Today, I am making myself extremely vulnerable to all of you. The only reason I am doing this is because I’ve seen too many woman express a need to read what I am about to write. With tears of fear now streaming down my cheeks, I remember telling my daughter last month, “Courage is not about not being afraid. It’s about being afraid and doing it anyway.”
So, here I go….
Twelve years ago, I was traumatized by an obstetrician. I do not know if it was deliberate and I don’t care anymore either. What matters is how I felt and the burdens I carried as a consequence of his words because those burdens are shared by far too many women in our nation… for one reason or another.
As I have explained over the years on this blog, I had a stillborn child in 2000.
I was at my second postnatal visit after my stillbirth. I had chosen an OB. Obviously I wish that I had chosen a midwife instead.
I was there for a follow up exam and I did not expect to hear the results of my child’s autopsy. My obstetricians’ office had promised to call me as soon as the results made it to their desk, but I never received that call. I sat naked, but for a paper gown, on an exam table as my doctor abruptly told me what caused my child’s death and that she indeed was a girl.
A few moments later, we started the exam.
Keep in mind that he had seen my vagina countless times before that day. Halfway through the exam, though, he told me nonchalantly that incidentally, I had a _____ vagina. He went so far as to explain his opinion of labia.
I’m not going to fill in the blank for you. It was not a word describing a change from the birth process. It was not a clinical term. It was a non-medical, observation based opinion only. To be clear and fair, he did not sexualize it in any way either.
My doctor was very clinical in stating his opinions that had absolutely no medical relevance. I think therein was the reason I did not know to protect myself from his words.
It was just insensitive and pointless.
I’d like to pretend that I am leaving the space blank because of personal boundaries and the inappropriate nature of discussing a private part to that degree on the internet, because I know all of you would accept that excuse. It’s an excuse though. The real reason for the blank where an adjective should be is because I was so traumatized from what would happen next that I still can not bear to write down the words that nonchalantly judged my vagina.
He judged through his non-medical eyes, but expressed his judgment with a stethoscope around his neck.
I believe he didn’t like me or how I regularly questioned him. I believe he didn’t like being wrong about my baby when at around my 19 week appointment I told him I thought she was dead inside of me, and he said I should relax and that everything was fine. I believe he didn’t like that before inducing labor, I made him check one more time that she was dead… just in case. I believe that he didn’t like that I asked for copies of the autopsy results. I don’t know if any of that was why he felt the need to express his judgment of my vagina. I think it’s unfair of me to claim that is was.
Back on the exam table, he informed me that there were interns that he’d like to have observe the remainder of the exam and asked me if that was OK.
In shock, and trying to be clinical and mature, I agreed to further exposure and humiliation. I should have protected myself, but I was not prepared to deny his request. At this point, I felt none of my previous empowerment. I was thrown off guard.
He left me laying there for a few moments and then returned with a couple of interns. He mumbled something inaudible to them. They did nothing but stand there while he completed the exam, then they thanked me and left. I don’t actually know if they were critiquing my vagina or if I merely felt that way because of what my doctor had said to me moments before. Now, I presume that they thought they were just watching the exam process. At the time though, I felt violated.
After that, I got dressed feeling violated, disgusting and ashamed, all while simultaneously re-grieving the loss of my child that I suddenly and abruptly learned was a girl… My daughter.
I spent the decade following that hating my vagina. I tried to find pictures of vaginas on the internet, tried to find some that looked like mine. I unknowingly inundated myself with images of Hollywood style vaginas that all looked the same and it became clear to me, he was right. My vagina was not normal.
In circumstances where I was once confident, I was suddenly scared and shy. When I would step out of the shower and see myself in the mirror, I felt discouraged and ashamed. I started wearing shorts to the beach because my shame grew into an insecurity about the entire pelvic region. During my subsequent pregnancy, I was embarrassed at every prenatal appointment. There were many doctors at that practice and as I met a new one, I was always waiting for one of them to point out my oddity. Thankfully, none of the other doctors ever expressed their “clinical opinion” of my genital area’s appearance as the offending doctor had done.
