Had I heard her wrong? Was she making a weird joke? Was she judging me? Was it her way of trying to tell me pubic hair existed for a reason and I should have it?
When it comes to gynecologists, I’ve been pretty lucky. When I first started having sex in high school, I found a fantastic ob-gyn at Planned Parenthood, and when I went off to college, I had another great one at the Planned Parenthood close to campus. In both cases, these were women with whom I could easily talk to and be candid with, so I never felt judged, no matter the topic of discussion. With both of these women, I felt as comfortable as you can possibly feel with a medical professional who gets up close and personal with your vagina. The space they created was a safe one—it was exactly the type of experience you want when you go to the doctor. Even after I moved to New York City, I’d make my yearly pap smears with one of those two ob-gyns in New Hampshire, planning my appointments around the holidays or when I knew I’d be in town visiting my parents.
But when I started dating someone and wanted to get on birth control ASAP, I didn’t have the luxury of heading up to New Hampshire. So I asked my female friends who they went to and heard good things about a women’s health clinic in Soho. It was a perfect location, right across the street from where I worked at the time.
In order to get on birth control, I had to get a pelvic exam to make sure everything was on the up and up. Right after the exam, my doctor told me I could sit up, and then said something that truly shocked me: “Not having pubic hair is playing into the porn industry’s expectations of women.” Unsure of what I had just heard, I asked, “What?” She said the same thing again but in different words. So I responded in the only way I could and just said, “OK.”
She wrote me a prescription for birth control and sent me on my way.
As I walked up Broadway, I kept thinking about what she had said. Had I heard her wrong? Was she making a weird joke? Was she judging me? Was it her way of trying to tell me pubic hair existed for a reason and I should have it? I couldn’t figure it out. Not only did the comment come out of left field, but also it was simply unnecessary. Had her comment about my lack of pubic hair been health- or medically-related, I could understand it, but this was about the porn industry and its expectations. I was baffled. And the more I thought about it, the angrier I got.
“I suspect that gynecologist’s comment on porn industry’s expectations of women was a personal opinion, a judgmental one, and isn’t the rhetoric of the ob-gyn community,” says Sheila Loanzon, M.D., board-certified ob-gyn and author of Yes, I Have Herpes. “It’s up to the patient if they want to respond; however, I suspect any response may not change that gynecologist’s perspective to a more open one.”
That said, a comment like that is neither warranted or welcomed, agrees Dr. Loanzon. “It would be the equivalent of a provider commenting on someone’s choice of clothing, hair color, the car they drive, and what those choices convey to others. If this comment was directed at the importance of maintaining pubic hair to protect sensitive vaginal skin, that would be a comment that has medical validation.”
But considering I was just there to get birth control pills and didn’t have any medical issues with my vagina or vulva, her comment wasn’t necessary; it was simply judgment and shaming. As far as I was concerned, she wasn’t just shaming me, but she was shaming women in the porn industry too—an industry, I might add, that has a whole variety of types of pubic hair or lack thereof.
“Pubic hair functions as a protective barrier from bacteria and other irritants that may upset the delicate mucus membranes of the vagina,” similar to how your eyebrows help protect your eyes, says Dr. Loanzon. If you have chronic vaginal infections, then you might want to consider protecting “the sensitive inner vaginal skin by keeping pubic hair present to prevent infections; however, it’s not mandatory,” she says. “The removal of pubic hair has become common due to pop culture and is ultimately a personal choice.”
And I’m Not the Only One
Once I stopped feeling like I was in a strange episode of Sex and the City, I texted a few friends. While most of them had never experienced any judgment from their doctors on their personal pubic hair choices—even the few who had recommended this specific clinic to me—there was one friend who had experienced something similar. In her case, she had an appointment at her usual doctor’s office where she’d been going for years and the new nurse practitioner who conducted the exam said afterward, “It’s a good thing you don’t shave or wax your pubic hair too much. I see too many young women coming in here with abrasions all over their pubic bone and it’s not good.”
