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What To Expect At A Smear Test

I’d like to start by saying that this is only my experience and that everyone’s experience of getting a smear test will be different.

A smear test (medically known as a cervical screening) is used to check your cervix for cell changes, which can be caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). In the UK, you are invited for your first smear test at the age of 25, and if your results are normal, you should get a smear test every 3 years. I remember receiving my letter in the post inviting me to my smear test a couple of months before my 25th birthday two years ago. I knew it was coming and I called my GP to book myself in more or less straight away, having read horror stories about people putting it off with dire consequences.

I didn’t really feel too nervous until I was in the waiting room. I had wondered if it would hurt, given that there is still a silly amount of scaremongering about smear tests. Before being invited for my test, I didn’t know much about how it all works, so I did a bit of reading before to prepare myself. As a sexual assault survivor, I was somewhat anxious about being triggered, but I was able to keep reminding myself how important it was and I managed to put those feelings aside until the actual procedure. One thing I advise if you are a survivor is telling the practitioner who will be carrying out your screening. You don’t have to give details but it is helpful to let them know because then they can support you and know to expect that it might be a difficult experience for you.

The actual screening itself usually consists of you lying on a bed and bending your legs with your ankles together and knees apart – sometimes there will be stirrups but I didn’t have them in my appointment. A lubricated speculum is inserted into your vagina to allow the practitioner to see your cervix. Once the practitioner has a good view of the cervix, they use a small brush to take a sample of cells from it. This is the part that I’d heard everyone complain about. Personally, I found the speculum the most uncomfortable part, but I didn’t find it painful. The actual brushing part lasted about three seconds and felt a little weird and uncomfortable, but again I didn’t find painful at all.

The nurse talked me through everything she was doing, which I had requested due to my past experiences. It is good practice for the practitioner to talk you through the procedure anyway unless you request not to be told. My legs were shaking like crazy to start with, but mentally I managed to get myself in the zone. The whole screening lasted a few minutes and I was honestly surprised at how quickly it was over. It’s normal to have a little bit of spotting afterwards, but you shouldn’t experience any pain – if you do, then get in touch with a doctor. 

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I got my results in a letter after a couple of weeks and they were normal. Occasionally they will find abnormal or pre-cancerous cells, which results in either another screening or a colposcopy appointment, followed by treatment. 1 in 20 people will have abnormal results, but less than 1% of these people will have cervical cancer, so try not to panic if you’re told you have abnormal results (easier said than done, I know).

It’s very easy to put off booking your smear, but it is incredibly important. More than 99% of cervical cancer cases are preventable. Your smear test isn’t a test for cancer, but it is a test to help prevent cancer. Anyone with a cervix is at risk of developing cervical cancer, especially aged 25 to 49. This applies if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, if you’ve only had one sexual partner, if you’re lesbian or bisexual, and so on. As I said above, my experience is only one of many, and I had a good experience. Not everyone will have a perfect experience, but at the least, you can be reassured that it doesn’t last more than 5 minutes.

If you’re super nervous about your smear test, definitely check out the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust website (linked below); they have some fab tips for how you can prepare and how you can make the experience as easy as possible. But whatever you do, please don’t put it off!

Helpful links:

  • Zoe Sugg has just started a ‘Smear Series’ on her IGTV where she’s filmed her experience
  • Katie Snooks’ YouTube video covers her experience with cervical screening, her abnormal results and the treatment she had for this. There are a plethora of YouTube videos of people’s experiences with smear tests.
  • Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has info on what cervical screening is, results, the procedure, etc.
  • The NHS website has easy-to-read info about cervical screenings
  • Cancer Research Statistics for more statistics like those used in this article


Words by Amber Berry for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online
Image from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust

The Importance Of Body Image In Sex Education

This August, my sister and I were lucky enough to spend a few days at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. When making a list of all the shows we had seen, I realised that we had both sought out shows exploring body image and body confidence. It was only after leaving the Edinburgh bubble that I realised the importance of including body image in the conversation on sexuality because these two things usually go hand in hand.

All the women in these shows talked about their body confidence, or in some instances, their lack of body confidence, and how it had stopped them feeling desirable. In one show, a woman discussed being teased and belittled by a group of men on a night out because of her size, and on another occasion, she described how a man had asked her boyfriend why he was with her.

This type of harassment is both specific to plus size women and a continuation of the harassment women receive on a daily basis; from catcalls to men asking us to smile on cue. In our society, women’s bodies are seen to be offered up to the public for judgement and affirmation. Many of the shows I saw in Edinburgh this summer combatted this idea by encouraging women to reclaim their bodies for themselves. 

