Facing the Vagina

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.

Photo Credit: 101 Vagina http://tinyurl.com/kc8527c

Photo Credit: 101 Vagina

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.

Vagina Art made by exhibit visitors Photo Credit: 101 Vagina http://tinyurl.com/mmgyyme

Vagina Art made by exhibit visitors
Photo Credit: 101 Vagina

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.


48 Comments on “Facing the Vagina”

  1. BroadBlogs says:

    Now that was interesting. And here I thought we were all the same “down there.” I guess we can all use a little vagina 101.

    • diahannreyes says:

      LOL. To quote Geoffrey Rush’s character from Shakespeare in Love, “It’s a mystery”… that it is a mystery at all.

      Btw- I think the exhibit is close to your neck of the woods now. I’d be curious to know what you think if you end up checking it out, Georgia.

  2. What an interesting exhibition. Reminded me of The Vagina Monologues…going in the same direction. On a darker side, I wonder how rape can be related to this hidden and distorted image of vaginas.
    I also find it sad that “Labiaplasty surgery to give women and girls the “designer vagina” of their dreams is growing in popularity.”

    • diahannreyes says:

      Hi Carol! The photographer, Philip Werner said it was The Vagina Monologues that inspired this collection. He also is planning one on the female breasts and a separate one on penises.

      I agree that the hidden/distorted images of the vagina must play a role in sexual violence.. I don’t know that much has been said about that… but it strikes me as important so thanks for bringing it up – (although I don’t address that, you inspired me to include a line about sexual assault in the post so thank you.)

      And as for the “designer vagina” ideal- I am grateful that wasn’t something I heard about while I was growing up.

  3. Miranda Stone says:

    This exhibit sounds fascinating, and apparently it’s much needed, as women are still, even today, made to feel shame about not only their vaginas, but their entire bodies. What part of our bodies isn’t picked apart by our superficial culture? Twenty years ago when I was a teenager, I couldn’t have imagined we’d be living in a time when women feel compelled to wax off all their pubic hair and have surgery to make their labia more symmetrical.

    • diahannreyes says:

      I agree, Miranda! It amazes me how always there is some ideal being touted for almost every body part. I recently found out about the idealized “toe cleavage” which I didn’t even know existed.

      Pretty soon it will be the bones on our wrists that will be called upon to meet yet another made up ideal. And why is it that achieving said “perfections” all seem to require surgery, starvation, or something equally excruciating?

      Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂

  4. Yes, the Vagina Monologues taken to the next level. Your perspectives as you looked at each picture give a lot to think about, which also makes me wonder what I might see watching people as they also look at them. Will have to see if this is coming anywhere near my region. Thanks for the head’s up Diahann. Great article!

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you, Robyn! 🙂

      I definitely would love to hear about your experience if you get to go. The book offers a private viewing too if it’s geographically impossible to go.

  5. Lisa says:

    Great post! Now want to see the exhibit, glad it’s coming back.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you, Lisa!! Based on the responses to this post alone, I get the sense a lot of people would like to see it so hopefully he expands his US tour. It’s a much needed exhibit.

  6. ledrakenoir says:

    If women focused half as much on their vagina as we men focus on our penis – and men focused half as much on their penis as they do today – so would the world be very different and much better .. 🙂 🙂 😉

  7. Tony Single says:

    This exhibit sounds like art to me (I hope it makes its way to our shores). All good art should confront us with what is real, no matter how literal or abstract the images be. This was thought provoking as always, Diahann.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Hi Tony! Yes, that’s how I saw the photos too–ART. (though I wondered if it was okay for me to post the photographs in terms of the “censors” – not sure if there are any on WP)

      Thank you. I hope the exhibit makes it over to your area too.

  8. lovely rants says:

    That sounds like a really cool exhibit – I really art and writing and whatnot that aims to empower/honor the vagina! So many women grow up ashamed, afraid and self-conscious of their vaginas. Exhibits like this are great for helping us recognize our own feelings, challenging us to think differently and maybe even- omgosh!- celebrating our vaginas much in the way that (some/many) men celebrate the penis! I quickly checked the website to see if it’s coming to Philly, but unfortunately it’s not. You were lucky to get to go!

