Here’s a conversation starter for you—when was the last time you went to the OBGYN? Some people go regularly while some have never been. My first time was last year, when I braced myself for a pap smear by cutting my own bangs beforehand and wearing a newly thrifted pair of Chuck Taylors to my appointment. I showed up ready to crack jokes about peeing in a cup and learn more about my birth control options.
However, my visit was a total let-down, to say the least. I did pee in a cup, but after almost an hour of waiting, the doctor ushered me in and out in less than five minutes without having so much as lifted my skirt. She told me I wouldn’t need a pap smear until I turned 21 and handed me a prescription for a pill I knew nothing about. Experiences like mine are not uncommon, which is exactly why it’s time we start talking about what we should expect to get out of our sexual health doctors—be it a gynecologist or a holistic practitioner. For this story, I spoke to four experts about the conversations we can’t ignore any longer.
Get to Know Your Vulva (And Your Limits)
Y’all! We can’t believe we’ve reached over 10k followers! Thank you so much for all the affirmation & love! ??? When we thought about Afrosexology we weren’t sure if people were going to talk to us about sexual pleasure and we love that we’ve been able to build an entire community around it! For those who are new to our page, check out our website, Facebook page, & Instagram for more sex-positive content. What does sexual liberation mean to you? What does it look like? How does it feel? How will you know you are on your journey of sexual liberation? Artist @tinamariaelena
Dalychia and Rafaella are the two educators behind Afrosexology, a sex-positive community focused on reclaiming and celebrating Black sexuality. Between teaching workshops, giving presentations, and promoting their e-book, the two ladies told me a little bit more about their own experiences at the OBGYN and what you need to know before you go. Their biggest piece of advice? Learn what normal means for you and your vulva (discharge, wetness, texture, smell) before you see a doctor. “You need to look down there!” Rafaella says. “Get a mirror, see what it looks like, so that way if something changes or seems abnormal you know.”
Her first “women’s wellness” exams in college were alright, but she felt shamed by her doctor for being sexually active. She later switched to a nurse practitioner who never left enough time for Rafaella to ask her own questions, and now she goes to Planned Parenthood, where she says she feels much better. Her and Dalychia both emphasize the importance of reading reviews and getting referrals from other people you trust. And as a Black woman, Dalychia says it’s essential for her to find a Black woman doctor who will respect her and her boundaries, especially noting the racist history of gynecology with Black women’s bodies and the pain they feel.
“As a Black person in America, we’ve become so conditioned to normalizing pain and trauma and hurt when it’s happening externally or internally,” she explains. “The pain you’re experiencing all the time is not normal. We go through life thinking, ‘Oh we’re resilient, I don’t have time to address that’ and we ignore so much of the things that are causing us pain.”
Bottom line: A hurtful or traumatic experience at the doctor is NEVER okay. Yes, they’re a licensed professional, but you’ve got a lifetime of expertise with your own body. Trust your gut and stand up for yourself. “When you do research, you feel a lot more confident to say ‘I need a break, this is too much.’ It’s your body, and we give power over our bodies so often that we forget that we can say that we need a break,” Dalychia concludes. “Voice what you need to voice in the moment.”
Think About Your Long-Term Goals
Not totally sure what egg quality means? Egg quality refers to whether an egg is genetically normal and “fertilizable,” or genetically abnormal and unlikely to fertilize. As women age, a greater number of their eggs become abnormal. A high percentage of abnormal eggs means there are fewer available that will successfully fertilize and lead to a baby. Egg freezing can help preserve “good eggs” while they are plentiful, lowering risk of infertility, miscarriage, or genetic disorders like Down syndrome later on.
Dr. Bat-Sheva Lerner Maslow is a reproductive endocrinologist and OBGYN at Extend Fertility, an egg-freezing service in New York City. She explained that fertility tends to be an intimidating topic, but the earlier we start thinking about it, the better. “Most people don’t realize how much fertility declines with age,” she says. That’s why your 20s and 30s are a great time to begin considering whether you’ll eventually want a family and receive a fertility assessment from a doctor who can break down your results for you.
“They need to really have a conversation with their physician about what their own results mean…within the context of their age to understand what percentage of the eggs that they produce have the chance to make a healthy baby,” Dr. Maslow told me.
