Philip Werner Talks Vaginas, Nakedness & Body Image

The taboos around our bodies, and around the vagina, in particular, allow shame to flourish. Could embracing the vagina eradicate sexual violence?

Taboos are made to be broken and the taboo around vaginas is one that has slowly but surely been breaking over the last 15 years, especially since Eve Ensler came out with The Vagina Monologues back in 1996. But for many it’s not been breaking fast enough. In recent years there has been a huge increase in women seeking labiaplasty, surgery on the genitalia, in order to conform to a perceived ideal of what’s normal or attractive.

To counter this trend, and help further break down the vagina taboo, Philip Werner has for the last two years been working on a project called 101 Vagina (http://101vagina.com). The culmination of the project will be the creation of a coffee table book of 101 black and white photos accompanied by a message, written by each woman, from or about her vagina to the world. Many women’s messages are already posted on the website’s blog and already touching people’s lives.

What is the premise of the 101 Vagina coffee table book project and what inspired you to create it?

The main idea is to break the taboo around vaginas and ease all the body image shame in general. I was first inspired after reading The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler as it really highlighted how big an issue this really is. Our entire society is hobbled by these taboos and by this shame around our bodies.

Why do you think portraying pictures of vaginas, or even mentioning them, is still so taboo?

Yes, there is a bizarre juxtaposition where on the one hand sex and bodies are sensationalized and on the other, people feel ashamed and almost afraid of the simple realities of our bodies. Bikini clad women are plastered all around us and yet some people feel uncomfortable with women breast feeding in public. Something has gone wrong somewhere and I honestly don’t know how we ended up in this situation. Perhaps vaginas are the ultimate symbol of vulnerability, openness, the feminine; all the things that the ideas of power, protection and control feel threatened by. But honestly I don’t know.

How do you think nude photography and seeing other women nude can help individuals overcome shame and issues with their own bodies?

Well, I think in particular when naked bodies are depicted as they are without Photoshopping, it helps deconstruct these marketing-driven ideals that have been rammed down our throats. If you see someone who is also imperfect, just like you, you feel validated in a way. Somehow it reminds you that, yes, they are OK, and therefore I’m OK.

I was at a nude beach recently and there was a woman who had obviously had a mastectomy. One of her breasts was missing a nipple and both breasts obviously had implants. It took me aback initially, but it was also very reassuring somehow that humans are somehow perfect in their imperfections. She was comfortable, probably having come to terms with it long ago. How unfortunate that we hide our imperfections from each other all the time, no wonder so many people are depressed, trying to live up to some stupid ideals of everlasting happiness and “beauty.”

Like with overly skinny models and Photoshopped, airbrushed celebrities, do you think porn puts forth the wrong image of what vaginas should look like and make women self-conscious about their own nudity? What negative side-effects have you seen related to this issue?

Well, I think this is an interesting issue and there are many sides. “Porn,” comes in so many different variations, and anyone that’s had a bit of a look around will have seen many different looking vaginas. Yes, in mainstream porn most women are shaved, slender, and young, for example, but home made porn seems to be becoming more popular where ordinary people are just the way they are. Again the problem with porn has been that it’s been market driven, rather than community driven. Look at music these days. The big marketing machines are being circumvented by everyone being able to make and upload their own music. It means people are making what they love, rather then just what the big bosses say sells records. I think ultimately the same will happen with porn, people will just make their own and the big end of town will lose its grip.

But coming back to your question, yes, certainly anything which presents an unreal image to the world will lead people to believing that they themselves are not normal. In Australia we have the terrible situation that soft core porn mags have to airbrush vaginas into a thin slit. No inner labia are allowed to show. It’s ludicrous. Women end up believing that they themselves are not normal and seek out plastic surgery. It’s so, so sad that a teenage girl might think her vagina does not look the way it’s “supposed” to look.

Besides an inaccurate representation of “normal,” what other reasons have you seen for women being ashamed of their bodies and their vaginas?

Yes, besides all the women’s magazines, porn, etc? Well, there is also peer pressure, isn’t there? So many of the older school feminists blame men for everything, but so often the pressure to conform comes from other girls in school or other women in social circles. Most people want to fit in and be accepted, so they conform. But this is also where things can change. Often it only takes one person to break out from a group and say, “I’m happy with how I am and I don’t think we need to all look the same” for the whole dynamic to change. And this requires courage.

How does portraying vaginas help pave the way for discussion of “taboo” topics like rape and genital mutilation?

