The Vagenda

On Modesty

L’origine du monde, Courbet, 1866

Today I went to my local hospital to get a smear test done.

The process is this: you go into the room, then you perch awkwardly on a chair while the doctor interrogates you about your various bodily functions and irresponsible lifestyle. Then you take your pants off, get on the bed, spread your legs and let them at your cervix.

Except it’s not that simple. What happens instead is – in full awareness that you’re about to let the doctor in question insideyour vagina – you are ushered into a corner of the room and a curtain is pulled around you so you can remove your lower clothing. I was told, “put your clothes on the chair there and there’s the modesty blanket.” Let’s repeat that: the modesty blanket.

Now, I was wearing jeans and a very long man’s shirt that comes down to my thighs. And even if I’d been wearing a t-shirt, this blanket was apparently to make sure nobody glimpsed my genitals in the less-than-a-minute transition from standing up and having a clamp inserted into my vagina. (Ironically, the blanket didn’t fit around me – it left my bum hanging out, Monty Python waiter style). It all seemed pretty superfluous. But from the doctor’s tone, calling into my curtained area, I understood that I was expected to put it on anyway.

So I put it on and lay down and put my feet into the stirrups. Unsurprisingly, in this position the blanket spread from knee to knee and presumably left my genitals in full few for anyone bending down to look. Which I figured was fine because that was exactly what the doctor was about to do. But the nurse who oversaw this procedure had other ideas and said in a kind but stern voice, “I’ll just adjust this” and moved some of the modesty blanket down so my genitals were hidden. Ten seconds later the doctor sat down between my legs and pushed it back up.

Now, I am not worried about what the doctor is going to think of my vagina. I’m worried about getting cancer. I’m being monitored because two years ago, at 18, my first smear test showed medium levels of dangerous, possibly-cancer-in-15-years cells. This means I’ve been having bi-annual smear tests for the past two years, as well as several colposcopies. I’ve also been tested for STIs several times, as befits a sexually active woman.

All these activities involve doctors and nurses looking at and poking about inside my vagina and around my vulva. And that’s fine. When I enter a clinic, the last thing I’m thinking about is ‘what if they see my vagina while I’m standing up?’ or ‘what if they glimpse it while I’m lying on the bed?’ Instead, I’m hoping they’ll get a very good look. I’d be more than happy to do naked yoga or demonstrate my favourite sex positions for them if it meant my chances of getting a life-threatening disease was lowered to any degree. 

So whose benefit was all this ‘modesty’ for? I understand that some women might be uncomfortable in this position, and it’s great that they provide an environment where allowances are made for that. But the doctor knew me and I have made it pretty clear on multiple occasions that I don’t give a shit. Nevertheless, the tone they used for all these instructions for preserving my ‘modesty’ before they inserted a clamp and removed some cells from my cervix made me feel as if any failure to show a desire to be ‘modest’ would be a failure on my part.

Or was it for them? Is it possible that the nurse and doctor – both women and sexual health clinic workers – were offended by the idea of viewing my genitals for any unnecessary period of time? Would I have made them uncomfortable if I had dared to walk from the clothes-laden chair to the bed with nothing but a shirt on?

The doctor said my cervix looked fine, and I’ll get the results in a few weeks, hopefully saying I can finally be discharged (pun unintended).

But what I’m left with is the sense that my genitals embarrass even health workers. Their actions today reinforced the idea that my problem is something that has to be hidden.

For an 18 year old woman to find out she has a potentially serious reproductive health condition is confronting. What I needed then, and still need now, is a supportive environment when I go to get tested. I need people who are comfortable talking very directly about my genitals, because I need to be able to see myself clinically, my vision unclouded by society’s ideas about my vagina. If I go in and feel awkward about my own body, it becomes a lot more difficult to think clearly about my condition, and most importantly – not to be ashamed.

Why the obsession about modesty? In the end, I was angriest that they used that word. There is nothing immodest about failing to be embarrassed by the idea of a nurse and doctor glimpsing my pubic hair. There is nothing immodest about having my genitals visible when they are being examined. There is nothing immodest about being treated for a disease.

- Aurora

22 thoughts on “On Modesty

  1. You raise some very good points, but I would add that it could be part of dis-owning our genitals. I know that’s not the word I want but hopefully you get my meaning.

    Most feminists are aware that out genitals really only exist for male pleasure, thus must be poked, preened, plucked, waxed, tanned, scented and cleaned for their enjoyment.

    Genitals must also only be exposed in an environment where men will enjoy them, such as the bedroom or a strip club. Exposing your breasts, or heaven forfend, your vagina, in an environment that isn’t designed for male pleasure is just plane wrong and could make us believe that we own our vaginas and might actually want to do activities with our vaginas (other than beautifying them) when men aren’t around!

