We have made real progress with body positivity but there’s still a taboo surrounding female reproductive organs.
The only place we see vulvas these days is in porn, and we shouldn’t underestimate the part it plays in creating false expectations about what vulvas actually look like.
In porn they often lack diversity in shape, size, length of labia, colour and pubic hair, which creates a very uniform picture of what female genitalia looks like, with little room for deviation. This creates unrealistic expectations: of what women think they should look like, and of what men expect from their partners.
The images we see on screen are often lit, adjusted and retouched to enhance their appearance, the vaginal equivalent of Photoshop.
While porn provides a starting point for doubt and dissatisfaction, the cosmetic surgery and beauty industries make us believe our feelings are justified by offering up purchasable solutions to problems that aren’t really there.
From douches to intimate sprays, exfoliators to pills, there seems to be a quick fix for everything. Yet all they do is create a sense that what is normal needs fixing.
And this doesn’t end with our vaginas. It seems like the entirety of the female body is fair game to be picked apart. Body hair, breast size, stretch marks and wrinkles – all are deemed unpalatable unless they appear to meet idealised standards (or don’t appear at all).
The result is an endless cycle of shame and embarrassment followed by pressure to buy products intended to alleviate those feelings. Many of these only produce temporary results, most are entirely unnecessary and none do anything to treat the root cause of women’s insecurities.
Sex education should go some way to combat this – but only if you were one of the lucky ones that got a good one. Education in school is still extremely limited and still focuses almost exclusively on biology.
Vulvas and vaginas are relegated to the realm of reproduction and male pleasure, while female orgasm and the day-to-day experience of having periods are more or less omitted.
It is almost as if the vagina is never seen beyond the context of the penis. The messages this sends to young girls is clear: that vulvas are only valid when seen through the prism of the male gaze.
Boys, meanwhile, are taught that they have agency over women’s bodies. That women’s bodies are there for their consumption and gratification and any other process remains shrouded in the mystery of ‘women’s issues’.
We get the message that penis size varies loud and clear, and while of course this can cause anxiety among boys and men, women don’t get to even have their own conversation.
We are therefore left to grow up questioning whether our vulvas look ‘normal’. And without any examples beyond what porn has to offer, men aren’t able to offer their female partners much in the way of reassurance or support.
If I, as a heterosexual woman, find these messages lacking at best – and damaging at worst – I can only begin to imagine the impact they must have on non-binary people and people who don’t subscribe to the hetero-normative narrative.
It was the shame and taboo around vaginas that inspired me to create paintings of vulvas in the toilets at two London venues as part of Bodyform’s Viva La Vulva campaign.
I painted vulvas across the walls and cubicle doors, building up the images with layers of colour to delicately mimic the folds present in vulvas.
The most important goal was to show variety – that no two vulvas are the same, and that each and every one is totally normal.
I believe that the best way to eradicate the idea of a ‘correct’ vulva is to show plenty of real life examples.
I hope my paintings will start to normalise the conversation around vaginas and allowing friends and to talk about their vaginas without feeling it was dirty or taboo. It would be a great starting point in supporting each other.
The best we can hope for is that the messages we’ve been told can be unlearned so that the next generation grows up with a more positive and open attitude.
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