Well, I think to a degree there is an indirect effect. If someone feels more comfortable with their bodies as a result of surrounding themselves with positive messages then they will feel more empowered to talk about things. It may be easy to talk about rape or genital mutilation from an academic perspective, but it takes a lot of courage to talk about your own experience of having been violated.

So, for example, say someone has suffered some sort of abuse, or they have some difficulty with their sexuality but they have never spoken about it. Then at some point they come across a “vagina positive” book and they realize that they perhaps don’t need to be so ashamed. They may, perhaps, open up to someone about their experience and that could trigger a huge healing cycle for them. Or someone has an irregularity that they ought to get checked out at the doctor but they feel embarrassed, etc. Shame prevents us from talking about things. Seeing material which unashamedly addresses that issue will help ease people’s shame.

As another example, a few years ago I discovered a lump on one of my testicles. I waited a few days to see if it would go away but then I though I’d better get it checked out properly lest it was a testicular cancer. I was sitting in an open plan office when I made the call to the ultrasound clinic and when I was asked which area I was needing examined I blushed, put my hand over the receiver and whispered “testicles” into the phone. Why? Why are we so embarrassed about some parts of our bodies more than others? So I’m also working on the 101 Penis project, which I think will be equally important.

There is also a message that accompanies every photo. These messages are so diverse, and really it is these stories that give the book it’s depth.

Who are the models for the 101 Vagina project? Was it a big step for some of them to be photographed nude and what were their reactions to their pictures?

It started with friends. However, after a few months I had only taken a few photos and I realized I needed to ramp things up. That’s when I built the website and Facebook page. I invited every woman I knew in Melbourne, and then things spread from there. Before long the word got out and complete strangers came in to participate. I think the project has really struck a chord with a lot of people.

Still, for some women it was definitely a big step! One friend of mine was actually trembling with fear before-hand. It was like these huge tectonic plates were shifting within her, shifting her feelings of shame, so for her it was massively courageous. Other women
who participated were already very comfortable with their bodies, for example from having done life modelling in the past. So it varied a lot, but for most women there was at least a little discomfort, a little awkwardness, a little hurdle that they each overcame.

The two most common reactions to seeing the photos were, “Wow, that’s so beautiful!” and “Oh, is that what I look like!?” So it was mainly appreciation and fascination. And the same has been true for seeing photos of the other women. Everyone is so fascinated to see all the different shapes and sizes! I love watching people as they pore over draft copies of the book, getting completely engrossed in the images and the stories.

We understand you are self-publishing the book as of now and raising funds for its first print run. After the book is printed, what kind of reception do you foresee?

Oh, if only I had a crystal ball. So far people have been incredibly positive and supportive and I hope that will continue. Obviously I’d love the book to go as far as it can to have as large an impact as possible. I’d love to get on talk shows, radio shows, etc. Oprah? Ellen? I don’t even know who’s doing what really, I don’t have a TV myself, but yes, I’d love it to go big. And the bigger the better since $5 from every book will go towards women’s charities. But I understand the reality that ultimately no one cares about your project as much as you do. Never mind, if I only sell 100 copies, so be it. In a way the project has already been successful because it has already touched a lot of people’s lives.

In addition to the 101 Vagina project, you’re also selling a 2013 vagina calendar to raise funds for the One Billion Rising event protesting violence against women. Tell us more about it. How did you get involved, and how does this event’s message relate to 101 Vagina’s goal of erasing the taboo surrounding women’s bodies?

Yes, it’s an interesting union and one that some people may find a bit jarring, but I really believe that we need to take an unflinching look at the causes of sexual abuse rather than simply lament and be outraged at it’s occurrence. I strongly believe that sexual repression and sexual aggression/abuse are connected. I just don’t think that anyone who is truly comfortable in their sexuality would ever impose themselves on another person. Rape and abuse are NOT expressions of sexual freedom, but of sexual repression. And sexual repression is closely related to body image shame and taboos.

One Billion Rising is a V-Day event, and V-day was founded by Eve Ensler who wrote The Vagina Monologues, so it’s already a natural fit. I got involved because I already knew about V-day and One Billion Rising, and when some friends of mine started planing to organize an event in Melbourne I jumped on board. Regarding the calendar, well I figured that the media often like controversial calendars that are raising money for good causes, so this might be a way to raise the funds needed to stage the event in the most visible place in Melbourne. It’s not cheap, we’ve got to come up with $20,000 and are also looking for corporate sponsors. We can be contacted at: [email protected].

This previously appeared at Get Lusty for Couples.

