For many women, the vaginal speculum is the most invasive, uncomfortable, and feared part of the gynecological check-up. What is the story behind this instrument, and why is it essential to redesign?
For many women, the vaginal speculum is the most invasive, uncomfortable, and feared part of the gynecological check-up. What is the story behind this instrument, and why is it essential to redesign?.
The vaginal speculum used today during pelvic exams was created in the mid-19th century. The metal blades are cold, and its design it's not the friendliest to a woman's body. Some patients experience great pain during this process, while for others, although it is uncomfortable, it doesn't hurt that bad.
James Marion Sims, also known as the father of gynecology, is the inventor of this instrument. From 1845 to 1849, Sims conducted experiments on enslaved black women to treat vaginal problems. These procedures were performed without their consent or anesthesia. Ironically, the vaginal speculum was developed off the pain of women.
"Medieval" is one of the words used to describe the vaginal speculum. For this reason, Fran Wang and Rachel Hobar created Yona Care. The team's goal is to design a more patient-friendly speculum.
For the design, the Yona team (all conformed by women) began by carefully studying sex toys to get inspiration from their materiality. In addition, they listed the discomforts they had experienced, including the cold of the metal and the feeling of stretching their vagina. They also included the simple fact that visually the device seemed like an element of torture. Today they assure that their design "is pleasant for the body and accessible in the choice of shape and material, making it less cold and uncomfortable."
Yona's purpose is that women experience this exam like vaginal care instead of a painful procedure with a medieval instrument. As the creators claim, "inclusive design is good business; it's where the world is going."
The traditional speculum can make some girls and women feel bad physically and emotionally. As the speculum enters an intimate part, it can revive bad experiences regarding abuses of all kinds. In an interview with Paula magazine, Ximena Encinas, who has vast experience using the speculum, pointed out how this instrument can be incredibly painful for women who have been sexually abused.
Although some women have no major complaint or bad experience in its use, others have a phobia of the speculum. What difference can this make? For Ximena, the doctor that made the exam. Gynecological violence is another form of gender violence. It happens when a specialist exceeds the limits in the physical examination or the practices carried out by health team members that may imply dehumanized care or treatment. It ranges from hurtful, sexist, and racist comments to sexual and reproductive health mistreatment.
Gynecological violence also takes the form of mistreatment of patients when the health professional hurts the patient during the examination."The gynecologist used a very large speculum, and it hurt me. And he kept telling me it was my fault because I didn't relax. Years later, my new gynecologist (a woman) explained that there are sizes of speculums and that not all fit every intimate part," recounts one victim.
Gynecological violence is a real issue but with very little visibility. The most serious problem is that this type of bad practice has been "normalized" and "naturalized" within medical services. Redesigning the vaginal speculum is an excellent way to make women's exams more bearable.