Culture Shock Totale: Adventures Chez the Lady Doctor

**Disclosure: I recount my experience at the French OBGYN. Content may be NSFW**

Ah, the dreaded but necessary annual trip to the gynecologist. Most women know the feeling very well.

I knew would still be in France when that time of year came around, so I started shopping around for a new OBGYN via word-of-mouth from fellow female friends and online sources.

Until I met an OBGYN I actually liked (shoutout to you, Dr. Gregory), I never realized the importance of doctor-patient relationships. Unfortunately, truth be told, it’s almost impossible to find a specialist in France who is taking in new patients in AUGUST, but I managed to finally squeeze in an appointment with a doctor whose office is down the road from my house (thankfully for me I have no preference between male or female doctors, so I had a few more options.)

The thing about France and French doctors is that it’s just so different from the United States in regards to, well, just about absolutely everything. First of all, most doctors have their own “cabinet” (office) and simply work out of their homes. In other words, their office is literally just theirs; there will sometimes be a small waiting room attached and a single secretary working for the doctor. Only once have I had an appointment in an actual clinic or hospital. In my case this time, it was only a waiting room and the doctor’s office– no secretary.

Additionally, in France, women do not start having pap smears, or le frottis (which are performed once every three years) until the age of 25 (you know, because of health reasons.)

In the United States, women begin having pap smears three years after first having intercourse, or at the age of 21, whichever comes first (you know, because of health reasons.) When I explained to my new doctor that I had already had a pap smear, she was a bit surprised and almost critical (I’m 25.)

So, I am called into the Doctor’s office (it is literally just the Doc and me in this entirely deserted building). After glancing around I take note that there is an examination table, the doctor’s desk, some sterilization tools, and not much of anything else.

We sit down at the doctor’s desk, I answered all the standard questions usually asked at a doctor’s appointment, and then it was time to get down to business.

She gestured towards the table and simply said, “Remove all your clothes and get yourself onto the table. I’ll be here at my desk until you’re ready.”

There was also no gown to wear.

“Errr, get undressed here? In front of you? Everything off? Okay…”

Thankfully I spent a summer naked with my friends in Japan so this wasn’t the absolute first time I had undressed in front of someone I had no desire to undress in front of, but it was still a bit far from what I was used to.

Butt-naked and completely exposed, I perched myself up onto the examining table and laid down. Peering towards my breasts, I thought to myself, “Well at least it’s warm today.”

And with that, the doctor rose from her desk and the examination began. Overall, that part was basically the same between both countries.
When we were finished, the doctor gave me a wad of toilet paper  (“to wipe yourself,” she explained), and then preceded to tell me to get dressed so she could go over the next steps. I proceeded to zip up my trousers and clip my bra while she did some typing at her computer. When I was finished, I had a seat.

She gave me my prescriptions as needed, but it was also my job to mail in my swabs to the lab for processing. Thankfully, I was reimbursed the lab fees via my mutuelle (usually in the US, the patient doesn’t have to send in the results themselves.)

So, I survived my first French OBGYN appointment. I still don’t know how I feel about the whole dressing and undressing in front of the doctor, as well as not being given a gown (this is standard in all of France.) In one sense, what purpose does the gown actually serve, as patients are undeniably exposed during the vast majority of the examination? Is it just for the patient’s comfort? (But, isn’t that also important? Do I really need to feel naked and vulnerable on a cold examination table?) Is it just because American society and culture is undeniably prude and weirdly religious? Without a doubt, France is much more relaxed and positive about nudity and its lack of taboo.

Additionally, I am not sure how I feel about the additional or lack of a third party in the examination room. On the one hand, my doctor was female, but even if my doctor had been male, there would not have been an assistant or “witness.” In the United States, if the patient is female and the doctor is male, there is always a female nurse present, both for the patient’s as well as the doctor’s protection when it comes to assault, malpractice or false claims. Is France just simply more trusting when it comes to doctor-patient dynamics, or are they too relaxed? Should they be doing more to ensure the safety and protection of female patients? Or, does France not have as many problems with malpractice, and is the US just simply too uptight? Is it sexist one way or another to all genders? As a survivor of sexual assault, I’m torn. These are interesting questions to analyze and discuss– I’m not sure if there really are good answers.

Have you had any weird cultural shocks, faux pas, or revelations while visiting the doctor in a foreign country? What do you think of OBGYN à la française? Tell your story below.



