The Infinite Variety of the Human Vulva

clothed upper body picture of trans man participant in vulva project

Laurie and Debbie say:

Lydia Reeves’  “teenage years were shadowed by a secret fear that there was something wrong with her vulva. But thanks to art, honest conversations and her trust in her mum, she’s been able to turn her deepest shame into her life’s work.” Reeves has made casts of over 200 vulvas, including the one of Vic Joubert, the trans man pictured above. Working with feminine products maker Callaly, she’s on a mission to help people with vulvas understand, first, the difference between a vulva and a vagina, and second, the vast variety and beauty of vulvas across a human spectrum.

cast vulva of person with vulvodynia

It’s important work. You can tell from the comments from people whose vulvas are part of the project that these casts really matter to people. One participant, Cat, says:

Just know that it will get easier. It’s OK if the first time – or the tenth time – you look at yourself, you feel a bit strange. It’s just about patience. It’s been a journey of ten years for me – that’s quite a long time.

We wish that Reeves had situated herself in a more historical context–and perhaps she has, but the web page doesn’t mention it. We can’t look at this work without thinking of artist Tee Corinne’s groundbreaking Cunt Coloring Book, available today, 46 years after its first publication. Corinne’s work took place in a context where women all over the world were holding consciousness raising groups, often including taking off our clothes and looking at our own and each others’ vulvas.

four cunt coloring book images

Reeves is working in a context simultaneously more public and more private: mainstream pornography has become completely ubiquitous and available, so images of shaved and sanitized vulvas are everywhere, but women getting together to look at each other’s bodies is a quaint and peculiar thing of the past. Selfies are completely standard, but the social media sites where selfies abound are also sites of censorship–neither Reeves’ work nor Corinne’s is likely to escape removal on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Where a person coming of age in the 1970s was likely never to have seen a vulva not their own and not one of their lovers, a person coming of age today is more likely to have seen many, all the same.

Also, today labiaplasty (plastic surgery to make a vulva more ordinary and less individual) is common, which means there’s a financial incentive to make people hate their vulvas enough to go through expensive, painful, and sometimes dangerous procedures in search of uniformity.

colored image from cunt coloring book, pearl colors on a blue-gray background

Penises, of course, have been core subjects of comparison for centuries, as have breasts. Vulvas and vaginas came late to this scrutiny, and yet the phenomenon is eerily similar. Everything is framed as a contest: either we have “perfect” sexual organs (to go with our “perfect” bodies) or we have to contend with self-criticism, which can easily trend into self-hatred. The crazy cult of sameness dominates. Here’s Steph, from Lydia Reeves’ project:

We should start talking about vulvas before we reach the age where we can access content online, to stop people feeling alone or like their vulva isn’t normal.

I’d look at my vulva and go through those uncomfortable emotions, touch myself and tell myself that there was nothing to be ashamed of. With time, I started to mean it.

plaster cast of vulva in deep blue

We only wish that Tee Corinne’s work had closed the book on this subject forever, but since it didn’t, Lydia Reeves is doing her own valuable work. The web page contains good medical information about conditions of the vulva, along with individual stories and the pictures of the castings–and ends with Callaly’s pledge to increase vulva awareness in three sensible steps.

Without much reason to expect it, we continue to hope for the day when none of this work is important because everyone loves and appreciates their own penis, their own breasts, their own vulva — hell, their own feet and ears.


Thanks to Mona Eltahawy’s newsletter, Feminist Giant, for the pointer.

Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s new Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.