 

 

Sponsored Content

NOW TRENDING ON GMP TV

Super Villain or Not, Parenting Paranoia Ensues
The Garbage Man Explains Happiness
How To Not Suck At Dating

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Philip Werner

Philip Werner is a Melbourne based photographer, we-designer, gardener, engineer, peace activist, and sensitive little boy hiding in a man's body.
Born in Germany, he grew up next to fields and forests on the outskirts of Hamburg until his parents got tired of the cold war in the mid '80s and brought the family to Australia for a warmer climate.
After graduating in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Sydney, Philip became disillusioned with the workabee world and sought refuge in various community projects and in his artistic pursuit, photography.
Intelligent (can be over analytical), self confident (sometimes arrogant), inquisitive (can be intrusive), well traveled (a little jaded), full of ideas (when not cynical), thoughtful (can be pensive), very good listener (articulate), honest (sometimes too open); likes his humour dry. Post-mainstream, post-freak, post-new-age, post-nerd/geek, post-philosophy, neo-nothing.

Comments

  1. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Stop this. There are no pictures of vaginas, unless they’re endoscopic ones. Women’s sexual organs are called vulvas. They protrude. They swell when the woman is sexually excited. The liabiae majorae (what we call the pudendum) are most apparant, but they contain also the clitoris, and the labiae minorae (the inner lips.) Lubricant comes from the actual vagina with excitation, and some (a few) women produce a lot of extra fluid at orgasm, but it’s not like the fake squirting in porn. Calling this wonderful set of organs “the vagina” is crazy, and I actually think it’s somewhat deliberate (to supress the notion of a detailed and sophisticated sex organ in a subtle third wave feminist move to privilege the surface and its fetishes above actual pleasure.) Even if supposed feminists produced the so-called Vagina Monologues, I can tell you the 1970s feminists of my generation would have called the area a vulva.

  2. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Vulva, not vagina.

  3. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Hi Philip,

    I made more lenthy comments, but they’ve not been released by moderation yet. It’s not you in particular– but I’ve noticed the replacement of vulva by vagina and been mystified by it– at least as this has happened in the US. I agree that yoni is an absolutely lovely word, and lingam doesn’t seem to have a sense of prickishness to it at all.

    Very nice pictures you have!

    Best,

    Hank

    • Hank,

      It’s just colloquial, that’s all. I don’t think there is anything to be mystified about, it’s really simple.
      People just need one simple word for the whole genital area, inside and out, and most people are happy with the word vagina.

      If you ever say gay rather than homosexual you are doing the same thing. It’s colloquial.

      Ciao,
      Philip

      • Well I’m a woman and I’m not happy with the incorrect term being used again and again. Use the correct terms for my body because I don’t use the wrong ones to refer to your body parts. I read the reasons for using vagina but if people had used the correct term all along it would be unnecessary to use the wrong one. So start here with the correct term!

        • Hi Laura,

          Thanks for your input, but again, THE BOOK IS NOT JUST ABOUT THE PHOTOS !!!

          I understand that it is difficult to appreciate without actually seeing the book, but the photos are really just one aspect of the book. To have called the book 101 Vulva would actually have been limiting and incorrect also, because the book is also about each woman’s experience of the entire area, inside and outside.

          Regarding correct words, which “correct” word would you use for a book about penises, which, however, also shows the testicles. We don’t have a word for penis + testicles, so I have settled for penis.

          In the same way we don’t have a technically correct word for internal + external female genitalia, so I’m using vagina colloquially.

          Would you perhaps have preferred I use the word cunt, which in my understanding encompasses internal and external?

          Kind regards,
          Philip

  4. A calender of Vagina pictures? Here in the U.S., youcan’t hang up a calender with women in Bikinis without being accused of ‘Sexual Harrassment’.(Seriously, this happened at work and I’ve heard of it happening elsewhere.) I can just imagine that a Vagina calender would really go over like “A fart in Church”

    • You can’t hang up a calendar of women in bikinis because that would be objectifying women. You know, appreciating us mainly for our fuckability and what you get out of us. I believe Philip’s intention is to take the objectification factor out of the exhibition of vaginas. To normalise them. But I must admit, I do worry about people like you who rightly or wrongly I’m assuming might look at a calendar like this in the same way as you’d look at tits and arse.

      • Yeah, but go into any office filled with female workers and I gaurentee you’ll see one or more of those ‘Hunky Fireman’ calenders. You know’ where the guy’s there with his oiled up pecs and 6 pack abs, pants pulled down low enough to show his ‘pubes’. Hey, it’s for charity so it’s all good right? Really, women are such hyprocrites!

        • Provocative photos of either gender are simply not appropriate for the workplace. Outside the workplace you can put up all the sexy calendars you want.

  5. Hey Bobbt,

    Hmmm… actually I think we’re talking about chalk and cheese here.

    Bikini calendars tend to represent a very particular idea of beauty and value and my understanding is that the suggestion that women’s value lies only in their ability to look appealing in a bikini is what some people take issue with.

    The 101 Vagina project actually does the opposite. It represents all shapes and sizes equally without suggesting any one way of being is better than the other, and it also greatly values the depth that each individual woman’s message brings to the project.

    I.e. value is being placed in diversity and in depth, rather than a narrow ideal of physical beauty alone.

    So, you might find that some people who object to bikini calendars would be happy to hang one of these vagina calendars on their wall.

    http://101vagina.com/calendar

    Make sense?

    Kind regards,
    Philip

    • Honestly Phillip, I do see what you’re trying to do and I truely wish you nothing but success. The particular calender I’m reffering tois about as innocent as you could expect . A Crane rental company use to send calenders to the construction companies that they do business with. These calenders had pretty women and yes, they were in BATHING SUITS (actually, some were ‘one piece’ suits) nothing sexually provacative (Eg; onall fours with their but in the air). I mean, I really consider it a ‘Reach’ to call this ‘Sexually Provacative’. Anyway, I guess this company got enough complaints that they changed their calenderthat it now shows pictures of their cranes on various construction jobs. Either way, it means no difference to me personally (Actually , I get a kick at looking at some of the cranes they rent.) I just think it’s so hypocritical that some of the same women that complain about such calenders, packed theaters to see ‘Majic Mike’ (Not to mention those that sell out the ‘Real shows’) and buy every ‘Beefcake ‘ calender (along with Playgirl magizene) Yet complain that MEN are the ‘objectifiers’.

  6. I commend you for what sounds like a valuable and healthy project. Maybe men could benefit from a book of normal penises too.

    I’ve just been horrified by the popularity of labiaplasty. I understand that some women may have a legitimate medical need, for example if their labia are so large that they are physically uncomfortable, but it is so sad that normal women have been led to believe that normal sized labia are abnormal. I’ve read that any protrusion of the labia outside the outer lips is now considered “too large,” which means millions of women with perfectly normal genitals have suddenly been labelled abnormal or defective. Doctors are using phrases like “hypertrophic labia” to make it sound like a medical disorder when actually it’s a completely normal and common variation.

    • Hi Sarah,

      Yes, 101 Penis (http://101penis.com) is in the pipeline also, though I want to get 101 Vagina launched first. I do believe that 101 Penis is just as important and necessary. There isn’t really any space for men to speak candidly about their relationship to their penises in a way that isn’t just all bravado and macho. I’m looking forward to what kind of messages men will be wanting to share with the world.

      And, yes, the whole labioplasty is a very sad state of affairs.

      Ciao,
      Philip

      • You know, Phillip, you’re right, laboplasty is “a sad state of affairs” However, men have been told through millena that less than 7″ is unacceptable. Even though only 9% of the male population falls into that catagorie, according to ‘Women’s Health’ magazine, over 70% of the women who answered their twitter sex survey (over 20 thousand) over 70% said , SIZE MATTERS!

  7. Thank you for mentioning that story about the woman at the beach post-mastectomy who has accepted her body and is not afraid to show it on the beach….very empowering…I think it takes a lot for someone to just accept her own body like that and be so fearless….that to own up to the fact that you don’t look like some idealistic Greek statue of a woman ( or a Victoria’s Secret model) can be quite liberating….

  8. While it all sounds like a worthwhile project, I think that women’s issues with their genitals are too deep-rooted to be changed by a few images. We are *taught* to hate ourselves, and I disagree that this has come from other women – for me, personally, it has always been male attitudes that have affected me most. Even at an early age, I overheard teenage boys’ comments of “smells like fish”, and later in life, men have told me that my protruding labia “look like a small penis”, or that I was too hairy, simply because I don’t shave. I enjoy porn, but I find the profusion of main-stream porn – a male dominated industry, where the majority of porn is made by men, for men – further undermines my body image.
    No matter how confident you are to begin with, in time those kind of things will destroy your self-esteem … and your sex life.

    • Hi Jaqui,

      Thanks. Yes, a few images would not have as big an impact. It really is the messages from the women that gives the book it’s depth and touches people most strongly.

