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Body shame responsible for young women not attending smear tests

Mon, 22/01/2018 - 06:37
  • 35% are embarrassed to attend because of their body shape
  • Third of local authorities and CCGs in England have not undertaken activity to increase attendance

Young women are embarrassed to attend smear tests because of their body shape (35%), the appearance of their vulva (34%) and concerns over smelling ‘normally’ (38%). In a new survey of 25-35 year old women, a third (31%) admitted they wouldn’t go if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their bikini area.

A third (35%) of the 2,017 women surveyed[1] said embarrassment has caused them to delay attending and high numbers do not prioritise the potentially life-saving test as one in six (16%) would rather miss their smear test than a gym class and one in seven (14%) a waxing appointment.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is concerned that body image issues, including perception of what is ‘normal’, could be putting lives in danger. Across the UK, one in four eligible women (aged 25-64) do not take up their smear test invitation, this rises to one in three among 25-29 year olds and is even as high as one in two in some areas of the UK[2]. The charity is releasing its new data at the start of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (22-28 January) to launch its smear test campaign #SmearForSmear.

Robert Music, Chief Executive 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. Please don’t let unhappiness or uncertainty about your body stop you from attending what could be a life-saving test. Nurses are professionals who carry out millions of tests every year, they can play a big part in ensuring women are comfortable.”

The charity is also concerned that not enough is being done to increase access and attendance of cervical screening on a local level. In a report, also released today[3], it has 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. This is despite having roles and responsibilities to protect health and reduce inequalities.

Robert Music, continues: “Every area has different demographics, pressures and geography. Local activity is therefore critical to ensuring turning around the downward trend in coverage. There is already so much great work being done across the UK, however if this is not amplified and prioritised, we will continue to see a decline in cervical screening coverage and ultimately lives lost.”

Cancer Minister Steve Brine said: “We must all take a stand against cancer, that’s why I’m pleased to support this campaign so we can continue to see cancer survival rates improve and more cases prevented. Lives can be saved if women book an appointment for cervical screening when invited. Our NHS doctors and nurses are always on hand to offer guidance and support if women need to discuss that decision.”

Jilly Goodfellow, Senior Sister and Nurse Practitioner for colposcopy and gynaecology, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: ““Nurses who take smears see hundreds of women but should never forget that the procedure may be embarrassing for some women. We know that if a woman does not have an acceptable experience this may put her off having smears in the future and the biggest risk of developing cervical cancer is not having a smear. The nurse’s focus is to make women feel welcome, comfortable and ensuring their dignity is maintained, while obtaining a good sample. We do this by talking to the woman while she is fully dressed so she is aware of what is going to happen, reasons for the smear, when she will receive the result and what it will mean. A chaperone is always offered and if they would like a friend or partner with them this is fine too. The majority of sample takers are female nurses who fully understand what it is like to expose the most intimate part of their body to a complete stranger.”

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35[4], yet the charity’s survey of 2,017 women aged 25-35 found almost two thirds (61%) are unaware they are in the most at risk age group for the disease. Worryingly high numbers do not understand that smear tests can prevent cervical cancer as a third (37%) do not think you can reduce your risk of the disease and, despite low screening attendance among the age group, almost every woman (94%) said they would have a free test to prevent cancer if available.

  • Among those who have delayed or not attended, 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
  • 20% have delayed because they would prefer not to know if something was wrong (34% of those who have delayed or never attended)
  • 30% of those who have never attended a smear test are unsure where to go for a test
  • Over one in six (17%) think smear tests are important however were unsure why (35%) in those who have never attended)
  • One in ten (11%) don’t think smear tests are important if you have had the HPV vaccine
  • 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).
  • A quarter (24%) do not think they are at risk of cancer because they lead a healthy lifestyle

Lindsay was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 29, she said: “I had my first ever smear at 29 because I had ignored all my previous invitations. I was too busy with a baby and a small child, working and I didn't like the thought of having to get naked in front of anyone I didn't know. I don’t want other women to have to go through what I experienced, diagnosis and treatment was awful. I needed a radical hysterectomy and still struggle with some side effects of treatment today. Please don’t put off your smear test, the alternative is so much worse.”


For further comment, interviews or case studies please contact [email protected] or call 020 3096 8000 / 07772 290064

Notes to editors

#SmearForSmear runs from 22-28 January during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. The campaign asks people to share lipstick smeared selfies or a short film ( with subtitles) with the message that smear tests prevent cervical cancer. It could be the reminder or encouragement someone needs. It could save a life.

Cervical screening in the Spotlight is a new report following an audit of activity among local authorities and CCGs to increase cervical screening attendance

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (

The UK’s only dedicated charity offering support and information to women of all ages and their loved ones affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. The National Helpline is on 0808 802 8000.


About cervical cancer

  • The majority (99.7%) of cervical cancers are caused by persistent human papillomavirus (HPV) infection which causes changes to the cervical cells.
  • 220,000 UK women are diagnosed with cervical abnormalities each year.
  • Over 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 890 women lose their lives every year
  • Around 5 million UK women are invited to cervical screening each year yet one in four do not attend
  • Women aged 25-49 are invited every three years and women aged 50-64 are invited every five years.

[1] 2,017 women, of whom 933 have delayed or not attended: 484 have delayed, 300 never attended and 149 are currently delaying

[2] Coverage among 25-29 year olds is under 50% in 12 local authorities in England and at 58% in Greater Glasgow

[3] ‘Cervical screening in the Spotlight’: