Facing the VaginaPosted: April 18, 2014
I am a 9-year-old living with my family in Argentina. The day is so hot that if it weren’t a Saturday and we were at school the teachers would have fed us popsicles at recess to keep our temperatures from rising.
We are swimming in the shallow end of a pool. There are five of us.
It’s my turn to use the scuba mask. The other girls are bobbing around in a row.
I take a deep breath before dropping underwater… as I float by, each girl pushes the bottom of her bathing suit to the side to show me what’s behind the nylon fabric… thin slits between flesh are all I see… and then I’m up and out of the water, greeted by giggles as I gasp for air.
I take my place in line and pass the mask down to the next curious girl.
Last Saturday, I found myself staring at someone else’s vagina again. 101 Vagina, a photographic exhibit, which is touring the U.S. and Canada, was ending its opening run in Los Angeles.
Staring at the photo of vagina #001, hung high enough to meet me directly at eye level, I realized that I had never looked at another vulva that closely before—let alone 101 of them.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was a total Aha moment for me to discover that no two looked alike—at all—whether it was the size or shape of the labia, the direction in which a clitoral hood swung, or the texture of pubic hair (some patches even seemed to defy gravity, growing in a sideways direction). Each vagina was unmistakably distinct.
Seeing so many of them in the span of an hour was a lot to absorb. By the time I got to #048, my brain gave up trying to process what I was seeing and I let the visuals and the impressions they were making wash over me: Is that MENSTRUAL blood dripping down her thigh? Those look like tight clothing marks… was she sacrificing comfort to look skinnier? A tattoo of a stick figure pushing a lawn mower… CLEARLY, this is a vagina with a sense of humor.
It is hard to formulate any opinions or judgments about a woman if all you see is her vagina. You can’t tell anything about her politics or socioeconomic status or what she might do for a living. You can’t assume she’s a smoker or if she is a hipster or even guess her age.
The black-and-white images, shot by photographer Philip Werner, aren’t meant to arouse. They expose what is real, while alluding to that which continues to stay hidden and distorted.
Most females don’t get the opportunity to see another vagina besides their own beyond the limited depictions that society allows. The vagina is not a body part that gets much visual play in the media: documentaries, maybe, or certain premium cable channels, and even then just barely unless the programming is “adult” TV.
Vaginas that do get star billing in pornographic movies and girlie magazines are usually smoothly shaven with symmetrical labia, perpetuating the myth that this female body part should ideally look a certain way. Labiaplasty surgery to give women and girls the “designer vagina” of their dreams is growing in popularity.
Like so many women and girls, I grew up relating to my vagina as the place for sex and making babies. It was also that part of my body to cover up and protect. Pleasure was to be had but not to the point of losing total control. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults that happen every year. Is it no wonder that so many females feel cut off from the vagina?
In the exhibit, each image of the vagina is accompanied by words written by her woman: “Hungry pussy… spoilt and neglected… I recently removed my hair as a gift to my lover… lush… sticky smell on my fingertips… La Petite Tulipe… At the moment, my child has taken it over as her own portal… ””
The vagina, and a woman’s relationship to it, is so much more complex than the sum of its parts.
Certain spiritual traditions believe that the vagina is the doorway to the sacred… a passage between worlds. They know it to be the place in the female body where Shakti—the cosmic primordial force—resides.
101 Vagina is on tour in the US and Canada through the end of June, including a return trip to Southern California next month. There is also a coffee table book of all the photographs and women’s writings available for purchase. Part of the profits goes to charities that are fighting to stop violence against women.
I bought one. I like the idea of someone sitting down in my living room, picking up the book, looking inside, and being confronted with what is real.