In one particularly brilliant show, Hotter by Sweaty Theatre, Mary Higgins and Ell Potter use personal experiences, interviews and verbatim theatre to explore body image, sex and sexuality. In a Guardian interview, their show is described as an “interrogation of the female body, its fluids, desires and changes”. In a voice-over, women say what makes them feel sexy, what makes them feel heat, what an orgasm feels like and what their favourite song to dance to is.

As I was watching the show, I felt accepted, laughing in acknowledgement of awkward anecdotes, and taking joy in the stories being shared, however halfway through I felt a deep sadness and I couldn’t understand it. It was only when I was thinking about what to write for this’s year’s sex education week that this sadness made sense, and I knew what I wanted to talk about. I felt sad that for the first time, at the tender age of twenty-six, because I wanted to apologize to my body and look after it in the same way I try to look after my mind.

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I was taken back to being fifteen, sat in a geography classroom having the allotted hour-long sex education lesson before lunchtime. I thought how different my sexual experiences would be if this show had been part of my sex education, how I would have treated my body over the past ten years if I had made the connection between my own relationship with my body and my sexuality sooner.

As with most sex education, girls’ and boys’ bodies are represented as biological machines, going through the motions that we call puberty. I learned about body hair, periods, the sperm and the egg, and for split second, contraception. I was not taught how to respect the other person’s body and their boundaries, let alone my own. We were all asked to write down all the words we knew for penis, vagina and breasts but not what we thought of our own body parts. I was taught what sex was but not how my body would respond to arousal and how I could feel desirable or what I might find desirable in another person. As I got older, I never thought about the sex education I had received unless it was to realise how lacking it was; I wasn’t able to use it as a road map.

In my teenage years, I felt as if I had been left out in the wild looking for signposts. Books and films were used as a way to see where my desires lay. However, I was still acting as if this desire was something my mind was creating; the thought of my body being a factor embarrassed me, I didn’t want to pay attention to it. I also knew that all the questions I had about my body were making me feel isolated and confused. It was only when I discovered feminism in the form of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman a few years later, that my body started to make sense to me.

A unique selling point of the show Hotter was that Mary and Ell were best friends who had been a couple. Throughout the show, the audience caught glimpses of this intimate relationship as a result of its many iterations. One of the most moving moments in the show was when Mary and Ell read out letters they had written to themselves, thanking their bodies and promising to love them as best they can. At a point in Ell’s letter, she addressed Mary directly, thanking her for loving and desiring her body, making Ell love her body more in the process; ‘you always loved my tummy, in a way I never could’.

At the end of the show, both women admitted that they were trying to appreciate their bodies more. They wished they could get to the end of the hour and tell the audience they loved every inch of themselves, but like all the women in the room, they knew this was a big ask. Instead, they ended the show with a promise, to treat their bodies better, asking the audience to do the same and inviting us on stage for a final dance.

As for many women, my relationship with my body has been not been easy, I spent early teenage years ignoring it and my late teens/early twenties learning about it and starting to take pride in it. After watching Hotter, I thought about what I might say to my body in my letter and again I went back to being fifteen and feeling confused about the body I was growing into.

If I could add anything to the sex ed curriculum, it would be to ask teenage girls to write a letter to themselves.  I would ask them to write about what they love about their bodies, who they desire and what desire feels like for them. If girls are in control of what they think about their bodies from a young age, maybe they can find the joy in their bodies and sexuality sooner, therefore having a better chance of happy and safe sexual experiences. We need to teach girls how to drive their own body before they allow another person to take the wheels.

Words by Lara Scott for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.
Image by Izzy Romilly via The Guardian/Ell Potter and Mary Higgins.

We Need To Talk About Vaginismus

There are so many sprawling aspects of women’s lives that the patriarchy impacts every day, and that it continues to impact in complicated and fractured ways. One of the most important of these, to me anyway, is the sex lives of women. It’s one of the reasons that I love that Anthem does this sex education week every year.

We’re not told so many things, and there are so many things not discussed, and our voices have been silenced for so long, that it is hard to break the cycle and to begin these conversations.

One of those conversations is vaginismus.

Vaginismus is a condition that affects 1 in 500 women in the UK. It is an involuntary tightening or contraction of the vaginal muscles around the opening of the vagina. It can make sex, or putting a tampon in, painful, difficult, or even impossible.

How painful women often find sex has only recently become an issue of public discourse, but even these conversations are limited. There are so many reasons that this might be the case, and even within vaginismus, there are layered and multiple reasons.

The complicated part of the condition is that it is psychological. Feeling anxious about sex can cause it to occur, but once it has occurred once, the nerves that it will occur also play a part until you’re nervous about feeling nervous about feeling nervous.

It can also occur randomly. You could have years of painless sex before it happens. Or alternatively, you might suddenly stop experiencing it. It can occur for a multitude of reasons, some including;

  • You have a bad sexual experience or medical examination
  • You feel bad about sex
  • You have fears and worries about your body
  • You have a painful medical condition

There are a few different options in getting treatment or help. Some focus on your body, i.e. your actual vagina, and getting it used to having things inside it, and some focus on your mind, and your feelings around sex.

As ever, the NHS website has plenty of advice, and you can always go to your GP. But, from one gals personal experience, the way I thought and felt about sex was transformed by a very kind and caring partner, who just wanted to make sex fun (and sometimes funny) for me, and who has such a healthy attitude towards sex that it influenced the way I think, feel, and talk about it.

I’m still learning, but it feels like the conversation is starting. At last.

You can find out more on the NHS website: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaginismus/ 

Words by Sian Brett for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.

My Journey To Body Acceptance

My body and I have been through a lot. As a trauma and self-harm survivor, my body has really been put through the mill over the years. I have punished my body and it has been punished by others.

As a teenager exposed to The Sun, I saw the Page 3 models and felt ashamed of my flat chest and seeming lack of ‘curves’. I was surrounded by girls at school who had developed breasts much sooner than me, and I had an A cup until I was 16. The girls in the magazines all had thigh gaps, so I became obsessed with how my thighs touched. There were no images of scars, stretch marks or spots in the media. We had no talk at school about how our bodies would change over time. All of the women on the telly had similar body shapes and types. There was no one telling me that my body was okay.

The older I get, the more I decide to push back at the beauty standards placed upon women by a patriarchal society, the media, and diet culture. I’ve largely stopped giving a shit what other people think about my body. I have stopped putting on a face of make-up every day, which I only ever did to look ‘presentable’ for others. I shave when I want to and not because I feel I should. I wear clothes I like and feel good in. I wear a bra if and when I want to. I eat when I want and need to, without thinking about how my body will look as a consequence. If I’m at home I’m naked 99% of the time, which now feels so empowering and freeing to me.

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I convinced myself a long time ago that I was on a journey to self-love, but actually, it has become more about body acceptance and neutrality. Sometimes it is hard to love our bodies; they often let us down and don’t do what we want them to do. Seeing my body for what it is, what it has done for me and what it continues to do for me, enables me to feel at peace and acceptance with my body. My body has defended me against harm in multiple ways, has seen me through ridiculous gym routines and a restrictive diet, lets me know when I have not eaten enough or had enough water, lets me know when I am tired. Our bodies do so much for us in just one day. Learning to appreciate that has really allowed me to see my body for what it is: a vessel of life. My body is not here to be looked at or enjoyed by other people.

I feel that social media has been pivotal in my journey to body acceptance. The influx of social media ‘influencers’ who are unapologetic about the appearance of their bodies has not only allowed for more representation on our feeds but there is also more discussion about how harmful the beauty ideals placed on us are, which inspires us to let go of them. Seeing images of so many different types of bodies helps us to realise that we are all perfectly normal, no matter how we look. Hopefully, this can lead to us letting go of shame surrounding our bodies.

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If like me, you are striving to be at peace with your body, there are so many wonderful resources right at your fingertips. I can’t list them all, but here are just a few of my favourite Instagram accounts who help me feel like I’m okay:

@selfloveliv
@wheelchair_rapunzel
@kenziebrenna
@meg.boggs
@bodyposipanda
@bodyimage_therapist

I want to acknowledge that as a white, slim, able-bodied woman, I fit into eurocentric ideals of beauty. I realise that this also means I can see people represented in the media who look like me. As someone relatively free from physical illness, my body allows me to move as I want, which is not the case for people with chronic and physical illness.

Words and Images by Amber Berry for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.

Woefully Underprepared

It’s no secret that I’ve been underwhelmed by the sex education I received – in fact, the title sums up how it’s left me feeling pretty accurately. I was not prepared at all. What’s worse is that I had a pretty good sex education compared to friends and family members, and still felt underprepared.

