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Young women shun smear tests out of embarrassment

Worries about their body shape, and appearance and smell of their genitals keep young women away

Ingrid Torjesen

Monday, 22 January 2018

Young women are embarrassed to attend smear tests because of their body shape, the appearance of their vulva, concerns over smelling ‘normally’, and not having waxed or shaved their bikini area recently, research* by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has found.

A third of 2,017 women aged 25-35 years surveyed by the charity said embarrassment has caused them to delay attending for a smear; and high numbers do not prioritise the potentially life-saving test with one in six (16%) saying they would rather miss their smear test than a gym class, and one in seven (14%) saying they would rather miss their smear than a waxing appointment.

Across the UK, one in four eligible women (aged 25-64) do not take up their smear test invitation, and this rises to one in three among 25-29 year-olds.

Among women who have delayed or not attended, half (50%) are embarrassed to attend because of weight or body shape (35% of full sample), over half (54%) about having a ‘normal’ smell (38% of full sample) and half (48%) because they don’t like how their vulva looks (34% of full sample) or don’t think it looks ‘normal’ (39% compared to 28% of full sample).

Among those who have delayed or not attended a smear test, a quarter (26%) find it too hard to make an appointment and over a third (35%) wouldn’t go if they had to take time off work.

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, but the survey found that almost two thirds (61%) of young women are unaware they are in the most at-risk age group for the disease, and more than a third (37%) did not understand that smear tests can prevent cervical cancer.

Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Smear tests prevent 75% of cervical cancers so it is a big worry that so many young women, those who are most at risk of the disease, are unaware of the importance of attending. It is of further concern that body worries are contributing to non-attendance.”

Freedom of Information requests made by the charity found that 34% of Clinical Commissioning Groups and 32% of local authorities in England have not undertaken any activities to increase cervical screening coverage in the last year, with many stating they do not have responsibility to do so.

*Body shame responsible for young women not attending smear tests. Research conducted by Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, January 2018.

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