    Obviously those ideas must be quashed, or we might wake up one day and realise that we don’t need a man to have fun with our vaginas and breasts. Actually, we might just wake up and realise we don’t need a man at all!

  2. I’ve got a nurse friend who tells me she hates doing smear tests, hates the looking and touching of women’s genitals, it makes her cringe. There was me thinking nurses are trained, unflinching professionals. Now, when I go for a smear, not only am I worrying about my own embarrassment and discomfort, I’m also having to worry about the nurse being disgusted by what she has to do to me. Great!

  3. they put what can only be described as a massive paper napkin over my legs when I got my IUD fitted.. I’m glad they did though, IT HURT!
    I think not looking makes it hurt less.. obvs I’m not ashamed of my lady bits otherwise i’d have opted to take a pill every day rather than have two women peering up my baby-hole when I was on my period… twice. But I’d prefer not see them stick long metal scissory things and evil plastic clampy things up my vagina, the same way that I wouldn’t want to look if I was getting stitches.
    Personally I am just grateful that the person who did everything for me was so professional and honest, and that the NHS will do everything for free.
    What I find weirdest is how they call the hospital beds they examine you on a ‘couch’… and they say pop A LOT
    pop up on the couch for me
    pop your feet up
    pop your knees down
    now if you just pop your clothes back on and come round the curtain.

  4. I believe one of the most important things is that for the woman getting work done on her vagina, smear test, IUD etc etc she needs to feel comfortable. I think we all know that getting that kind of thing done in that area is heck of a lot easier and shouldn’t hurt if you aren’t stressed out and worried.

    So as you mentioned in your article it’s great that they can provide a “modesty” means for those that would rather not be on totally display from the waist down. However, if you have repeatedly informed the medical professionals that you are working with that you in fact feel more comfortable being able to let it all hang out (ahem) then they should equally accommodate this for you.

    And in my humble opinion start out trying to make someone comfortable without this modesty blanket in order to help foster a more positive attitude by all involved about a perfectly natural medical procedure. Thanks for the article.

  5. I’m a midwife and have absolutely no problem looking at or touching women’s breasts, vulvas or vaginas (if it embarrassed me I be in the wrong job). However a lot of women do find the whole experience uncomfortable, awkward or embarrassing and I see offering to draw the curtain/allowing them to get undressed in private/popping a blanket over themselves as a way of helping them feel a little bit more comfortable with the whole experience.

    I’ll often ask a women if she’d like me to pull her blanket up if it has slipped, not for my benefit but to help her maintain her dignity and privacy- a lot of women aren’t bothered, but a lot are and it’s nice to offer her the choice. Like it or not a lot of women are shy and I don’t think making an already uncomfortable experience worse for them is the right thing to do.

    However it does sound like the question was phrased badly (and modesty seems like a really odd choice of word), if it made you feel like the healthcare profession was unwilling to see you naked then we need to think more carefully about how we frame things (however good our intentions). Thank you for bringing it up because it’s not something I’ve ever really thought about and it’s definitely something I’ll be aware of in clinical practice(I’ll still be offering the blanket and curtains though!)


  6. Ah, this article seems a shade off to me. I don’t think the emphasis on “modesty” in this situation is anything personal or even anything to do with women’s bodies per se, it’s just standard NHS procedure. My ex-gf was a nursing student and it seemed very apparent that there’s a very heavy stress placed in training upon maintaining the “dignity” of patients (of all genders, ages, and mental conditions…), even in the most patently undignified situations. This is probably just a logical consequence of that, whereby people mechanically act out what they’ve been trained to do even if it’s unnecessary or, as here, unwanted.

  7. This article I feel misses the point of the “modesty” question. The idea of the blanket is to provide modesty to patient and keep exposure to an absolute minimum. A huge number of patients will never be comfortable showing their body to health professionals, and therefore health professional make covering up seem “normal” and not an inconvenience so that patients who do not wish to expose themselves uncessarily are in no way pressured to do so. Those who do not mind exposing themselves are unlikely to be offended by this principle.

    I do not believe that medical professionals are trying to “hide genitals” or shy away from them, and that’s a pretty sweeping statement to make from a handful of bad experiences you have had.

    I am a medical student, and we are constantly taught and educated that modesty should be respected at all times and exposure kept to a minimum. If we don’t teach that, then medical professional will forget that it is important. We are surrounded by naked bodies all the time, and would become easy to forget that many people are extremely uncomfortable with being naked. I don’t think Modesty is a negative thing, and you mustn’t put personal beliefs about modesty on others, hence they provision of the “modesty blanket”.

