So I’m sitting watching the evening news, and on comes a chap telling us women and girls that we oughtta go and get more Pap smears. Then on comes a woman to talk about how Pap screening rates are going down in young women, and to speculate about possible causes for this. The cervical cancer vaccine comes up, as does the “awkwardness” of the test, and our inappropriate embarrassment, which we apparently need to get over.
What I don’t hear addressed in the mainstream media in these discussions of Pap screening? Well, lots of things, like heterosexism, and ignorance about Pap age/sexual experience guidelines, and sexual assault (inside and outside the medical system). However, the one that really stood out in my mind today is also a factor that isn’t going to be fixed by lecturing women. Fatphobic abuse in the medical system.
There has been a fair bit of talk around the feminist traps about some of the other factors, especially the aftermath of sexual assault and its effects on medical interactions. I’m not going to go into that in this post, but it’s a huge, huge issue. What I would like to talk about for a moment, not because it’s more important but just because I have a first-person anecdote, is medical fatphobia.
We know fatphobia kills. In all sorts of ways, in all sorts of settings. And one way in which it can kill is the horrendous tendency of doctors – quite a few doctors, from the stories I hear around the place – to trap women and girls on their backs so that they can shame them while they’re vulnerable. And what they don’t realise, or don’t care about, is just how long-lasting the effects of this can be – and not in a good way.
Medical education materials abound with motherhood statements about ‘Preventive Medicine’ and ‘Lifestyle Intervention’ and ‘Opportunistic Behavioural Education’. General practitioners are exhorted, over and over again, to take any and all opportunities they can to tell people they’re fat. Really, over and over. And OVER. And doctors, labouring under the mistaken impression that this will cause said people to magically become skinny and therefore ‘healthy’, go ahead and do it, then smugly boast about it between themselves, sighing about how no-one ever listens to them. Or, perhaps, under the impression that they can then self-satisfiedly sit back and tick a box on the chart about how they’ve engaged in initial Lifestyle Education, which they learned all about at the last Lap-Band seminar.
Medical education is a powerful, powerful matrix of fat hate, based on the twin premises that telling people they’re fat is (a) helpful and (b) harmless.
So let’s talk about how that plays out in practice:
When I was 19, I had a Pap smear. It was my first. I went to the nearest available doctor, who worked in a setting where they dealt with a late of people in late adolescence and early adulthood. I wasn’t particularly concerned about it; a very little vague unease at the unknown, but no particular trepidation. I didn’t bother taking anyone with me, and I just booked the appointment in between other things I had to do, like med school classes and whatnot. And off I went.
I got my Pill script, had my BP taken, then assumed the position. And the doctor came up into his position, as they do, then stopped.
He looked at my thigh. “Not quite the right spot,” I thought, “but hey, he probably knows what I’m doing more than I do.”
Then he touched my thigh. Around the middle, underneath (in lithotomy position).
Then he JIGGLED IT.
He jiggled my thigh.
And then he grimaced.
And then he did the Pap smear. I was frozen, completely unable (by my inexperience, position, and by general medical disempowerment) to say anything.
And then I fled.
Was I ‘traumatised’? I didn’t have nightmares. I went and got my next Pap smear dutifully, largely because I really didn’t have any choice – no Pap smear, no Pill script. (Ask me about contraceptive hostage-taking! You know you want to!)
But every time I get a Pap smear, every single time, even now more than twenty years later, I see his face. I see him jiggling my thigh with that look of disgust. Every time I lie down and spread my legs for the speculum, I am reminded of exactly how repugnant my body is.
My first impulse is to tell you exactly how fat I wasn’t, back then. To tell you that it wasn’t ok for him to do that because I was physically fit at the time. To tell you at length about how my aerobic capacity was at the 95th centile, that I could do a hundred pushups, that I could swim a k without stopping, that I was beating my fit male friends at squash, that I was getting State medals in my chosen sport. But that’s all irrelevant – because fat-shaming isn’t ok for people who are actually fat any more than it’s ok for people who aren’t. Fat-shaming doesn’t get a pass when it’s limited to people as fat as I am now, or twice as fat as me, or whatever. Fat-shaming isn’t bad because it’s directed at inbetweenies as well as at fat people. Fat-shaming is harmful for EVERYONE. Fat-shaming is not.ok.
As long as some doctors keep seeing lithotomy position as a prime opportunity to ladle on the shame, girls and women are going to avoid Pap smears. So hey, ball’s in your court, medical profession. Fix it. Get your own house in order, and meanwhile, stop telling US we’re the ones doing it wrong.