  9. katherinejlegry says:

    It’s interesting that a male artist is getting recognized for empowering the vagina. That there is no gender bias or barrier facing his exploration-dissection of the object in his art. And that the work itself is physically the voyeurist-objectification of women and violence in the very act of photographically dissecting and focusing on the vagina as it stands for the conversation “against” violence is certainly provocative. Can a man actually empower vaginas? And then… what is an empowered vagina? One that commands respect for the ability to sway penises? Birth martyrs? The chaste one? The futuristically accepted and so never raped one? The brave one that speaks of being raped? The one worth a marriage proposal? The one that had an abortion? The one that knows where the g-spot is? All of the above because every vagina’s story is a valid one?

    His show didn’t make me feel the “celebration” of vaginas or a sense of “empowerment” or “acceptance” but gave me the sense of the fear and preoccupation most cultures have with them. Art that causes a response is at least “alive”. I hesitate to champion his work, but I thank you for your art review.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thanks for sharing your reaction, Katherine and bringing up so many potent points!

      I too thought about how the i photos are shot from a male gaze and what that might mean. I also feel that it’s potent that this male gaze attempts to portray something we don’t usually see.

      I think the topic of vaginas is so complex and layered that there is lots of ambiguity around the different discussions that can/should arise from it. If only more of those discussions would happen. Perhaps there would be healing and resolution to some of what you wrote about above.

      • katherinejlegry says:

        To be honest I don’t understand male gynecologists, Diahann. Like I don’t trust their “interest” or “expertise” as I’ve been hit on more than once during pap smears and so had to stop going to male doctors…and this artist evokes a similar response for me. I just question his “interest” and look at the number of vaginas like “notches on the bed post”. But I think you are right about the complexity of the topic. And I appreciate the deconstruction of vulnerability, so to speak, that your dialogue promotes.

        • diahannreyes says:

          So sorry to hear that Katherine. That’s a hard situation to be placed in and then responding in the moment can be tough.

          I am hopeful that the more people speak about such experiences and bring certain subjects out of the “taboo” zone the world violators will realize that they can’t get away with that type of behavior anymore and stop.

          • katherinejlegry says:

            Thanks Diahann. I was 18 when it first happened and didn’t do anything as I was seeking birth control independently and privately. I just got out of there and didn’t look back. When it happened again (a different doctor), I filed a complaint, and was subsequently offered a “board member chair” with what was then CareOregon and paid a small stipend to discuss and try to better meet a variety of patient concerns. I attended a few meetings but soon realized it was a respectful way to validate our personal experiences, but that little could be done to change or better their existing institution. From our vantage we were mostly a support group and I wasn’t looking for that. It was an enlightening look into how to manage “disgruntled” people. My complaint was kept on record in case any other women came forward, and so that was the extent of the protection I could provide.
            Thanks again for helping tackle those “taboo” subjects. And for supporting the artist communities too. Such “bridges” are useful.

  10. Diane Lansing says:

    Great article Diahann. You always intrigue me with your thoughts and perceptions. If you can create dialogue that exposes intimate parts of us and opens up the possibility that beauty is in the individuality of our bodies, you have created something special.

  11. jennbird77 says:

    I love the idea of guests having a miniature version of the experience you describe when sitting in your living room. I like thinking about how the context changes when people stumble upon this work (happening upon it in someone’s house) rather than intentionally going to the exhibit.

  12. HeartBound says:

    Diahann you often bring up subjects that we’re socially/ culturally conditioned to feel embarrassed about, but you address these subjects in ways that are so open, thought provoking and realistic – you really invite discussion and take that unhealthy element of ’taboo’ out of them. I can say without hesitation, that the topic of vaginas is a very fascinating and complex one – certainly worth exploring and not shying away from. Not only is the topic of vaginas interesting from a broader cultural point of view, it’s interesting because it’s such a very personal topic too. I believe that vaginas are very sensitive (not just physically 🙂 ) – they’re very wise – emotionally and spiritually. They can tell us much about who we are and what is right for us in life. I sense you feel this too (based on this and previous posts) I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this topic because it really is such a deep, inexhaustible and empowering one. I think everyone (not only women) will benefit from what you have to share. ~ Cat

  13. pjsarecomfyn says:

    A friend of mine gave me my first Brazillian and I remember laying on her bedroom floor wondering if my vagina was “normal” and if not, if she could tell. We definitely don’t have enough connectivity when it comes to vaginas other than our own…..or even our own! I am not sure if I want to see 101 vaginas at once, but maybe 10 at a time would be manageable 🙂

  14. Interesting exhibit! I’m not sure if it’s something that I’d want to see or not. Maybe looking at the book a little at a time would be enough for me. In any case, you get out and do a lot of cool stuff chica. Celeste 🙂

  15. Very interesting! Haven’t heard of this exhibition before, thanks for sharing. I’m surprised that so many women are surprised that we are not all the same down there, when I think that most of us would agree that men are definitely not the same down there… And that, in general, they manage to make it to their advantage 🙂 So I’m glad that one man decided to give vagina a bigger space and I hope it helps more women in getting to know, be comfortable with, love and be proud of this distinctly feminine part of their bodies. xox
    P.s. Thanks for your visits and likes on my blog, much appreciated! I’m glad that we connected 🙂

  16. diahannreyes says:

    Likewise 🙂 Thank you, too!