    Echoing a comment above, perhaps the way in which this was offered to you was off the mark, and the doctor and nurse should have been more sensitive to your wishes. However, the blanket is an OPTION and it is ASSUMED you will want it. This is because many patients feel powerless to ask for these things and scared of asking. Therefore, we try and make it an easy option to the individual. I have to fully disagree with the perceived motivation of offering the blanket. Furthermore, I personally would not be phased by anything you have talked about, and neither do I believe my colleagues would be either. The sweeping statements here are a real shame.

  8. I whole-heartedly agree with what you’ve said miamazing. It’s odd that someone should be offended by health professionals trying to preserve someone’s dignity and modesty. Let’s not forget the crass regard for patients comfort/dignity in earlier decades where doctors, not patients, were the forefront of healthcare. Why should a doctor be concerned if your genitals are on show for a good airing? Because you could easily be concerned, and it could make you uncomfortable. Smear tests are far less painful (are quicker) if the woman is relaxed.

    As a medical student we are trained very carefully in these respects, and rightly so. Some are better at expressing themselves than others, and for anyone it can be hard to find the right ‘turn of phrase’. The word ‘pop’ is used frequently to convey a sense of ease and routine, as that’s how we’d like women to feel when they’re about to go through something that’s quite invasive.

    It’s a shame you’ve had a negative experience, but its more of a shame that you’ve glossed over some significant considerations in your ease to take offence. The NHS is always scrutinised for its mistakes, but I hope on further thought you would reconsider that this was one of them.

  9. I absolutely agree with this comment. I’m a doctor with lots of experience with intimate examinations, and I can honestly say doing an internal examination feels the same as examining someones chest/abdomen. Its all the same to me!

    Like mia has said we’re trained to be aware of peoples embarrassment. You may be fairly carefree about having the examination but a lot of people aren’t. A lot of people feel anxious, incredibly exposed and scared. And I’m not surprised. You’re letting a total stranger who you’ve met 5 minutes examine your most intimate area. Most people are grateful for having something to cover them up. (and even though I wasn’t nervous at all when I had my smear I was grateful to have a blanket when the nurse was setting up, its not nice being semi naked whilst someone fully clothed is preparing equipment)

    I normally really support the articles on Vagenda but I really feel this is missing the point. This is a simple method clinicians use to try and make people feel more relaxed and anxious before having an intimate examination. Its our way of showing people that we respect them, respect their modesty and want them to be relaxed. Its not about us being embarrassed about having a floof in the room. If we were that embarrassed we wouldn’t even be able to do the procedure.

    Be careful what you wish for. If you want your doctor to treat you like a piece of meat who doesn’t give a f**k about your personal space/modesty then your going the right way about it!

  10. As a medical student and a healthcare assistant (I have worked several times in colposcopy/smears clinic) I have to agree with the other health professionals that have commented here.

    I’ve never met a member of medical, surgical, nursing staff who has a problem or squeamishness about people’s bodies, genitals or otherwise – it simply wouldn’t be feasible. In light of this, it would be all too easy to forget about patient dignity and modesty – leaving a patient feeling degraded, frightened or deeply uncomfortable. Patoents unlikely to ask for covering/privacy, and it is certainly unkind to put them in a position where they have to.

    We are taught the mantra “expose as little as possible” – and that’s not just genitals but any part of the body that the patient has not willingly exposed themselves.

    You might have felt comfortable with the blanket covering you where it was, but another patient – mortified and too embarassed to try and adjust the blanket to cover themselves as much as possible, might have been really grateful for that nurse adjusting it.

    And this isn’t a feminist issue – a man would have been treated in exactly the same fashion.

  11. You walked into the clinic with your genitals covered. Which (to me) indicates that that that is the level of exposure with which you are comfortable. So what is wrong with the nurse and doctor going to a very small effort to maintain that covering for you if it doesn’t interfere with the procedure?

    Also – I don’t understand your objection to the use of the word modesty. If exposed genitals are just as modest as hidden ones, what exactly do we mean by the word? To what -does- it refer? I view modesty as a subjective measure of how covered up someone is, and attach no further value to it.

  12. This isn’t a feminist issue.I would say you are fairly rare in being happy to not be covered, medical problem or not.I presume the same level of ‘modesty’ is afforded to men having examinations.

  13. Huh. I always assumed they covered you etc. so that when the doctor opens the door to enter, there’s less chance of someone outside who’s not involved in your care (and who presumably you wouldn’t want looking up your bits, like another patient and such) seeing in due to an unpredictable line of sight.

  14. Now that’s just being silly! In most places its illegal to walk in from off the street into a business with your genitals exposed. So, the fact that someone is wearing clothes to the doctors doesn’t tell us anything.

