Back in the Stirrups Again — My Visit to the Gynecologist

Today I visited the gynecologist’s office for my annual exam. The visit reminded me intimately of why I’m a feminist, and why feminism is still necessary today. Times have changed since the emergence of the women’s health movement in the 1960s (see Into Our Own Hands by Sandra Morgen), and since I read and studied Mary Daly’s Gyn/ecology and the early versions of the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Or, perhaps not.

My visit was utterly..well…disheartening – even if you pretend all the problems about women’s reproductive freedom, the medicalization of women’s bodies, and women’s health were off the table.

I waited an hour in the waiting room, resentful about the McDonaldization of the gynecologist’s office. But that’s a fact of our health care system. We might grumble about it, but we’ve all accepted it, normalized it, and thereby permitted it.

When changing into my gown, I couldn’t remember whether to wear the opening in the front or back. Because it felt more comfortable, I put the gown on with the opening in the back even though the reverse made more sense.

Next, I climbed on the table and shook open the disposable sheet to drape it over me. This act recalled how the women’s health movement had analyzed the drape in the 60s. A central tenet in the movement is empowerment through self-knowledge and self-care, particularly within the context of the gynecological exam. The drape symbolically and literally manifests patriarchal medicine because it puts a barrier between us and the doctor. It disengages us from the experience, and from our own bodies, “protecting” our sensibilities, that is, our shame of our bodies. This reinforces the doctor’s power/knowledge, and reduces us to objects (just another burger to be flipped, so to speak). Mary Daly discusses this in Gyn/ecology when she claims that gynecology

keeps women supine, objectified, and degraded – a condition ritually symbolized by the gynecologist’s stirrups and the psychiatrist’s couch. By their combined efforts, these specialists keep many women in the state of perpetual patients whose bodies and minds are constantly invaded by foreign objects – knives, needles, speculums, carcinogenic hormone injections and pills, sickening self-images, festering fixations, debilitating dogmas.

Remembering this, I tossed aside the mass-produced cotton and plastic sheet. At least the stirrups had socks on them, and my doctor was a woman (9 of 24 doctors in the office are women). It occurred to me that, ironically, I have never seen my own cervix.

Predictably, the office is filled with brochures, but with disturbing topics. Yeah, some of them treated health-related issues, but the bulk of them advertised the “aesthetic” procedures offered by the “Aesthetics Center,” which is owned by the doctors affiliated with the office. They have procedures to cause your eyelashes to thicken, body sculpting, all sorts of anti-aging treatments, laser hair removal, and so on. The brochures spoke in the co-opted, commercialized language of the women’s health movement: caring for “yourself and your body” by making the “right choices.” The website suggests, among other things, that skin showing its age is a reflection of poor health.  The gynecologists office enthusiastically promoted the center’s offerings.

At least my gynecologist’s Aesthetics Center doesn’t offer labiaplasty. The explosion of plastic surgery for women today is depressing and labiaplasty is, in my opinion, the most heinous type. The four common types of “designer vaginas” are labia reduction, vaginoplasty (tightening the vagina), and hoodectomy (clitoral unhooding), hymenoplasty (hymen repair), all done in the name of “beautification” and “enhancing” wellbeing. (Check out Sheila Jeffreys Beauty and Misogyny – it’s problematic, but still makes some good points.)  Ironically, “first world” women not only consent to, but actually pay money for these surgeries, while “third world” women still endure the horrors of female genital mutilation. Do we really hate ourselves this much? Still?

One thing that seems to have changed dramatically is birth control. I remember reading somewhere that no significant advancement was made in contraception after the pill for about 25 years. For a long time, research seemed to focus on improving safety and effectiveness “the pill” rather than finding new forms of contraception. In the past decade, though, the pharmaceutical industry has discovered a new niche to exploit, and there’s been an increase in research so that birth control has changed dramatically. Now we have vaginal rings and nasal sprays for temporary contraception, and non-invasive surgery for permanent contraception (Essure). This is a great thing for women, even though the responsibility for birth control still lies in women’s hands. At base, still the same old hormones; new: the methods of delivery.

Andrea Tone’s book, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, is a great read on the history of birth control. It’s always irksome that most health insurance companies will pay for Viagra but not birth control, even if birth control is used for medical reasons rather than contraception. According to Tone, most health insurance will cover the cost of permanent sterilization, but not reversible sterilization. Tone points out the logical contradiction in our attitudes toward birth control and Viagra. Birth control still suffers the stigma of promoting promiscuity, something never associated with Viagra.

What can we do to assuage a sense of hopelessness and discomfort about all this. With your feet in the stirrups, you’re at the nexus of so many oppressive practices and institutions. The collusion of the fashion-beauty complex and the medical-industrial complex can be overwhelming. Students always say to make a change you have to start with the next generation. Maybe I will buy the kid a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves for her birthday. Maybe she makes better use of it than I did.

Leave a Reply

  1. May I ask why you still believe it’s necessary or in your own benefit to have these annual gyn exams when you are aware of it’s sexist nature?

    • Just because it’s fraught with power dynamics doesn’t mean it’s not necessary, obviously. You need to know whether or not you have any problems. It’s just sad that, after all this time, things haven’t really changed that much, either in the medical industry or in me.

  2. “doesn’t mean it’s not necessary, obviously”

    Why don’t you just go to an ear-nose-throat specialist each year? Don’t you need to know whether or not you have any problems “up there”? Why are you more afraid from your reproductive organs than from the rest of your body? You think the female reproductive systems is the weakest link in the chain in a species that populated the planet? But really…?
    Sorry that Mary Dalys excellent book hasn’t opened your eyes. (Btw you can live and die and breed in the UK or Australia without a routine pelvic exam, as they are not recommended.)
    Have a nice day, cheers.

  3. I agree with Yazz and Me Milla, we don’t go to the ears-nose-throat doc every year for a throat cancer test (27,700 cases a year), we don’t go to the cardiologist for a yearly heart exam (and heart disease is the #1 killer – 1 in 3 women have some form of heart disease, it is the #1 cause of death in the US), we don’t go to the gastroenterologist every year for stomach cancer exams (21,130 cases a year), and these are all more common than cervical cancer (11,982 cases a year) and other reproductive problems. So, where’s the necessity at? Really though?