Tag Archives: vaginas

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.


Links on the Brink of October

Debbie says:

I was struck by these very diverse images of women giving birth around the world.

Midwife Dorothy Igoro Chinyere examines a patient immediately fo

The photographer, Alice Proujansky, gave birth herself in 2012.

Although she didn’t set out to become a natal photographer, Proujansky is interested in working on projects about women and said for one reason or another, she finds herself photographing in the delivery room.

“It’s so interesting to me,” she said. “It’s so exciting to be part of a transformational process; it has a rhythm to it in that there’s a probable series of events … but every time it’s different.”


On a related note, Tracy Moore has something to say about what she teaches her four-year-old daughter … even if the child’s schoolteacher doesn’t approve:

HOLY SHIT WHY IS NOT OK TO SAY BABIES COME OUT OF VAGINAS? To be clear, I haven’t told her how the baby is made via a penis and vagina, or artificial insemination, or by reading The Secret. And to be extra clear, I could’ve also told her that babies also come out of stomachs sometimes, too, and via adoption, but we just haven’t gotten that complex about it. Apparently she simply said at school that babies come out of vaginas, and was told to only speak of this with mommy or daddy. And she got upset, because she now believed she was in trouble.

It happens in state senates, and it happens in pre-schools. What is so wrong with using the correct words?


It must be pregnancy-and-birth week here at the link source. In March of this year, I wrote a post about breast pump (and durable medical goods) design, and now there’s highly positive action on that front (pun intended):

10 harried but happy teams of hackers shared their inventions in Shark Tank-style five-minute presentations. The goal? To reinvent a clunky necessity of modern parenting: the breast pump.

Engineers, healthcare workers, students, moms, and lots of babies gathered at the MIT Media Lab hackathon to tackle this sticky problem. The vibe was motivated, inclusive, and positive, but that’s not to say anyone was shy about explaining the problems with the breast pumps on the market today—even with manufacturers like Medela, Lansinoh, and Ameda present among the sponsors of the event. …

When kicking off the event, Catherine D’Ignazio, one of the event’s organizers, encouraged the teams to think bigger.

“Rethink the spaces where people pump, and how they feel when they are pumping, and who supports them and their pumping and breastfeeding,” she said. “Hack more of the systemic problems that new families face, like the lack of paid maternity leave and early childhood education.”


Moving away from baby-making, here is an extremely interesting report on a study of sex worker experiences in Canada.

Canada’s first nation-wide survey of sex workers has some interesting findings the government should, but probably won’t, listen to. Over the five-year study, which was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, researchers interviewed 218 sex workers, 1,252 clients, 30 spouses or intimate partners of sex workers, 61 managers of escort or massage businesses, and 80 law enforcement officials in six cities throughout Canada. The study did not, however, look at undocumented sex workers or children, and probably captured neither the best nor the worst of the industry. 

the study found that 82 percent of workers felt appropriately rewarded, 70 percent were satisfied with their jobs, and 68 percent felt they have good job security. According to [Cecelia Benoit [one of the study’s lead authors], “Sex workers are average Canadians. They’re Caucasian, in their 30s and 40s, and have education and training outside of high school. Most of them don’t feel exploited, they don’t see buyers as oppressors…. They are people trying to do the best they can with the tools they have to live their lives.” Researcher  Mikael Jansson added, “They talk to us about the amount of control they have over their work situation… They have a lot more control over the timing of their work, the pace of their work than journalists.”

The sex work debate is usually oversimplified, often on the two leading “sides.” I appreciate the authors pointing out that they didn’t capture the worst of the industry. The study could be bigger, though it is reasonably substantial within its limits. Nonetheless, it’s good to have some numbers to toss into the generally highly opinionated but not very quantitative conversation about whether sex work is exploitation or not. (Answer: it’s both. Depends on where you look and what you look for, like almost everything else.)


I usually stay away from sexual assault response articles, just because the subject is so huge, and there is so much to say. But a regular reader sent this link, and I agree that both Roberta Smith’s article about Emma Sulkowicz and the artwork are outstanding:


You can, for the moment, call Emma Sulkowicz a typically messianic artist, and she won’t object. I used the phrase, sitting in her tiny studio at Columbia University on Thursday, as we discussed “Carry That Weight.” This is the succinct and powerful performance piece that is her senior art thesis as well as her protest against sexual assault on campus, especially the one she says she endured.

“Carry that Weight,” which is beginning its fourth week, involves Ms. Sulkowicz carrying a 50-pound mattress wherever she goes on campus (but not off campus). Analogies to the Stations of the Cross may come to mind, especially when friends or strangers spontaneously step forward and help her carry her burden, which is both actual and symbolic. Of course another analogy is to Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, albeit an extra heavy version that Ms. Sulkowicz has taken up by choice, to call attention to her plight and the plight of other women who feel university officials have failed to deter or adequately punish such assaults. The carried mattress also implies disruption and uprootedness, which call to mind refugees or homeless people.


And finally, if you ever wanted a superhero women’s bathing suit designed for a real human and not a male comic artist’s wet dream, Suckers Apparel has you covered (well, partially covered):


Each suit is hand made to order and they also do plus size and custom orders with no additional charges.These are temporarily available now, but will be generally available next year.

Most common link sources: Feministing, Feministe, io9, Shakesville, and Sociological Images, plus assorted other blogs I read. Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for Emma Sulkowicz’s story.