**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.