Sure, no one wants abrasions on their vulva (or anywhere for that matter), but my friend wasn’t there for vulva abrasions; she was there for an annual pap smear and pelvic exam. Why would a professional say such a thing? And how many others were there? Curious, I continued asking around.
One woman, Emma, 32, went in for a colonoscopy and was told by her ob-gyn to stop shaving because it was causing ingrown hairs and other bumps. “It’s not like I wasn’t aware of the ingrown hairs—I just prefer less hair,” she says. Another woman, Ali, 23, had an even more jarring interaction when she was diagnosed with chlamydia, and as her doctor turned away to make a note in her chart, she said, “Pubic hair helps to prevent the contraction and spread of STIs—something to consider.”
“She didn’t even look at me when she said it,” says Ali. “I felt like she was saying my diagnosis had more to do with my lack of pubic hair than anything else. In that moment, I wanted to hear about my diagnosis and how I was going to get rid of the infection. I didn’t give a f*ck about my pubic hair’s role in me getting it.”
Yes, in this case, her comment is medically relevant (some studies suggest that pubic hair—or its removal—does play a role in the transmission of STIs; however, not all experts agree). Regardless, if a patient has just been diagnosed with an STI, an open and informative conversation should follow, not a one-off comment.
In all these cases, women were judged, albeit some more than others, for something that’s far bigger than pubic hair: They were judged for choices they made for their bodies. As if women’s fight for autonomy isn’t difficult enough as it is, one would at least hope that an ob-gyn’s office is a safe space.
Why It’s More Than Just a Weird Thing to Say
Today’s society is constantly trying to dictate to women how they should look, how they should act, and what’s “right” and “wrong” for them. No part of a woman’s body is safe from judgment. On a couple of occasions, I’ve been with men who have either commented on me not having enough pubic hair or having too much. While disgusting and inappropriate, that judgment doesn’t surprise me—tragically, these few men are products of their society. Not that I’m giving them a free pass in any way, but when it comes to a gynecologist commenting on my pubic hair (or anyone’s pubic hair), that’s just straight-up wrong. So damn wrong.
You should be able to go into an ob-gyn’s office and feel comfortable. You should be able to feel as though your body, questions, fears, and sexual health, in general, are judgment-free. Some women have a hard enough time as it is being open with their gynecologists about what’s going on with their reproductive health. To judge is ultimately to shame, and someone who feels shamed is less likely to be forthcoming about their medical issues. How tragic would it be if a woman suffered in pain for an extended period of time (say, due to painful sex) or ended up with a more serious condition because she felt she couldn’t be upfront and honest with her ob-gyn?
To this day, I wish I’d responded in a way that would’ve made that doctor understand not only how inappropriate her comment was but also how anti-feminist it was, too. For weeks afterward, I ran the scenario over and over in my head with a whole slew of amazing comebacks I’ll never get the chance to say. I even debated calling her to let her know just how deeply her comment affected me, in the hopes that she’d think twice before she said something like that again. But, as Dr. Loanzon pointed out, it doesn’t matter what I might have said; I wasn’t going to change her mind. She’s entitled to her opinion, as we all are. But she’s also in a profession where she shouldn’t be sharing that particular opinion at the risk of alienating a patient or, even worse, make them feel that space is no longer a safe one for honest and productive dialogue.
I doubt I was the first or last patient that doctor made that specific comment (or a similar one) to, and I find that unnerving. I also doubt, as evidenced by the experiences above, that she’s the only doctor doing this, too. I just hope one of those patients—instead of being shocked and dumbfounded, like me—is able to articulate a response conveying to their doctor that the best thing women can do for each other is to support their choices, even if you’re not personally on board with those choices. (And, of course, arm them with all the important information they need to make those choices well.)
In a way, that’ll get us one step closer to a positive change in society—a change that might finally make people realize that they have no right to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t do with her body.
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