8 Things You Don't Need To Worry About Before A Smear Test
Fun fact: when we first started HANX, our Co-Founder Dr Sarah Welsh introduced herself as the ‘girl who looks at vaginas all day’. Speaking professionally, she really has seen it all when it comes to front bottoms, thanks to many years working in NHS gynaecology and obstetrics - which is very useful when it comes to getting real about big topics.
This Cervical Cancer Awareness Week focuses on increasing awareness and uptake of cervical screening, with 1 in 3 people with a vagina not attending a smear test (also known as a pap smear in the US) when invited to do so. Right now, they’re currently available to anyone in the UK with a cervix between the ages of 25 to 64.
Never been for a cervical screening before? Been a while? Let Dr Sarah take a load off your mind. Here are eight things not to be worried about, from the vagina girl herself:
1. Wearing nice undies
Keep the Agent Provocateur for the bedroom, baby. From comfy grundies to oh-my-god-all-my-other-knickers-are-in-the-wash Victoria Secret thongs, you don’t need to think twice about what underwear to wear to your appointment. In fact, we don’t even get a glimpse of your sartorial choices as we step away behind a curtain to give you privacy to take off your pants and get comfortable before we begin your smear test.
2. Getting waxed/shaved
Au natural, landing strip or the Hollywood: it’s your call. Remember, it’s not just there for cosmetic purposes. Pubic hair is basically a natural lubricant, which helps relieve friction during skin contact (okay, okay, we’re talking about sex). It also protects you from bacteria and wicks away sweat and if you’re washing frequently, definitely isn’t unhygienic. Whether you decide to embrace the bush, do a little maintenance or go smooth like a seal, we aren’t judging - and we’ve seen it all!
3. Body acne
Don’t let spots stop you, either. From ingrown hairs to razor burn, the odd pimple or body acne, they shouldn’t get in the way of attending your appointment. The average healthcare professional has seen some pretty wild things in their time (ask me about the most unusual things I’ve retrieved from vaginas), so skin conditions aren’t going to put off giving you the best smear test possible.
4. Your body shape
Body image can impact everything from our libido to mental health, and even attendance of important medical appointments. Research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust showed 50% of young women surveyed feel embarrassed to attend due to weight or body shape. We can’t emphasise this enough: cervical screening saves lives. Your healthcare professional is concerned about performing the test and getting the best possible sample to be tested - not your body shape.
5. Body smells
The same survey showed that 54% are concerned about whether their vagina smells ‘normal’. The simple answer: don’t be. The longform answer: it’s not surprising that people have concerns about their body odour, when misogynistic jokes about fishy vaginas abound alongside the myth of ‘the perfect vagina’ (see below). Generally speaking, vagina odour tends to be gently musky and can be a little tangy or sweaty depending on your pH balance. If you notice a strong, foul smell or anything out of the ordinary for you, speak to your GP or a healthcare professional who will be able to work with you to figure out what’s happening. As for during your appointment: if we notice anything that might indicate a yeast infection such as thrush, bacterial vaginosis (which can smell fish-like) or anything out of the ordinary, we’ll help - no big deal.
6. Stretch marks
Stretch marks are indented streaks on the skin that may appear purple, red or brown depending on your skin colour, and are caused by skin stretching or shrinking quickly. Hormonal changes, medication, growth in puberty and weight loss or gain, especially during pregnancy or post-partum, can leave you with so-called ‘tiger stripes’. Tabloid culture of the 2000s especially fuelled stigma around their appearance, but there’s nothing weird about having them. In fact, most of us do at some point in our lives!
7. What your labia looks like
There’s enough material to write a whole book on vulva shame (in fact, we were once asked to do just that!), starting with the labia, aka the fleshy skin folds or ‘lips’ on the outside of your genitals. They have a very important purpose: to protect your vaginal and urethral openings from bacteria, friction and dryness. However, they’re not getting the love they deserve and are often subject to shame and stigma. Pervasive attitudes around what makes a ‘pretty vagina’ (side note: can we teach everyone to use the correct terminology from a young age? It’s a vulva!) combined with ‘neat’, perfectly symmetrical vulvas in pornography have created a false narrative around our bodies. Take a trip to London’s Vagina Museum to learn more about vulva diversity, or discover UK artist Lydia Reeves’s vulva casts, which capture the incredibly broad and beautiful spectrum of vulvas out there. Yes, it’s time to love your labia in all its unique glory.
8. Being nervous
Talk to your doctor or practice nurse about what to expect. They'll go through the procedure with you and put your mind at ease. Take a look at TikTok, too, where lots of people share their experiences and help demystify it. If you’re feeling anxious or have had a family/friend experience cervical cancer, it's often tempting to go for your screening earlier than invited (they start aged 25 years in England). However, unless you’re having any symptoms, this is not helpful. Cervical screening in young people is more likely to pick up normal cell changes, which may result in unnecessary treatment while not changing the number of cases of cancer. Remember, cervical cancer in those aged below 25 is very rare.
- We’re signed up to Jo’s Trust’s Time to Test campaign, which aims to tackle one of the key barriers to accessing a smear test: fitting an appointment into your working life. 38% of women and other people with a cervix were unable to get a convenient appointment last time they tried to book. We’re committed to giving our time flexibility to attend vital cervical screening during work hours - find out how you can set this up in your own workplace, too.
- From abnormal results to treatment: learn more in our need-to-know guide to cervical cancer.