Cervical Cancer Prevention Week 2021 was memorable, but not in a good way.

There is an undeniable stigma attached to women’s body hair. Encouraging young women to share photos of cats that resemble their pubic hair doesn’t help. Nor does it get the message across that they should get a pap test.

Disappointing and demeaning

A UK study of over 2,000 cisgender women found that a third skipped out on getting a pap smear if they didn’t get waxed or shave beforehand. Pap smears are essential to detecting the first signs of cervical cancer, an illness costing the lives of two women in the UK every day.

The UK health campaign went viral on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. Users were quick to point out that the ad lacked critical information tied to cervical cancer.

One angry Twitter user pointed out that ‘making crude, sexualised jokes about women’s reproductive health will only put more women off attending clinic appointments’, whilst experts such as Canadian gynaecologist, Dr. Jennifer Gunter, also dismissed the campaign. ‘This is truly awful. Really’, Gunter tweeted. ‘Delete it and do better’.

Others have commented on how the campaign failed to remind people to book their smear test.

Capitalising on the insecurities and embarrassment of women, using the sexualised pun ‘pussies’ to represent female body parts, just won’t do. Whilst the viral reaction to the campaign inevitably brought attention to the importance of cervical screening, it nevertheless left gaping holes in our understanding of the problem of missed appointments.

Perhaps, part of the trouble is that the campaign doesn’t once reference women, smear tests or cervixes, for that matter. Instead, it urges women to publicise the look of their vulvas.

We would never see a similar strategy targeting testicular cancer screening, using a #myChickenBalls hashtag — as suggested by one twitter user. So why is it acceptable to target cervical cancer in this flippant manner?

For me, this campaign succeeds in pointing our attention to another issue: the stigma surrounding women’s body hair. I’m all for female empowerment and health advocacy, but clearly something has gone amiss when someone writes: ‘hair has nothing to do with cervical health, and is another perfectly normal thing that women are guilted into fixing’.

‘Infantile’ and ‘demeaning’ are other adjectives people have used in response to the failed attempt to normalise screening. Comparing women’s body parts to cat types is a cliche that sustains the sexist narrative.

The campaign came across as arrogant, adding to the accusation that women’s cancers are trivialised, sexualised and based on innuendos. It also focuses the idea that women are embarrassed by their body hair (or self-conscious about it), which is another issues altogether and should never have been lumped with cancer screening. Asking women to publicise how they fashion their pubic hair isn’t awareness-raising, it’s deeply inappropriate and crude.

It’s time to reevaluate and rethink how to talk about women’s bodies.

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