18 thoughts on “Culture Shock Totale: Adventures Chez the Lady Doctor

  1. Hey I appreciate this post so much! I have a question about going to the doctor in France and don’t quite know the best way to ask my French friends. Can I shoot you an e-mail?

  2. After going through a birth in France, I really think that France is just more trusting. France even trusts us with vaccines! For my baby, her Dr. gave us the prescription for the vaccine and then we had to pick it up from the pharmacy and keep it in our fridge until her next apt. I was actually uncomfortable at first… I mean, I’m no nurse (or anything in the medical field) so, what if I handle the vaccine wrong and then something bad happens to it so that it doesn’t work but we don’t realize it didn’t work until it’s too late? In any case, I thought that if all French people handle their vaccines like this, then it must be fine because there’s no outbreak of these diseases. My gyneco in Aix has her own office, too, but there’s a mini wall between her desk and the exam table, so that you have some privacy when you remove your clothes. After dealing with 9 months of dr.’s visits and then the delivery, I no longer feel weird when I have to remove everything, lol. But it’s definitely a culture-shock if you’re not prepared for it.

  3. I had a wtf moment when I went to get a massage in Spain. Usually I keep my underwear on for massages in the US. At the spa I went to they gave me a disposal underwear but I thought it was some weird kind of bra and was super confused and put it on as a bra and was like ummm? I think I gave the masseuse a laugh attack hahaha but to her credit she managed to keep a straight face (and luckily wasn’t Spanish, I think she was Russian.) I just thought it was weird to give me a one time use underwear when I could just keep my own on! She also massaged me REALLY close to my privates that I was trying not to burst into laughter because I am so ticklish. Europe just has a really different concept of what an appropriate massage is! They really like to go for it, I guess people feel more relaxed after!

    Also weird about French OBGYNS making you get totally naked. I’ve never had to go so I wasn’t really aware. I dunno, some people are very body conscious (like me) or might have scars or weird skin conditions they not want on display. The gown allows the patient to preserve some dignity while the doctor looks up their baby making parts. It’s an awkward and unflattering positon to be in, being naked just exacerbates it in my opinion.

  4. I recently went to the gynecologist for my first time in France too! Luckily I was prepared via other peoples’ blog posts about getting totally naked 🙂 I was also a bit surprised to send the lab work in myself, but since I’m always having to cart around x-rays/MRIs/compte-rendus from doctor to doctor, it sort of seemed par for the course.

    1. I had also done some reading and knew that that was what to expect but it was still so odd ! I feel like in the US maybe we wouldn’t trust patients to send off the results? Or we’d say, “hell no, I’m already paying too much for this stuff!”

  5. For me, it’s been every three years since i first had one back in 2001 or so (gosh, I’m old huh?), so maybe New Zealand is ahead of the curve. And I’ve never had to get naked in France/Luxembourg, I just go the skirt option and hike it up. Still a bit awkward taking underwear off with no curtain or whatever. And I’ve always just gone with a GP, and been alone in the room with them (would rather not have more witnesses actually!) So I guess if you want things to be different, don’t be afraid to say or find a different doctor because it’s not universal full nudity in France!

    1. Ha perhaps! I’ll have to get on this skirt bandwagon. I’m also not sure how I feel with having more witnesses; it’s weird either way. Being female sucks sometimes … You’re totally right in advocating your voice! x

  6. I’ve never been to a gynecologist in France and just go to my regular doctor for pap smears and other regular problems (infections, etc). And she has never asked me to take off my top for a yearly exam, though she’s also never done a breast exam. When I think ahead I go wearing a skirt so I can keep that on, since it makes me a little less uncomfortable, but otherwise, I’m fine with being bottomless. But fully naked? I knew a lot of doctors asked for that because my English friend who lives in France was shocked the first time too and told me about it. So it’s not just Americans!

    1. Also, I forgot to say, the three-year thing is recent and based on studies in the past five years that show that doing a pap smear every year doesn’t prevent cancer any better. So quite possibly doctors in the US will/have picked up on that as well.

    2. The skirt thing is a good idea– yeah that’s why the top came off– breast exam, but yeah, usually no problem with nudity but that was just unnecessary I felt !

  7. I went to the gyno in Spain last spring, and am used to having to pee in a cup at the office so I didn’t relieve myself before the exam. The doc sticks the ultrasound stick up there (I’m being really direct today) laughs and said “well, you’re full! That makes checking you out a bit difficult!”. I was embarrassed and flushed and muttered “oh well in America we have to pee in cups so….”. I also had to ask to have all the tests done, otherwise they don’t do it if they see no need!

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