body. Why would I rush to insert that plastic applicator up between my legs? What if it got stuck? What if I pulled it out too early, as the box warned me about, and it dried my insides out and caused an infection? Yeah. I could wait for that.
As time went on, I’d hear my friends complain about pads. Say they were like diapers. Uncomfortable. Bulky. Etc. And I didn’t want to fight over feminine products, okay? So I wouldn’t say anything. If they wanted to put tubes up their vaginas, they could go ahead, but a pad worked just fine for me. I didn’t have a heavy, debilitating flow anyway, suckers.
I knew I should wear tampons eventually. I set goals for myself. Next month, it’s happening. Before I graduate high school. Before I graduate college. My sister Holly is one of few people I’ve admitted the Tampon Truth to, and whenever the topic of menstruation came up, she’d lecture me. She’d say tampons weren’t that difficult, that I just wasn’t doing it right, and my life would improve dramatically once I figured it out (in fact, I’d be mad at myself for all the trouble I could’ve saved these past ten years). “Well, Holly, I love you,” I’d tell her, “but you are grossly underestimating the severity of the situation. I have tried. I know it’s embarrassing. Please do not shame me any more.”
Because it is embarrassing. Real women use tampons (at least, that’s what I’ve gathered from menstruation-related talks at slumber parties and leisurely brunches). I remember one time in college a girl saying that she used a tampon the first time she got her period. She’d been at swim practice. She went to the bathroom. Someone handed her a tampon, she shoved it in, and hopped right back in the pool. Like Holly, this girl could not understand how anyone would not use a tampon.
Well, some of us are not born with the gift, alright?
But back to the inhospitable vagina issue.
As soon as I got to Sheboygan for the summer, I scheduled a pap smear. If I was going to need surgery in order to have sex, I wanted to learn the logistics of the operation. I also wanted to make Holly feel guilty about giving me crap about the tampon thing when it was really a genuine physical defect causing the problem.
And today I went in. My mom had a rash on her neck to take care of, and I desperately needed someone to scope out the hospitableness of my vagina.
The doctor asked me if it was my first pap smear, and I said yes. “Ah! You’re my third first-timer today. And guess what. For the other two girls, it was a piece of cake.” I said, “I bet the other two girls weren’t tampon-fearing virgins, though, were they?” She said, “Well. No.”
Then she busted out the speculum. It was a plastic tube, its diameter much wider than the tampons I had previously tried to use. I began to cry.** I said, “There’s no way in hell that thing is going inside me.” She said she’d put some lubricant on it. She said she’d see how far we could make it in, but we might have to stop if there was any ripping. I said, “Yes, I’d like to stop before the ripping, please.”
She had me put my feet in stirrups. She had her nurse come in for backup. She told me to breathe: “The more tense you are, the harder it’s going to be to get in there.”*** She said, “Let’s find our way into this black hole, shall we?” And then there was pressure, and a scratching feeling, and my body sensing a foreign object that it deemed very unwelcome. “It’s in there!” the doctor said. “Your vagina is hospitable!” I cried some more, with relief, but also with the fact that the damn speculum was still inside of me.
Finally she removed it, and I could sit up again. “I never want to have sex,” I said. I sounded like I was thirteen. I felt like I was thirteen. I did not care. “That was not fun. How would sex be fun? Penises are even bigger than that probe thing, aren’t they?” She said, “You need to wear tampons. Start with the slimmest size. Work your way up.”
There is no moral to this story. Only that my vagina used to be unchartered territory, but thanks to Dr. Linden and her trusty nurse, we know that one day it will, indeed, be able to house some lucky guy’s penis.
*In real life, they’ve probably all compensated by either becoming lesbians or having really impressive careers. Or both. (To be fair, ending up as a high-profile lesbian with an inhospitable vagina doesn’t sound that bad.)
**That’s a lie. I was totally already crying by this point.
***Dear God, I can envision this line replaying on my wedding night. (Of course, it’s more acceptable to have a couple glasses of wine before you lose your virginity than it is to drink before you have a pap smear, so maybe this won’t be as much of an issue?)
****Apologies to anyone who went into reading this post thinking I would eventually talk about more than my vagina. Because that did not happen.