Sitting in a computer lab after class on a random Wednesday, I brought up the topic of going to the gynecologist to a room of five young women, ages 21 to 22. Their reactions to the topic at hand were as diverse as their personalities. One felt comfortable enough to say she’d been to the gynecologist after becoming sexually active, one said she’d only been once, and a few had reservations about having to “expose” themselves to strangers at all. But only one person was totally disgusted by the idea of going to the gynecologist.
“Why don’t you go to the gynecologist?” I ask Mizzou senior Amber Wade. Her response:
“Because I’m totally freaked out about it!” she says, her voice a mixture of a laugh and sheer embarrassment.
Amber is one of the many young women who opt out of visiting the gynecologist’s office every year. According to experts at About.com, at the age of 21, Amber should be visiting the gynecologist at least once a year. With zero visits under her belt, Amber is actually way behind in her rendezvous with an OB/Gyn. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also says that young women should have an initial visit between the ripe ages of 13 and 15 to ask questions about their body, sex, and to just gain a comfortable rapport with their gynecologist.
So why are so many young women like Amber avoiding the stirrups? Probably because the word and the image of stirrups is terrifying (“16 & Pregnant” anyone?). But more than that, Amber says for her, it’s because she doesn’t feel like it’s necessary this “early” in her young life.
“I know I’ll need to go in the future, but I’m trying to delay it as much as I can,” she says. “I just think that I’m not promiscuous. I’ve dated the same guy for five years, so I don’t think it’s necessary when you’ve had the same partner.”
It’s myths like this that are keeping young ladies running away scared, including yours truly, but Colette Bouchez, an acclaimed women’s health reporter and author of over five best-selling health books for women, including The V Zone: A Woman’s Guide to Intimate Health Care, wants to help debunk such tall-tales. In an interview with the expert, she explains why heading to the gynecologist early can help protect you and your girlfriend downstairs, or the “V” Zone as she likes to call it, from major diseases later.
Her Campus: So, what exactly is an appropriate age for young women to start seeing the gynecologist?
Colette Bouchez: Generally speaking, any young woman who plans on being sexually active should see a gynecologist before she engages in any activity. If she is already sexually active and hasn’t seen a gynecologist, a visit is necessary. This will help ensure that she has not contracted any sexually transmitted diseases, and that her reproductive tract is healthy overall.
HC: If you’re not sexually active, is there still an urgent need to go?
CB: If a woman is not sexually active, she can wait until she is 20-21 years old to see a gynecologist, providing that she has no symptoms and that her menstrual cycle is normal and on time. That said, you should also be aware that “sexually active” does not mean only intercourse. If a woman is having any type of partner activity below the belt, it’s considered “sexual activity” and she should consider having at least an initial gynecologist check-up. If she is having no “below the belt” activity, then she can wait until age 20 or 21 to see a gynecologist providing she has no other abnormal symptoms.
HC: When a girl makes the decision to visit a gynecologist for the first time, what can she expect?
CB: You can expect that you will first have a chat with your doctor in her office, while you are fully clothed. This chat will include a short health history with questions about your menstrual cycle, vaginal discharge, or other symptoms such as itching or burning. The doctor will also ask if you are sexually active and I urge you to be 100% honest with your answers. This is also your opportunity to also ask your doctor any questions you might
Next, you will be escorted by a nurse to an examining room and asked to remove all your clothing, including your bra and panties. At the start of the exam you will be asked to lie down on the table and your doctor will feel your neck, and examine your breasts, as well as the area under your arms. This is very quick and does not hurt. Next, he or she will feel your stomach and the area near your bikini line.
In the next phase of the exam you will be asked to place your feet into “stirrups.” Your doctor will cover your stomach with a small sheet or cloth. Then using a lighted scope he or she will examine the inner and outer lips of your vulva, the lips of your vagina, looking for any rashes or other signs of infection.
Afterwards, your doctor will insert a tiny speculum, this is a thin device that is used to open your vagina so that your doctor can look inside. Your doctor may also insert one or two fingers to feel the inside of your vagina to see if everything’s normal. This may feel a little uncomfortable but it should not hurt. If it does, tell your doctor immediately.
Lastly, your doctor will take both a Pap smear and test for the HPV virus. To do this, he or she will gently insert a thin cotton swab and take a sample of your cervical fluids. This doesn’t hurt and takes just a few seconds.
In total, the exam should take no more than 10 minutes.
HC: What do young women need to do or know for their returning visits?
CB: Unless there is a problem, or you have begun sexual activity, you will not need to come back for another check-up for at least one year. When this is the case, your second exam will be much like your first.
HC: Is there a common reason that some women go to the gynecologist more than others?Yeast infections? STD testing?
CB: There is no one common reason to see a gynecologist, but most women make an appointment when they are experiencing symptoms for the first time, such as burning, itching, redness, or pain in the V zone, as well as menstrual-related problems such as unusual pain, discharge or bleeding issues.
HC: What would you say to young women who are scared, or rubbed the wrong way about having strangers in their "private business"?
CB: Taking care of your reproductive health is as important, or even more important than taking care of any other area of your body. If you had a pain in your foot, or a rash on your face, you would not ignore them. So you must view your V zone in the same way. You should also know that for a gynecologist, the reproductive system is just another part of the body. There is nothing intimate or sexual about the way they view this exam. That said, it’s also important to find a doctor whom you feel you can trust and who inspires a sense of confidence in you during the exam.
HC: In the end, why would you say it's so important to go to thegynecologist sooner than later?
CB: Sooner is always better than later, since in all areas of medicine it is always easier to prevent than to treat, and it is always easier to treat early rather than later. That said, no matter where in this cycle of care you are, don’t be afraid to see a gynecologist. You will not be judged for waiting too long or for starting too early. Gynecologists are here to help all women care for their intimate health for life.
So there you have it, whether you like it or not, it’s important that someone other than you checks out your “V Zone.” Now that you know what to expect, check out websites like Healthgrades.com to find a worthy doctor in your area, just in case you’ve forgotten what the phonebook looks like. They provide all the dirt from people who’ve visited different clinics and doctors and tell you how to find a female or male doctor—whichever you prefer. If you trust your mother’s word, we recommend trying out her trusted gynecologist. But for the best privacy and anonymity, also try looking into your university healthcare center. Whichever you choose, it’s best that you hop to it, for you and your “V-Zone’s” sake.
Things You Might Want to Check Up On Before Your Checkup
Now that you’re ready to get acquainted with a gynecologist, here are a few more terms you should know about before you go, just in case you want to impress the socks off your OB/Gyn.
Pap Smear: Helps check you for cervical cancer. To perform a pap smear, cells must be collected from your cervix.
HPV: Human papillomavirus is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer. In fact, HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer. For more info, check out the helpful article Her Campus writer, Emily Weisberger did on HPV and the vaccine, Gardasil:
Urinary Tract Infection: It can infect any part of your urinary system, but most occur in your lower urinary tract, where you will find the urethra and the bladder. Happens when bacteria enters the urinary tract and can occur whether or not you are sexually active.
Yeast Infection: Also called vaginitis, a yeast infection happens when a fungus called Candida Albicans builds up. Yeast infections are extremely common though. The Mayo Clinic says three out of four young women will have a yeast infection in their lifetime.
Colette Bouchez: award winning medical writer with more than 20 years of experience. Author of seven books and Emmy award winner for her seven-part documentary on breast cancer.
Amber Wade, University of Missouri