I was lucky enough (and worked very hard) to get into a pretty good girls school. This meant they hired sex education professionals to come in once every few years instead of just using science teachers. It meant plastic models instead of bananas (wild). Most importantly, it meant an environment in which some girls felt comfortable asking questions (if they didn’t mind the other girls talking about them after).

It came to my attention recently that I can even recall my class briefly being talked to about sending nudes and the element of technology in our sexual education. I mentioned this to multiple people who couldn’t believe I’d had such a comprehensive education.

I know I’m lucky to have had this level of support and resource but really, it’s not good enough, is it? I’m pretty sure the most useful things I’ve learned have been from a TV show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW/Netflix). I shouldn’t be learning about my sexual health from a TV show, should I?

That’s the thing here at Anthem, we want to talk about how sex ed should be; how amazing, inclusive, and empowering it could be for everyone. It could be great, and that’s why it matters to us. This week is all about the writers at Anthem putting in our experiences and the lessons we learned the hard way to make it easier for somebody else, it doesn’t matter who.

I have become more and more passionate about sex education as time has gone on and so it’s a genuine joy to be able to do this project year after year. It’s not just indulgent for me but also a learning experience. In three years, I have learned so much and I have had my curiosity encouraged by articles posted right here. I just hope you all feel the same way.

This year is our third September Sex Education Week and me, Lara, Amber, Eleanor and Sian will be sharing our stories and insight, and offering our advice. We want readers to go away feeling informed and interested, and sometimes just to feel that they aren’t alone in their experience. We are often talking about previously-taboo subjects on here, and if we can make just one person feel comforted then we’ll be happy.

There’s an article for every day of this week and I can’t wait to share them all with you. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (wherever you fancy) to stay in the loop.

Huge, sexy, excited love,
Briony


Words by Briony Brake for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.

The Lionesses

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I have been thrilled at how the World Cup has been received here in the UK. Record after record was broken, people were talking about it at work and at home and it felt like there was a real buzz in the air. Could this be it? Could this be the time we win? 

Unfortunately it was not to be, and after Tuesday’s heartbreak (and truly I have spent time mourning that loss), I think it is important to reflect on the impact that the Lionesses have made this past month. I wrote before about the Change The Game initiative launched by the BBC at the beginning of May and how excited I was by this prospect. But my expectations have already been exceeded and it’s only the beginning. 11.7 million people tuned in to watch the Semi-Final, just over 50% of the audience share and the most watched programme this year so far, what a result! 

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I have been far more emotionally invested in this World Cup than I thought I would be, but I think that’s because it has been a real watershed moment for women’s sport. When I was growing up (which wasn’t too long ago – I’m not that old), the only time you could see women’s sport on the TV was Wimbledon or the Olympics. Now, across the country there are little girls turning up to football training sessions wanting to be the next Lucy Bronze, Ellen White or Nikita Parris and that just shows that representation does matter. 

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My friends at work and I have been talking about it. Gearing up for every game. Talking about the one that was on the night before. I even got a wall chart (cool right?). I hope that enthusiasm continues not just over the summer but for years to come (anyone fancy going to watch the Euros in 2021 with me?!). The moment that really solidified what an impact this team have had on women’s sport came on Wednesday when I heard an interview on Radio 5 Live. A 17 year old boy called Abe had phoned in when they were talking about Tuesday night’s match, and he said that at the beginning of the World Cup he and his mates laughed at and mocked women’s football. But on Tuesday they were all down at the pub cheering them on, getting annoyed at VAR when the decision went against us and cheering VAR when it went our way. At the beginning of June, he knew nothing about the team, now he knows all their names and the teams they play for and he’s looking to watch the Women’s Super League come winter. Now isn’t that an achievement! They may not win the World Cup but they have changed people’s hearts and minds like you wouldn’t imagine and that’s arguably bigger than any trophy. Although I would still like to see them bring that bronze back!!

Catch the third place play off live on BBC One at 4pm!!

Radio 5 Live: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0006sq4 

Photo credit: @Lionesses (Twitter)

Winter is Coming – Finally!

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The time has come, the nights are getting longer, the days colder and the spiced lattes are out in force…and I’m loving it!

I have always loved autumn and winter, it’s the time of year I’m always excited for; the crisp frosty mornings, seeing your breath as it hits the air and not sweating from blinking are particular highlights. However, not everyone is as enthusiastic as I am about freezing their butt off for months on end, so here are a few ways in which you can try and make the autumn and winter months that bit more joyful and enjoyable and I’m hoping that I can convert at least one person.

