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It’s 2019. Isn’t it about time we got comfortable with our vaginas?

A slew of books, documentaries and TV shows are encouraging us to finally get to know our vaginas. It’s about bloody time, says women’s health and rights activist Rebecca Schiller.

“Why the sudden interest in vaginas?” asked my husband, spotting the Channel 4 documentary, 100 Vaginas*, in last night’s TV listings and a pile of new vulva-positive books on my desk. Though I couldn’t resist a quip about it finally being the vagina’s turn after millennia of penis worship, he did have a point. Why is 2019 the year of the vagina?

As a women’s health and rights activist and writer, I work to protect others and help them tell unheard stories of everything from abortions to orgasms. I’m also a woman with my own hang ups, desires and basic needs: a woman with my own vagina story.

My vagina and vulva have quietly done a lot of good work for me over the past 36 years and not got much in the way of recognition. Our relationship has been profound, sometimes frightening or painful and tangled with pure excitement and pleasure. These intimate parts of my body have played host to some of my most fundamental life experiences and they are also intertwined with my work and beliefs. I should know them, own them, accept them and be proud of them. 

And given the struggles women face because of the way the world has been shaped to hold us back – to hold us down – I need to try to understand and celebrate how my body can work for me in a positive way.

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Truth be told, I’d struggle to pick my vagina out of a line up. Despite my work I have somehow managed to overlook my own vagina. I realise that I’ve been taking it for granted and I suspect that I’m not the only one.

different vaginas

“Truth be told, I’d struggle to pick my vagina out of a line up”

Thankfully an army of vagina warriors are finally finding a receptive (if not uncontroversial) public platform for their work. With books, documentaries, social media accounts like @mydearvagina and @the.vulva.gallery, and even a Vagina Museum coming our way, we are gently being encouraged to look underneath and inside ourselves with compassion, facts and love. 

Hooray! From the basics of what a normal vulva looks like, to trying to understand how to celebrate our vaginas while changing the world to deal fairly with those of us that have them, the vagina crusaders have plenty to keep them busy. After all, what’s harder to champion and understand than something that’s completely hidden from our view?

As Lynn Enright explains in her soon-to-be-published book Vagina: A Re-Education (a mix of the author’s personal experiences and taboo-busting information on everything from conditions like vulvodynia to the rights of transgender women) “its very underneathness means the vagina can be overlooked”. 

The logistical difficulties of seeing our own vulvas might well have contributed to the results of a 2016 study by the charity The Eve Appeal that found 44% of British women couldn’t identify a vagina and 60% couldn’t label a vulva. Education may have failed to enable us to navigate our anatomy but history, social attitudes and oppression must also play a part in two thirds of young women being too embarrassed to say the word ‘vagina’. Most worryingly of all, only 17% feel able to see a GP or nurse with a sexual or gynaecological health problem, according to a 2015 study by Ovarian Cancer Action.

According to data gathered by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery in 2017, labiaplasty is the fastest growing cosmetic surgery procedure. From 2015 to 2016, 150 girls under the age of 15 had labiaplasty and there is a growing concern that young people’s exposure to internet porn is giving them entirely unrealistic expectations of what their vulvas as a whole should look like. Women and girls urgently need this focus on the supposedly secret parts of their bodies right now as matters of physical and emotional emergency care.

“Vaginas are the realities of our bodies and we need to see them today, even if it feels alien at first”

Happily, photographer Laura Dodsworth’s latest project Womanhood: The Bare Reality is here to help. Containing 100 photographs of people with vaginas (mainly women, but also people who don’t identify as such), it includes close ups of each person’s vulva. Dodsworth explains that for some of those she photographed it was the first time they had ever seen their vulvas. It is truly powerful stuff. I think the grid of thumbnail pictures of 100 vulvas that opens her book should be given to all girls. It shows labia of all different sizes, no pubic hair, lots of pubic hair, skin of different ages and elasticity, vaginas hidden and vaginas visible and parted, drops of fluid and a tampon string. These are the realities of our bodies and we need to see them today, even if it feels alien at first.

The “underneathness” that Enright is trying to uncover in her book is brought out into the open by the visceral stories that accompany each portrait in Dodsworth’s project. There are plenty of difficult tales of shaming and sexual violence but these mingle with the sheer power and pleasure some have been able to find within themselves. These raw stories are encouraging me to try and understand my own journey.

Research has shown that there is no ‘normal’ when it comes to the vulva. The only way to contradict the dangerous myth of hairless, scentless symmetry that young women are receiving is to see, talk about and try to love the truth. We need to deconstruct, heal and then reconstruct the way we feel about and understand our bodies so we can own them, control them and protect ourselves and each other from harm. We should know what’s normal for our fantastic vulvas so we can care for them and accept them and if we want to smash the barriers to a fair and equal society and make the world work for women, then maybe we need to start inside ourselves.

Perhaps the year of the vagina is more than a much-needed project of self-care and acceptance – perhaps it is a political act. So I’m going to make 2019 the year of loving my vagina. A powerful year of changing the world, simply by understanding and loving myself. 

Images: Unsplash

*Channel 4’s documentary, 100 Vaginas, follows Laura Dodsworth as she sets out to photograph women and hear their most intimate stories about how their vaginas have shaped their lives. You can watch the documentary here.

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