If you’ve been reading Scarleteen for a while, you might already know that for many years now, we've heard from a good deal of young women who are deeply ashamed of and disgusted by these parts of their own bodies.
Some have feelings so negative that they are afraid to show loving partners their vulvas, or worry a lot about partners they haven't even met yet and that unknown person's reaction to the appearance of their vulva. Others don't get sexual healthcare they need because they don't want a doctor to see their vulvas: in other words, for some, distress about vulval appearance may be putting not just their emotional health and self-esteem, but physical health at risk. Some are so fearful, disgusted or negative they won't even use a mirror to get a better look at their vulvas alone, or won't touch their own vulvas because their feelings of disgust are so strong. Some even find it hard to feel comfortable around other women in non-sexual ways or to hear other women talk about their bodies because their discomfort extends beyond feelings about their own vulvas to the vulvas of everybody.
Plenty have expressed a desire for cosmetic surgery, even when healthcare providers and others have assured them that their ideas of how their vulvas look or their beliefs that they are atypical are not founded in reality. Some have feelings so negative they have asked us how to remove or dissect their labia themselves and have voiced earnest intent to do so, or even having already tried doing so.
While we have always had more users with vulvas than those with penises, I can count on less than one hand how many people have ever stated intent to mutilate or amputate their own penises or foreskins because they feel they’re ugly, abnormal or sexually unappealing, while I’d estimate we have heard from at least 100 people over the last few years in email or on the website who have stated that kind of intent about their vulvas. Sometimes those feelings are based in, or have been amplified by, guys who these young women are sexual with or are considering being sexual with making negative, ignorant and really out-of-order comments about their vulvas or the vulvas of other women (usually as they imagine them or see them in porn, rather than from real-life experience). While we have yet to hear from someone with a sexual partner who is a woman making the same kinds of negative comments, sometimes those feelings and perceptions have come from the ways they have read or heard other women talk about vulvas, and not just women they see on plastic surgery shows getting labiaplasties, but their mothers, sisters, friends, even women who claim to be doing some kind of work out of love for other women, but whose love clearly doesn't extend to women's bodies, including their own.
Sometimes people feel negatively about their vulvas even when partners and other people in their lives have been nothing but positive, even complimentary. When that's the case, it's usually because that person is just so convinced their bodies must be wrong, or when they have given messages from media or internet forums or hallway gossip more weight than what people who they value in their lives have to say.
You don’t need me to tell you that all of this is seriously distressing.
We take this very seriously, and have always wanted to do everything we could to try and help dispel all kinds of body shame or hatred, including that of the vulva. To help counter these kinds of feelings and attitudes, we’ve done a lot of one-on-one talking with people who feel that way, continue to provide accurate, positive, body-loving information about sexual anatomy and to debunk some of the kinds of myths, ignorance, oppression or negativity that are or can be part of fear and shame around the vulva, vagina and bodies on the whole, as well as some pieces that directly address worries, concerns or negative feelings about labial or other vulval appearance. We've supported the work the New View Campaign has done around this issue. We have a page here on the site with some of Betty Dodson’s rad vulva illustrations to show some vulval diversity.
Up until now, everything we've had at Scarleteen that has depicted genitals have been illustrations, not photographs. In part, that’s been because often photographs available aren’t done well, don’t depict much diversity or clearly are for entertainment, not education. That's also been about thinking of people who are viewing our site in a public place. But an even greater influence than both of those things has been that we already tend to take a good bit of flack for just having illustrations, or even talking with young people at all about body parts. Having photographs has seemed like it would open us up to a whole new circle of hate mail hell.
However, we remain deeply concerned about this, and want to try and do all we can to dispel all of these negatives and drum up more body-positive, real-deal information and attitudes. And that’s why over the next couple of months, we’re going to go ahead and take the risk of publishing some photos of real-person vulvas, because we’ve found something we think is beautifully done, very much needed, and that we think can be of great benefit to many of our readers, whether they have vulvas themselves or not.
