If you’re a person with a vulva, you’ve probably felt at some point there was something wrong with it. Even in an age as progressive and socially aware as the one we live in, there are endless media messages, products, surgeries and Gwyneth Paltrows not-so-subtly letting us know that our vulvas are not to society’s standard. My generation (hey 90s babies) grew up on porn, it’s horrifying to admit but it’s true. Most of us didn’t see a vulva other than our own or a porn star’s until adulthood. Some of us have literally never seen another vulva. It’s difficult to keep an open perception of what our genitals should like when pornography, an industry built upon the patriarchy, is the only information resource we have access to. Many people with vulvas have a whole host of insecurities surrounding it, with most concerns being that it’s hairy, uneven, dark in colour, or have anxieties around the smell.
One feminist artist based in Brighton wants to change our perceptions of our genitals, one vulva at a time. Lydia Reeves is a ceramic artist developing a vulva diversity project. Reeves is a full-time body casting artist (a job role I’m quite jealous of) and will cast any part of your body you desire to own as a piece of art (or gift to a friend). For this specific project, though, she specifically casts vulvas. Reeves’ plans are to open an exhibition where every vulva she’s casted will be displayed, showing the diversity between each one in order to combat the damaging idea that there’s a right way for a vulva to look. Originally setting out to cast 100 vulvas, Reeves has soared straight past this target and is closer to 200 and is searching for venues to display this amazing project, which has taken two years.
On the 15th of December, I travelled to Portslade in Brighton to visit Lydia Reeves studio to volunteer my own vulva for her project. The night before my booking with Reeves, I felt horribly anxious about the idea of showing a stranger my naked crotch, but the experience was unexpectedly empowering. Sharing a conversation with an artist about how societal expectations damaged your body confidence as a teenager while she slathers clay onto your genitals is a wonderful confidence builder. I came away from the studio feeling peaceful and permitted to love myself.
Reeves asks each vulva volunteer to provide a piece of writing about the relationship you have with your vulva, something I believe she will be displaying next to each vulva in the eventual exhibition. I wanted to share those words with all of you as well:
“Embarrassingly, I’m 22 and have only just started using the correct terms for my anatomy and saying ‘vulva’ instead of ‘vagina’. I knew the vulva and vagina were separate, but I think I chose to say ‘vagina’ for the entire region because that’s what men did. Regardless of what my reason was for getting it wrong, I’m angry the correct information wasn’t available to everyone.
I had a complicated relationship with my vulva throughout my teen years. My peers started having sex and the thought of being naked in front of someone, and them seeing my vulva, was completely terrifying. I couldn’t understand where people got the confidence to go through with it. Tales of girls’ vulvas that boys had seen were at the height of gossip and rumour in my school. Teenage boys are incredibly cruel and if any of them found out you didn’t shave, had a ‘wonky’ vulva or one that was ‘too loose’, it would be spread around the school pretty quickly, or you’d be added to a vulgar list on social media.
The worst part was I knew I was safe because my vulva conformed. It’s pretty near to symmetrical, ‘tucked in’ and shaven. Being exempt from public shaming helped me become confident enough to have sex with my boyfriend, and that’s awful. I now know how drenched in internalised misogyny that thought process was. It didn’t bring an end to my worry either. I couldn’t have sex spontaneously. I needed a couple of hours’ notice to make sure there wasn’t a hair in sight and I always felt paranoid about smell.
The digital age has almost made vulva diversity worse, with an abundance of messages telling anyone with a vagina that there’s something wrong with theirs – whether it be because of symmetry, size, or smell. It saddens me that ‘lip tighteners’ and ‘vagina deodorants’ are real products you can buy, but they are, and the companies are capitalising on our biggest, most personal insecurities.
Now, I’m much more confident in my vulva. Conversations with other vulva-havers helped the most, along with seeing other vulvas that aren’t in porn. These days, I don’t care if it’s hairy, sometimes I don’t even care if it’s a bit smelly. I know being naked with someone you trust is about connection and pleasure and never perfection. Anyone who cares about you really shouldn’t mind what your genitals look like, including yourself.”