I have always been an early bloomer, something that was inevitable and happened to my parents too. In primary school, I was head and shoulders above the boys – which was slightly embarrassing for someone who also had braces and acne by the age of ten. When I was in year five, I had my first period, and by the summer before high school, it became a regular part of my life each month.
By that point, I was regularly competing for my local swimming club, and was training several times a week and so my mum suggested using a tampon so that my period wouldn’t affect my ability to swim each month. However, what neither of us could have anticipated was the hours of tears as I tried to get it in, but even with her help, it wouldn’t budge. My mum told me that I needed to relax, put my foot on the toilet seat, use a mirror; all the classic methods that seemed to work for other girls. “I’ve been using tampons for years!” She’d tell me. “They’re much more sanitary than pads!” But these words didn’t change a thing.
Years went by, and not one tampon entered my body. It was embarrassing. Friends who had started their periods much later than me got them in easily, and my sister, who is two years younger, managed to get one in with no tears, no fuss, and even on her first try. I remember thinking that I could surely do it now! But still, nothing. I began to miss weeks of swim training every month. On holiday, I would avoid the pool like the plague. My life would have been so much easier, I thought, if I could just use one.
When I was eighteen, I got my first boyfriend, who I am still with today. I had kissed a few boys before, but never anything else. I felt safe with him and knew I could trust him in terms of sex and that he would be respectful of my lack of sexual experience. Around two months into our relationship, we decided it was the right time for us to have sex for the fist time, when I stayed over at his house. I didn’t think that I had any issues until we started trying. We must have tried every position, every method to get me ‘going’, but no matter what we tried, he still could not get it in.
I cried at times because I was in that much pain and bleeding randomly, even though nothing had happened. When I came into school on the Monday morning, my best friends – with the best intentions – asked me excitedly whether we had done ‘it’. Every time I said no. I stopped telling them that I was staying at his to avoid the awkward question – not having sex was nothing to be embarrassed about, but I was ready and wanted to lose my virginity. My body just wasn’t letting me.
Why couldn’t I do it? My boyfriend had slept with other girls before, so it was definitely a me problem. What if I could never have sex? The shame that I felt, and the worry, was overwhelming at times. I worried about what my boyfriend would think of me, and whether I would be perceived as a prude. Of course, not having sex does not make you a prude at all, but teenage ‘banter’ especially at high school can feel pressurising, especially with the culture we have today. It is a choice, and a lack of, or an abundance, of sex is nothing to be embarrassed about. It was just difficult for me mentally to process the fact that I wanted something and no matter how hard I tried it was just not working for me. I dreaded sex, not because of what I thought people would think of me, but because I knew it would end disappointingly for me and my boyfriend, despite all the hormones flying around. He was still so patient with me though, and I still say that I am glad it was him than anyone else.
At this point I made no connection with the fact that I couldn’t wear tampons, until one day I decided, in an effort to break my own hymen, to put one in. I would like to clarify that me and my boyfriend had been trying for about four months now to have sex, and my frustration had reached breaking point. What I thought was a good idea at the time, in hindsight was not.So, I stood there, tampon in one hand, lube in the other, armed and ready to assess the situation. The night before, I had a look ‘down there’ myself, and realised that something looked a bit strange. My mum told me I was being silly, and I really did just need to relax. “You’ll be able to have sex soon, is what she always reassured me”. As I put the tampon in, with ease, I may add, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I’d really broken my hymen. Great! I can get to business now. Then, I looked down…
To my horror, it was stuck. The only way I can describe it is that there was a string of tissue, the width of my finger, trapping the tampon in. I freaked. Whilst ringing my mum, I burst into tears. I was baffled, and so was she. About an hour later, in A&E, a female doctor yanked it free. She told me that this bit of tissue was my hymen, which had worn away in an abnormal way. She said that she would have cut it, and it definitely wouldn’t have come away because of sex. I was so relieved. This was why we were struggling! I wasn’t weird for not being able to use tampons. I just had an odd vagina, in the simplest of terms.
But still, my embarrassment didn’t fade. I refused to tell my friends for weeks. We weren’t told about stuff like this in sex education, so I still must be weird, right? Once I had told them, my close friends were amazing, and even say today that I have a ‘designer vagina’. My boyfriend was extremely patient, and it brought us closer together. I still got pains up until a few months ago, and he knows exactly how to deal with it.
After A&E, I was referred to my GP, who did one of my first examinations. Seeing a gynaecologist at eighteen is extremely terrifying, and it still isn’t easy for me. She checked whether I had one or two uteri. Fortunately, I only had one, and she advised that I went private to get my hymen removed. As well as the examinations that I had before and after my operation, they also continued when I came to university. I began to bleed during sex in September, which led me to panic, and having to relive examination after examination, especially without my mum, was extremely emotional for me. Thankfully everything was okay, and I am doing great now vagina-wise.
I think, as I draw this story to a close, it is important to stress that even my GP was in shock as she had never heard of this issue. I found it surprising that that women of their age and experience were unaware that people could have different hymens. Even my nan didn’t even know that it could happen! It felt very daunting to have nowhere to find information about my own body, especially when medicine has come so far. Sex education at my school, which was actually quite good in comparison to others, had hardly mentioned women’s actual vaginas, and the NHS website was blank. Try googling septum hymen, or hymenectomy, and see what you get. My laptop even autocorrects the word!
The only person who knew what I was talking about, thankfully, was my best friend. Someone close to her had gone through the exact same thing. I realised she wasn’t the only one as, coming to uni has also allowed me to talk to others about it, and several people know people who have had similar things happen to them. But still, no word in the curriculum, or online. An article written by a girl who had gone through the exact same thing also helped me to see that I wasn’t the only one.
After my operation last April, I was able to have sex, and wear tampons, which is honestly so great as it fits with my lifestyle. But still, I am baffled as to why more people do not know more about this. For example, the imperforate hymen affects one women in every thousand to ten thousand, which means between 3200 and 32,000 women in the UK may be affected. If the sex education system was more thorough, I may have got my issue fixed faster, and not been so embarrassed about my inability to use tampons or have sex for a large majority of my late teenage years. If more women knew more about their bodies, especially vaginas, I may have had a closer look, and I definitely wouldn’t have ended up in A&E last year after botched attempts to ‘pop my cherry’.
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