What we found, and what the select images and stories we’ll be sharing with you in a series are from is I’ll Show You Mine, an educational resource book created to debunk society’s artificial and unrealistic standards for normalcy and beauty with the vulva, and to help people really get a sense of not only what vulvas can look like, in all their diversity, but the diverse ways people who have them can feel about them. The book is a collaboration between exotic dancer Wrenna Robertson and photographer Katie Huisman. 10 percent of profits from the sale of the book are donated to local and international women's charities and free copies are available for educational and public use.
I’ll Show You Mine is a unique public resource. Sixty women are represented in the book, each with two large, true colour photographs. The photos are paired with in-her-own-words stories of each woman’s experience of the shaping forces of her sexuality; the stories range from heart-wrenching to celebratory, from angry to sensual. Women from a variety of ethnicities, ages spanning from 19 into their sixties, and all walks of life are represented: students, doctors, artists, academics, sex workers, mothers, grandmothers, housewives, entrepreneurs and more.
Wrenna says – and we agree – that the book is not intended as erotica or as art. It is, quite simply, reality. Before we roll out a new series based on the book, I wanted to share some of Wrenna’s own thoughts, feelings and words about the book and the process of creating it.
Wrenna has worked for half of her life as a stripper. She says that “since the time I began in the industry, plastic surgery has been very common, with women opting for breast augmentations since long before I started. Recently, however, I began to notice a trend I found quite troubling. Numerous co-workers spoke to me about the insecurities they had regarding their labia minora. Two of them asked if they could show me their vulva, wanting my opinion on whether or not I thought they should seek labiaplasty. Three others indicated that they, too, were uncomfortable with the appearance of their genitals. They were too shy to display their labia in the brightly lighted change room.
"Every woman was uncomfortable with the topic, choosing to bring it up with me only when no one else was around, each speaking in apologetic tones, as if this was such taboo topic, it was a burden to be placing upon me. Remember - these are strippers I am talking about. Women who are often thought by many to be among the most sexually liberal in our society. I realized that if these women had such a hard time talking about their labia, found it so challenging to show their genitals to a friend, then there was likely a whole bunch of women out there who felt equally shy. And I wondered, if women are so shy talking about vulvas, too shy to take the opportunity to share with friends what their bodies look like, where were they getting this idea of what theirs should look like?
"I recognized that there was a dearth of resource material which allowed women to view other women’s genitals. Certainly there is no shortage of porn available on the internet, but I don’t feel the images are presented in a way which allows a woman to fully view the vast diversity and beauty of female genitals, nor are all women comfortable watching pornography. I decided to make a book which would display life-size and full color photos of a diverse range of vulvas, all shot from the same camera angles and in the same lighting conditions. I also recognized that this was an incredible opportunity for women to share their experiences surrounding their bodies and their sexualities. I believe our inability to share openly about this part of our body is a very large part of the problem. I saw this as an opportunity to encourage women to examine how they feel about their bodies, about their sexuality, to uncover the root of those feelings. I recognized that being able to glimpse into another woman’s experience can be such a powerful way to learn about ourselves and they way society has shaped our feelings and beliefs."
I asked Wrenna who she intended the book to be for. She said that she "made this book primarily for young women, but see[s] it as valuable for all members of society. Gaining an appreciation of the diversity of the vulva is crucial to men as well as women, and the depth of experience shared by the 60 models is a powerful lesson for everyone. There is so much conveyed in the short stories that it would be hard to close the book unchanged in some way. It was truly revelatory for me, to gain a more complete understanding of how our culture shapes our beliefs regarding sexuality and shame."
I found that the stories of the women who took part in this project to be unusually earnest, real and powerful. So, I incredibly curious about the experience they had not just taking part in the project, but ultimately, being the project. After all, if looking at a book like this could be as radical and pivotal as I think it can for many people, especially those who haven't had the chance to see an array of other vulvas before, being part of it was probably even more powerful.
"The women who so bravely chose to take part in this project have conveyed that they benefitted immensely from their participation. Many faced very deep fears in deciding to have their genitals photographed, then dispayed in a book. Almost all found the process of writing a narrative even more difficult. It is an exercise I encourage everyone to undertake. Numerous women told stories they have never shared before, and found it to be cathartic. For myself, it was the starting point for my continued examination of the role of society and my upbringing in my feelings of shame."