1. COSY JUMPERS AND GIANT COATS

This is potentially my favourite part, as people who know me will know I have a minor obsession with both of these. The more jumpers and coats I get to wear the better in my opinion. So instead of being a classic Brit and whining about the cold, seize the chance to be a real-life Yeti and embrace the jumpers…and hats…and gloves…and scarves, basically anything warm and fluffy.

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2. NIGHTS IN

Lots of people say that they find it more difficult to socialise in winter/autumn because people don’t want to go out. So you could switch it up and have a night in instead. Organise a movie night with lots of snacks, or have a games evening – as long as you’re prepared to lose friends over Monopoly or a finger over Irish snap!

3. FOOD!

There are some great foods that come out at this time of year. Lots of amazing veggies come into season, the roast dinners are in full force and it’s the perfect time to bake some sweet treats and eat all the cheese and all the pies (you see why we need such big jumpers).

4. TEAS

Obviously, you can drink tea at any time of year, this is Britain after all. However, I feel like, at least for me, teas really come into their own at this time of year. Aside from the traditional builder’s tea, I love a mint tea or anything with ginger in – it really helps to add to that cosy feeling and is super warming inside.

5. SPORT

I love a winter sport (I play hockey), as it’s a great way to get out of the house, make friends and keep warm – you may get soaked through by the rain occasionally but you’ll have fun doing it, so it’s worth the hypothermia right?! Also if you’re lucky and pick the right sport you may well get free food at the end of it. If an outdoor sport in the middle of winter doesn’t float your boat then there are plenty of indoor sports you can try out either with friends or a club, such as badminton, table tennis, squash, basketball or an exercise class. What’s more is that sport is perfect for battling the winter blues, not only can it be social but also the endorphins released can help boost your mood.

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6. ENJOY THE OUTDOORS

Autumn (in my humble opinion) is one of the most beautiful times of the year. The colours are changing, there’s that crisp fresh smell in the air (unless you live where I do – surrounded by fields – then it’s mostly just manure), and if you’re into photography then autumn and winter offer up some great shots – even grey skies can have their charm.

7. CULTURE

If you’re looking to do something at a weekend, other than lay around wrapped in a blanket, then it’s always worth being a tourist in your hometown and visit some museums and galleries. Yes, you can do this at any time of year but the advantage at this time is that the summer crowds will be long gone – making for a more relaxed visit. Alternatively, if you’re not still full from all the pies and cakes you’ve already eaten you could check out that restaurant or cafe you’ve been meaning to for ages. Not only does this make you get out of the house and experience something new, or learn something new but you also get to be warm and toasty whilst you explore.

8. TREAT YO’SELF

When it’s really grim outside (or you’re just feeling extra cosy), bundle yourself onto the sofa with a mountain of blankets, pillows and the odd duvet. Stock up on snacks and tea galore and relax into your marshmallowy pit with a stack of DVDs or a Netflix binge and maybe a face pack if you’re feeling lavish. This is made all the better when you think about all the poor sods who are outside braving the rain.

9. BOOKS

Now, I couldn’t write this whole post without mentioning books in some way. This time of year is great for reading books, the long cosy nights in front of the fire, or the long trips you might be taking to visit friends or family (please don’t read and drive). If you’ve had a long list of books to read or you had ‘read more’ as one of your resolutions but you haven’t made too much of a dent yet then why not set yourself a challenge; write a list of books that you want to read by Christmas, or New Year (realistically) and take advantage of the opportunities to snuggle down. Or, whilst you’re cocooned in your duvet on the sofa – or in your bed- take out an old favourite and travel back to Hogwarts or Hobbiton.

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10. ENJOY THE FESTIVITIES

Autumn and Winter are full of some of the most festive times of year (Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas). Even if you’re not a big fan of some (or all) of these, you can still embrace the spirit in some way or another. I love Christmas (possibly to excess), and I love a good bonfire, but I’ve never really got Halloween. In the past, I have tried to actively avoid it and I’ve also tried to force myself into it – neither of which I have truly felt comfortable with, so now I’ve found my happy medium. I get a good pumpkin to carve (which is a great work out if you’re struggling to think of a sport you might like to do), I get a good selection of sweets and instead of dressing up in costume I dress up in my pyjamas and watch a Halloween-y film with pizza – always with pizza.

A FEW FILM SUGGESTIONS:

  • Beetlejuice
  • Nightmare Before Christmas (this is a perfect transitional film between Halloween and Christmas)
  • Hocus Pocus
  • Labyrinth (Bowie, not Pan’s)
  • Coraline

 

Words and images by Eleanor Manley for Anthem Online.