    I think for me the surprise wasn’t that they looked different but that they could look soo different. Really as distinct as each woman, I’m sure.

    And I agree- I think that the more men there are joining our efforts to give women and their bodies a bigger space in general, the better.

  17. sweetyshinde says:

    Medically speaking, I think you mean Labia, not vagina. All one sees of a vagina is its opening. So I think you meant mons pubis (shaven/unshaven), labia (the lips covering the vagina) and clitoris (the penis counterpart of women).

    Hymenoplasty is used rampantly in a desperate attempt to prove oneself as virgin! weird!

  18. So Diahann goes where few women have gone before. Like some of the others here, I did not realize how unique we are in the design of our vagina. I appreciate that “it is hard to formulate any opinions or judgments about a woman if all you see is her vagina.” Says a lot to men who see us as mere sex objects, who routinely undress women in their mind. I find the spiritual Shakti very interesting – probably a lot there. My personal take is – and I will differ from the masses – our private body parts have traditionally remained relatively private for a reason. And the postmodern push into bringing such sacred things into glaring light in the name of art can be an inappropriate flouting of boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to be stiff and unnatural or secretive about our body. But there is something to be said for the beauty of mystery, which postmodernism insists on stripping from our consciousness.

    • diahannreyes says:

      Diana, yes- the Shakti component- definitely a vast topic there that goes way below the surface, really.

      I appreciate you so articulately expressing the way you feel. To me it felt as if you were tuning into the exquisite nuances that can exist between absolutes. I am so with you in that it’s not about flaunting the sacred or removing privacy.

      To me, the typical portrayals that we have today often turn what is sacred/personal into the profane or sex object – that is what I’d like to be shifted.

      • Talk about articulate, Diahann. =O

        If we followed the logic of openness in some of this postmodern “art”, it would mean no meaningful reason for clothes and that all beaches should go nude.

        Always appreciate your thoughtful, engaging posts.

  19. hah i love this post, simply terrific. i adore when someone writes something about a slightly shall i say more unusual topic. I would love to see the vagina you bought in situ LOL. I bought something I considered shocking or conversation provoking but nothing quite like yours. I love the way you write and your humour, it’s refreshing. So, a re-blog is a must here, my readers would love this I think, hehe, hope you don’t mind. I have also pressed the follow button. I am another 201 blogger, nice to meet you x

    • diahannreyes says:

      Thank you for your words, enthusiasm, the generous reblog, and the follow. It’s great to meet a fellow 201 blogger. I will definitely head over to your blog today to see what you are up to and get to know you better.

      The exhibit was definitely unusual and quite revelatory in numerous ways. And yes, the book is a definite keeper 🙂

  20. Reblogged this on Eclectic odds n sods and commented:
    What an amazing post, I love this writer, just discovered her and she is refreshingly down to earth and says it as it is, and oh boy what a topic. I wouldn’t mind seeing this exhibition, would I buy one? Yeh probably LOL…

  21. Hi Diahann – – Wow. How am I so many days behind this post? My reader really let me down, I see. Well, as usual you’ve riveted us. And you do it with authentic POV, quiet language and an opening childhood memory that subliminally jolts. Speaking of childhood, I really hope one day you have a daughter (several, actually – – sorry I’m planning your future here!) so that a young female can experience being raised in an open, accepting, matter-of-fact environment that will support her strength, curiosity and femininity in all ways healthy. The world needs more potential mothers like you. Bravo. Please don’t wait so long to post!!

    • diahannreyes says:

      Stephanie! Great to hear from you. Thank you for your words above– and your wishes for my future 🙂 Definitely it would be great to give a daughter that kind of space to grow… although I have a feeling since I hear having a baby brings up all your “stuff”-easier said than done 🙂

      I usually post every couple of weeks. This makes me think that you’ve been posting and not showing up in my reader either. Will check your blog later today!

  22. […] of attack.  If it’s done discreetly, there won’t be any eyewitnesses who will finger the Vagina in a […]

Leave a Reply to diahannreyes Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s