The only other book I'd seen that was at all like this was only photographs, with the only text being written by the photographer himself, not by the people whose bodies were photographed, which struck me as problematic, especially since the person doing that book didn't have a vulva himself. I thought the stories added so very much to the table that I wanted to hear a bit more of what Wrenna thought about them.
Wrenna said that, "The stories bring such an important depth to the book. As women began submitting their stories, I felt more and more amazed at the power of the book. It evolved into something of our collective creation, far greater than I could have imagined or created on my own. The stories serve to connect the reader with the person represented by the photos, to relate to the model through shared experiences, and to grow through new and deeper understanding. I continue to go through the book and read the stories, and new revelations continue to emerge. I hope the stories encourage discussion and sharing among friends, set up the understanding that these topics are okay to speak about, provide a starting place for such discussions. A book of photos would certainly be valuable, but the accompanying stories make this essential reading for all women. And while I see the stories as vital to the book, the stories alone would not have same impact as when couple with the photos. The book is about shedding the impropriety of displaying one’s genitals, about being courageous enough to look at other women’s bodies without feeling shame."
When Wrenna and I talked on the phone, she told me about how her expectations of her co-workers were not sound. She’d expected them to feel very comfortable about participating in the project, as people who share their bodies and performance of sexuality for their living, and was very surprised to find that that wasn’t at all the case. We often hear young women voice that they are so, so very sure that women in sex work and pornography must be more comfortable with their bodies than anyone. I’ve known myself that wasn’t a sound assumption at all, and I think Wrenna’s experiences with women in those fields with this book illustrate that well:
"When I first conceived of the idea, I imagined the book would feature strippers alone. I knew many, and I assumed that each would be willing to take part. I thought it would send a strong message to those with body-issues - that women with diverse body types are all able to make money and be appreciated for their unique and beautiful bodies. I was quite surprised to discover that most of the strippers I asked to take part said no. Reflecting on this, I came to recognize that strippers, often admonished for setting unrealistic expectations in other women, are in fact among those most influenced by societal expectations of bodily “perfection”. These women, as a group, tend to undergo a disproportionate number of cosmetic procedures, highlighting their own insecurities and perceived deficiencies."
She then talked about who did participate in the book, how she found those participants and how it was working together: "Instead of photographing only strippers, I sought participants throughout Vancouver and the surrounding area by utilizing social media, presenting at universities and colleges, displaying posters where I could. The response was incredible, and the range of women who responded allowed for a book with a greater breadth of experience and age than I would have captured by limiting the project to strippers alone. Most of the women were strangers to me, so we met at a coffee shop nearby Katie Huisman’s studio. The immediate connection and openness I shared with each of the women was incredible. I recognized that women truly long to speak openly about these issues, really want to make change and help others, but are rarely provided with a venue to do so. I was so lucky to be able share in the experience with each model - for some a pivotal moment in their lives. I got to witness firsthand how difficult it is for many women to share this part of themselves, even in a non-sexual, fully consensual way. I was able to witness the transformation that occurred so quickly in so many of them. Katie is such a wonderful, professional photographer that she made the shoot very comfortable for each woman, and numerous ended the shoot remarking that it was far easier than they had anticipated."
Wrenna, Katie, and eight of the women who are part of this book have very generously given us the rights to reprint some of these photos and personal stories. Over the next two months, once a week we'll be sharing a different set of photos and the accompanying worlds of the woman in them here in the blog. Most of the women whose photos and stories we are reprinting have also offered to take part in a conversation in the comments with anyone who wants to talk with them about their experiences and their feelings about their bodies. We hope that being able to talk directly with some of them can help some of you to be involved in some of the earnest, supportive conversations about genital appearance you might not be finding anywhere else yet. We are greatly looking forward to sharing all of this with you, and can't thank all of these women enough for being willing to do such a cool thing with us here.
Because we do understand that not everyone looks at this site at home, for each of these entries, we will put the story first, and then follow with the photographs beneath, with a reminder right at the top of the page that it contains photos of vulvas.
So, stay tuned! We really look forward to sharing some of this excellent book with you, and encourage you to get your hands on a copy to take a look, and have one for yourself, or for anyone else in your life who you think could benefit, whether that's about dispelling shame and negativity or celebrating an already-awesome vulval self-image.