Never expecting to actually go through with it, in the years that followed, I read up about cosmetic surgery from time to time. Why? I have no idea. It wasn’t like I thought about my disdain for my girl parts all the time, it’s just that when I did think of them, I felt very bad. I wish I could explain why I bothered to learn about the surgery. I can’t imagine that I would have had it done. That would bring even more shame according to my personal belief system that was previously woman-empowered oriented.
By this point, I was divorced and I was scared that while my previous husband had never mentioned anything odd about my vagina, I’d have to assume my future mate would hate it. How could my future mate not hate it? It didn’t look like the vaginas I saw online. Those all looked exactly the same. So, obviously, there was good reason for my future mate to hate my vagina.
I was a little caught off guard when my current husband didn’t have any problem with my vagina either. I felt like I got lucky a second time, but it didn’t stop the self-vagina-loathing.
A year ago, I went to a different clinic for a pap exam. I laid on her exam table in utter shame, just knowing that she was thinking about how ugly my vagina was. When she concluded her exam, she told me everything looked fantastic. I mumbled, “Yeah everything except my _____ vagina.” She was caught off guard and questioned me further. She asked me who it was that told me there was anything wrong with my vagina. She told me my vagina looked perfect. She said it looked pretty average, if there could be an average for a vagina. She told me there was nothing at all noteworthy about my vagina.
And I started bawling.
I told her everything while she hugged me.
Once I got it all out, she was livid. She told me she would help me if I wanted to pursue a civil lawsuit, though she said in reality what he did was criminal. She said that even in situations where a vagina were more unique, provided it functioned properly, there would be no need to ever make a woman feel bad about herself or even point it out. She said she was even more upset because it was a blatant lie and that there was absolutely no way that my OB found anything out of the ordinary with the appearance of my vagina.
She said I was abused by my OB. Her words took almost all the shame off me and placed them on him. I felt unimaginably better.
She told me where I could find real vaginas to compare myself to if I was in doubt but warned me they usually look vastly different than the ones that I saw on the internet. She said that as a general rule, the average vagina looks nothing like those vaginas.
I am ashamed that I fell into a vanity trap regarding my vagina. I am ashamed that I allowed myself to be victimized. My vagina had always functioned the way it was supposed to. Neither of my husbands issued any complaints or even odd faces about it. I never got strange looks or comments in gym class. I always thought I was fairly pretty naked…. before I was traumatized by that obstetrician.
I am embarrassed that I lived that way for a decade. I am ashamed that I held onto that secret for that long never asking for help. I’m generally more self aware and more resourceful.
Having now seen way more vaginas than I ever should have had to see in an attempt to heal myself, I am certain that no two vaginas are alike, except when the vaginas’ owners all go to the same cosmetic surgeon. It is clear that both sets of labia can vary widely in color, shape and size. The clitoris can even be vastly different from woman to woman. Even the opening to the tunnel that is clinically called the vagina looks different from woman to woman. Comparing my vagina to other people’s vagina would be like comparing my elbows to other people’s elbows. It doesn’t make sense.
I have seen articles imploring women to not be ashamed of their vaginas such as “Unhappy With Your Gross Vagina? Why Not Try ‘The Barbie’?”, but I couldn’t find any first person narratives that adequately expressed what it is like to feel that way. I’m sure they exist, but in case they don’t, I wrote this.
I wrote it for those of you who have felt this way so that you know you are not alone.
I am ashamed that even now, feeling more empowered as a woman than I ever have before, knowing that that doctor’s words were untrue and abusive, I still can’t bring myself to write them. I am sorry for that. I hope what I have shared though will be enough to make you understand that regardless of what you see in Playboy-style magazines, vaginas don’t come in a “universally preferred” shape, color or size.
Your vagina is like any other healthy part of your body in that it is beautifully unique. And so is mine.