It’s something that I, as an OB/GYN, hear almost daily in my clinic: “I’m sorry.” That’s right, my patients apologize to me. And why? What would prompt so many women to apologize to their doctor? It’s because I’m about to see their vaginas.
It’s usually the same scenario: As we are preparing to do the pelvic exam, they say something like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t have a chance to shave today…” or “I’m sorry, I just got out of work and haven’t had time to shower…” or they simply say, “I’m sorry,” and don’t even know why they are saying it.
I usually try to diffuse their discomfort by asking them how often they think men apologize to their doctors for their penises. I tell them that if vaginas scared me, I would be in the wrong profession. Most of the time, I’m able to get someone to smile a little at the absurdity of the situation.
The thing is–they aren’t really sorry. It’s not like they’re apologizing to me because their vagina has done anything socially uncouth, like asking me if I’m having twins when I’m not even pregnant, or taking all the lollipops meant for my patients’ children. It’s usually a defense mechanism for embarrassment. We are embarrassed about our vaginas in their normal state of being. We have some idealized version of what a vagina is supposed to be, and like most aesthetic ideals, it’s pretty unrealistic. We try to preempt our fear of inevitable judgment with an acknowledgement that we don’t live up to societal vaginal standards.
I try to remind my patients of their vaginas’ various accomplishments. Vaginas are solid multitaskers that are often asked to stretch way beyond their limits, and accomplish often seemingly insurmountable tasks. Through it all, they are expected to stay well-balanced. Anyone who has witnessed a vaginal birth can tell you that for at least a few minutes, the vagina really steals the show. Vaginas are as unique to a woman as her thumbprint. No two are alike. Recent attempts have been made to normalize vaginas in our society. “The Vagina Monologues” and the “Great Wall of Vagina” come to mind. Despite this, I am still constantly seeing vagina apologists. And I’m tired of it.
We (because I think I speak for all people who have dedicated our lives to women’s health) are here to help. If your vagina has something going on, such as pain, discharge, prolapse, and lesions, it’s important to address those issues. They can be embarrassing to bring up, or uncomfortable to have examined. Let’s face it: Even in the absence of problems, the exam is never particularly comfortable. We get it. But that’s our job. Most of us have seen more than you can imagine–you think a post-gym vagina scares us? You think we care that you haven’t taken the risks of applying a razor blade in this sensitive area? We do this all day long. You would have to have something really crazy going on for us to even remember what your vagina looks like after we step out of the exam room.
As women, we are facing real issues in this country. We are currently fighting for control over our reproductive choices. We deserve public policy to support adequate family leave and lactation accommodations. We earn less than our male counterparts for the same work. Every day, we face hundreds of big and small battles unique to women. And don’t even get me started on the challenges faced by women all over the world. Let’s stop apologizing for our vaginas and start advocating for them!