Stop Apologising For Your Body
When you are a woman of a certain age it feels like nothing is sacred anymore. By the time you’ve hit your twenties, it’s more than likely that a doctor has given you a Pap smear or swabbed you for an STI, or perhaps even examined your breasts. There’s also a high chance that if you’ve had any kind of gynaecological or sexual complaint you will have had to divulge intimate details about your sex life, from the sexual partners you prefer to the kinds of sex you have.
As a junior doctor with an interest in sexual health, I’ve been at both the giving and receiving end of all of this. I’ve seen and done enough Pap smears, swabs and breast exams for it all to have become very routine.
Even so, when I get a Pap smear or any other intimate examination I can’t help but feel apologetic. Statements like “Sorry I haven’t shaved my legs” and “Sorry I haven’t had a wax recently” come out of my mouth before I can stop myself. I say these things even though I know that the doctor isn’t looking at my legs and couldn’t care less about whether there is hair down there or not.
I know I’m not the only one guilty of this. I’ve had so many women apologise to me about their bodies or tell me how horrible it must be for me to have to examine ‘down there’. Each time I explain to them that examining genitals is far from the worst thing I have had to do as a doctor, and that all I care about is whether they are healthy or not. And then I feel like a hypocrite, knowing I am going to make the exact same apologies next time I’m naked below the waist on a doctor’s exam bench.
As I’ve recently learned, we doctors aren’t the only people privy to these sorts of comments. After taking my sister-in-law to get her ears re-pierced I hung around afterwards to chat with piercers Kylie and Ben, and was saddened to hear that they regularly hear similar sentiments from women.
“You get it all the time, and it breaks my heart,” Ben laments. “The number of girls who will come in [for nipple piercings] and apologise to me for the shape of their breasts is ridiculous. So many of them will take their bras off and be like “Sorry” and I’m like “What for?” and they’re like “One of my boobs is bigger than the other” or “My nipples are really big.” They start dropping these negative self-esteem bombs right in front of you. Never apologise for the shape of your body”.
“I’m sorry I’m human,” Kylie adds sarcastically before remarking “That’s the porn industry: cut the inner labia off, have fake breasts. They’re the only naked bodies [young people] see.” She makes a valid point: figures from the 2006 article Safety in Cyberspace: Adolescents Safety and Exposure Online reveal that in Australia 93% of boys and 61% of girls aged 13-16 are exposed to online porn. With porn being described as “the most prominent form of sex education for many teenagers” by sex educator Maree Crabbe, it’s no wonder that many young people have issues with body image.
Perhaps speaking to people outside of medicine gave me some perspective, but talking with Ben and Kylie made me realise it was time to start practicing what I preach. As tricky and counterintuitive as it will sometimes be, I’m going to make a conscious effort not to feel guilty about my body and I hope that others will follow suit. Sure our bodies may be uneven or hairy, but who cares? They are not a crime, and therefore do not require an apology.