Pap exams are something every woman hates. Actually, I think I might use the word “detest.” Just choosing a subtle but accurate photo to go with this post was somehow embarrassing because, although we women can discuss it with each other, I don’t know anyone (at least in my age group) who wants a visual of the whole experience. Personally, and I’d never have admitted this years ago, I have to squash the feelings of embarrassment and degradation that popped up every time I made that appointment to get this test done. I can’t help but feel horribly vulnerable and, regardless of whether I have a male or female doctor, it’s embarrassing to expose your most private parts to a stranger. It’s also silly, I know, but I often wonder if they come away from the exam comparing me to other women. Why should I care? I can’t answer that but it does add to that feeling of dread beforehand. Seriously now, doesn’t this picture make you uncomfortable?
I even found myself making the picture smaller – maybe trying to minimize the whole thing.
Six years ago, having gone through menopause, I found myself in the position of having to choose a new gynecologist and ended up with a very friendly, try-to-make-you-comfortable-with-lots-of-conversation female doctors who used a speculum that I later found out might have been perfect for a young woman with, shall we say “plumper” tissues, but hurt this senior with drier, shriveled (my word) innards and caused me to bleed. The comment at the conclusion of the exam was that I should tell anyone I saw in the future to use the smallest speculum they had. Ya think?
But the result of this exam was that I put it off for the next six years. As I’ve pointed out, this whole blog is about senior retirement issues and this is one of them. Hoping to be able to retire in the next few years, and not having a clue how my Medicare insurance may stack up as far as my costs are concerned, or even if I can afford a non-emergency doctor visit living off social security, I decided I needed to do as many recommended health exams before I retire as I possibly could. That was the sole incentive for screwing up my courage and scheduling a pap exam.
Fortunately, I ended up with a Nurse Practitioner who was sensitive and gentle and made the whole experience as comfortable as possible for such a personal exam. And it’s funny the things I realized had played into the decision to wait for six years. It wasn’t just the discomfort of the previous exam. It was also about the fact that I weigh probably 30 pounds more than I did last time I went for an exam, and who wants someone, especially a young woman who hasn’t had to experience dimpled thighs and saggy skin with liver spots, to see those things? Measuring up. That’s something that never quite goes away, no matter the age.
Mind you, I don’t give off these insecurities outwardly, but they’re there right under the surface. Perhaps they’re a by-product of the years I spent as a professional dancer with a svelte body, smooth skin and a slightly unrealistic view of how a woman should maintain her physical appearance (based on a nightly comparison to dozens of other women’s faces and bodies in this highly competitive field). Nevertheless, it’s an odd dichotomy for me: I’m pretty comfortable aging – don’t pursue any wrinkle-free beauty routines, own my facial wrinkles and laugh lines, and don’t bother with coloring my gray – but that doesn’t keep me from subconsciously worrying about how the younger generation perceives me based on my appearance. In the end (no pun intended) I suppose some of the discomfort is not wanting to reveal my older body’s secrets. Surface is fine; underneath is private.
All that introspection aside, I survived the exam and the best news was that, after 65, women my age don’t have to do this screening any more. I’m glad I went back for one after six years, but I’m equally glad that I don’t have to go through it again.