Although you may not feel ready for that #momlife yet, you’ll want to have this information so you can make educated decisions about what’s best for you and your future. Dr. Maslow says many of her patients are women who know they want to have children but haven’t found the right person or circumstances to start a family. So what do they do? Look at the choices they have, feel empowered, and take action. Dr. Maslow says it best: “You think, ‘I don’t always have control over my life and certainly not over my biology, but this is an element in which I do have options.’”
Ask, Mama, Ask!
Ashley Chmelka is one of our favorite wellness and lifestyle influencers, and since last July, she’s also mama to the super adorable Logan. She told me about how her relationship with her OBGYN changed once her baby was on the way—or in fact, how she decided to find a new doctor altogether. “Once I did get pregnant, I went to [a] couple of appointments at the same place but did not like [the] vibe at all,” she says. “The nurses were unorganized, and it just made me feel uneasy because we’re dealing with a little human here.”
After doing some research, Ashley chose a different OBGYN practice where she felt much more comfortable. Then, when she went into labor, the doctor on shift was not the one who had been seeing her throughout her pregnancy—but they bonded so strongly that she continued seeing her after giving birth to Logan. Part of the bond, she says, is a result of her doctor being so willing to answer any and all questions.
What’s Ashley’s advice to other first-time moms looking for the right doctor to treat them throughout their pregnancy? Don’t settle. Trust your instincts (look how much better that turned out for her!) and always ask, ask, ask. “Ask questions. Don’t hold back on anything, even if you think it’s a dumb question. No question is dumb, especially when you’re trying to do the right thing for your baby.”
#IHadAMiscarriage: Normalize Grief and Pregnancy Loss
Why is sharing difficult news (specifically pertaining to pregnancy + infant loss) viewed as problematic? After all, we need support through the journey of pregnancy, whatever the outcome. _ This is about choice: Sharing our pregnancy news when we want and with whom. If we don’t want to share, great. If we do want to share, that’s okay too. Nuance. Your choice. _ Let’s quarantine the shame borne of silence and replace it with support. _ Honored to share my latest piece for @washingtonpost in collaboration with the ever-talented @kimothyjoy. Up today! Link in bio. Swipe for a preview. Click link to view the full piece. _ #IHadAMiscarriage #1in4 #miscarriage #stillbirth #loss #grief #infantloss #lossmom #motherhood #pregnancyafterloss #rainbowbaby // Huge gratitude to editor extraordinaire @amyjoyce_berg.
Dr. Jessica Zucker is a psychologist from LA who specializes in reproductive and maternal mental health. In 2012, her profession took a personal turn when she had a miscarriage alone at home, forcing her to cut the umbilical cord herself. She later decided to turn her experience into a platform for women to openly talk about how hard it is to lose and grieve a baby, starting with a blistering byline in the New York Times in October of 2014. “When I launched the #IHadAMiscarriage campaign, I shared my personal story of my 16-week miscarriage to model for women around the world that there is no shame in [the] loss,” she says. “My aim was to sensitively urge women to question their shame, if they in fact felt it, and to consider replacing the stale silence surrounding this topic with storytelling.”
She started sharing her story and the stories of other women on Instagram in order to build a supportive community to talk about loss. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, around 10 to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Dr. Zucker says that it’s important for women to know how common this is not to feel scared, but to help them realize they’re not alone if it happens to them. “Women needn’t judge their pregnancy loss experiences. Leaning into grief might be the very antidote to drowning in it,” she says. “Let it wash over you the same way we do with joy and happiness in our culture. The more we resist it, the more firmly its grip. Remember: Grief knows no timeline.”
Dr. Zucker also leads a campaign every year for National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in October. In 2015, she created a line of visual cards conveying pregnancy loss. Last year, she questioned the 12-week rule (wait until you’re 12 weeks along to tell people you’re pregnant), instead encouraging women to feel empowered to share both happiness and sadness regarding their pregnancy with whomever they want, whenever they want. And always, always, always remember that it’s okay to seek help; however, works for you, whether that’s through therapy, medication, and/or community.
“Depression, anxiety, and grief deserve pointed attention; they will not go away on their own,” Dr. Zucker says. “Too many people struggle in silence and think they can grit their teeth, power through, and ‘move on.’ Seek help and be gentle with yourself in the process.”
[Editor’s Note: Since we’re not know-it-alls, always make sure to consult with a doctor (like the ones above) before trying anything new. We’re here to guide and provide information that could potentially help, but each person is different so do what’s right for you! If you would like to learn more about these topics or find a doctor to fit your needs, Planned Parenthood is a great place to start.]
Feature Image via Vanessa Granda