    I usually go to the GYN straight from work, wearing a suit. But to you, this means that’s my comfort level?? I don’t find suits particularly comfortable and honestly hate clothing touching my skin. In personal recreational time, I practice social nudism (beaches and camps and such) and am most comfortable without clothes. But, I would never walk into a doctor office clothes-free, its illegal and would make others uncomfortable.

    I am not the author, but I also have issue with the name ‘modesty blanket’. It implies it is immodest to show that area, so when the doctor’s moves it to expose you to the procedure it follows there is a reason for shame. Blankets should be available for comfort and warmth (why are those rooms SO freezing cold?!). Also, how does a blanket or any fabric give you modesty? Modesty is a quality of heart & mind. It’s not being prideful or boastful, being humble. If I chose not to use a ‘modesty’ blanket, I assure you it has nothing to do me trying to boast about my pubic hair or labia (i.e. being immodest). Besides those blankets are so darn scratchy!

  15. I think the point is that the modesty option should be there for anyone who needs or wants it, but should not be required by those who don’t, i.e. without fear or judgement. I imagine that the nurses/doctors in this instance were trying to be sensitive and discreet, but actually, just having a professional air and getting on with the task in hand would be enough, without fannying about (nice) whispering behind curtains about modesty blankets and turning it into a French farce of taste and decency. I think that you should write to your clinic, Aurora, and urge them to tone it down a bit.

    I respect and understand the urge of the medical profession to maintain people’s ‘dignity’ – for many the ‘moedesty blanket’ will be a godsend – But there are those of us who see nothing undignified about a part of our body which is frankly an awe inspiring piece of machinery, and in a world which teaches us to deny this or misunderstand it or even hate it, this insistence on ‘preserving modesty’ is outdated and loaded.

    ‘If you want to cover yourself there’s a blanket provided’ and ‘Are you ready?’ would surely suffice, no?

  16. I don’t know if I agree with you here. To an extent certainly you’re last line makes a lot of sense but the whole point of providing a blanket and assuming that it will be used is to try to make as many people as possible comfortable.. I think I’d rather work on the assumption that someone may be mortally humiliated by the examination and try to ease the situation as much as possible for them than work on the (admittedly valid) principal that we all ought to be as comfortable with our bodies as possible.
    I’d argue a minor irritant for you would be worthwhile saving someone else the feeling of being degraded and humiliated (which certainly can happen be it with someone presenting to the doctor for their first ever time or someone brought up with different ideas regarding their bodies).
    It could be argued doctors ought to be doing as much as they can as (relatively) well thought of and respected people to remove ‘outdated and loaded’ ideas but in the time period of an exam is this really the situation to try to push many peoples comfort zones?

  17. I think that’s the thing though, it should accommodate both types of women [obv there are probably more than 2 types!]. I have openly said to my midwife, who has seen me with both my children and is about to see me again, “Do I need to put that over me?” I don’t get the point, it’s only us, or possibly another nurse, in the room. She is going to be messing around up in my vagina anyways and enough people have seen it when I’ve given birth. They still make you feel like you HAVE to wear it. I’m comfortable with my body, with my genitals being out and about but like others have said it feels like some professionals aren’t comfortable with it. I get that there are many women that wouldn’t be comfortable but shouldn’t those of us who are be granted the comfort of not having one of those things on us?

  18. I think perhaps you have missed the point! I took the point to be there should be equal rights, for those who need the modesty and for those who don’t. I for one feel “forced” to have a blanket over me even when I have stated I didn’t want/need it there. Maybe it’s a case of everybody being allowed to feel comfortable in the way they want to. It’s not about being a piece of meat if we’re comfortable then why can’t we be treated in such a way instead of having to have a blanket we don’t want!

  19. its amazing how wishy washy you feminists are. you down men and the blatant nude females on advertisments, magazines, and paintings, but when you’re given a blanket to cover yourself so that your martyr asses dont feel “used and abused”, you have a fit and say “why? is my body dirty?” hell YOU ARE THE ONES WHO BITCH AND MOAN AND MAKE MEN OUT TO BE “DIRTY” FOR LOOKING AT YOU SEXUALLY AND HERE IS AN INSTANCE WHERE YOU ARE TREATED LIKE A LADY AND GIVEN SOME DAMN COVERING TO FEEL LESS VULNERABLE IN THIS AWKWARD SITUATION. AND STILL YOU WOMEN COMPLAIN. SO WHICH IS IT? HAVE YOU FIGURED OUT JUST EXACTLY WHAT YOUR ESTROGEN FILLED CRAZY SELVES WANT!!!!! FUCKING NUTJOBS!!