      Please don’t understand that I’m suggesting men play no major role in this. Note that I premised by reply with “what else besides… porn”. The idea that men are to blame is common and so I felt it needs less repeating. I actually don’t think it’s a gender issue but a whole of society issue that the majority play their unfortunate part in. Men and women both have to deal with stereotyped expectations.

      Regards,
      Philip

    • I mostly hear body shaming of women by other women where I live. Men seem to be too busy wanting to have sex to care as much. Don’t think I’ve met many men that didn’t like the smell of the vagina/vulva/etc either so it’s sad to hear of your experiences. Don’t give up hope, there are many men that LOVE “bush”.

    • Hank Vandenburgh says:

      Jaqui, I’ve come to the conclusion that the women who come to this site are either phenomenally crippled, or that things have changed in a really bad way since the 1970s. Probably the latter, and believe me, this is not a criticism of you personally. Most of the young women I knew in the 70s would have just laughed at the attempted body shaming of women. I think part of it was that they were really in control of their own sexuality and comfortable about that, frequently aggressive about it. With the economic downturns since the 70s and the word put out by the newer, sex-negative feminists about too easy sex being too pro-male (this also goes with sociobiological notions – positing that they come more to the fore in economically stressed times) has convinced many women to implicitly return to the neo-Victorian 1950s. I believe that these trends have made women passive and jumpy about their sexuality as they try to commodify themselves as opposed to being (as they were for a while) sexual subjects, not packaged objects. It’s odd, but this tendency to become passive in the face of other women’s and men’s judgements has accompanied greater success for women professionally. What are in some ways good things, like sexual harrassment policies, suggest to women that they are also passive– they also suggest that women themselves cannot be sexual subjects at work. Strange.

      • Hank,

        I don’t think throwing insults around (calling people crippled) is going to further your cause.

        Generally I think people care less about what comes after an insult, rendering the points you make ineffectual. I.e. you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

        Regards,
        Philip

      • Hi Hank.
        Since when did a woman who takes an interest in a site that deals with men’s issues become crippled? What a judgmental comment! I find that really offensive.
        As a woman, I feel I am perfectly entitled – and, I feel, more qualified than you are – to comment on an article ostensibly about women’s body image.

        I am tempted to reply to your comments (because, FYI, I was also a young woman in the 1970s, and I had a different experience to the one you described) but with an abusive attitude such as the one that you have just displayed, I really don’t think you’re worth the effort.

        What you have just demonstrated is a further example of men putting women down, this time for daring to express an opinion.

  9. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    What I’ve noticed here is that many of the women correspondents seem to speak from a position of non-agency. We see comments on other threads about how men made women feel one way or another. In these statements men are asked to change their behavior or evolve perceptions that seem to me, frankly, impossible. Now, the fact is that others can’t in the long run make anyone feel anything. I acknowledge that in the short run, we all can be severely taken aback by cruel things that are said to us, like some of the things that were said to Jacqui.

    But note that I said that I suspected that there’d been an unfortunate cultural change between the days of the counterculture and today. And that I suspected that it was not that Jacqui pe se who was crippled, but the new culture that posited eternally victimized women and eternally oppressive men. Today, even with the general acceptance of a type of feminism, women seem to be cast as unable to stand up for themselves. I think that that’s an unfortunate consequence of what I’ll call the bureaucratization of everyday life– and some part of it is due to a notion that feminism must be enshrined as rules to stop oppression, as opposed to the general empowerment of women– which we seemed to have more of in the counterculture. So my hope for Jaqui is that she can use her power to not believe what men have said (by the way I think women are much more of a source of disability for women than men are – think slut shaming) and thus change her perceptions and behavior.

    The humanistic psychology movement of the 1960s – 1970s was a source of great personal power for both men and women. People like Perls could be rude, but they were therapeutic. Philip, your work reminds me of Betty Dotson’s. She was very effective– and powerful.

    • Yeah, I think it’s interesting and complex. I agree that when something happens to us we choose how we respond to that. However our ability to choose a course of action (our agency) is related to how aware we are of ourselves (our choices). The question then is how best to help ourselves and others to gain that awareness.

  10. Just weighing in… as someone who was considering labiaplasty about an hour ago, before my friend sent me this link, I would like to say thank you to you, Philip. I wanted to see images of women and vulvas because of my own insecurity, but I couldn’t get past the tsunami of graphic porn, or rubbish diagrams, which is all the damn internet has to say… and compounded the issue for me.

    I think this project, and its 101Penis counterpart, is vital. As for choosing the name ‘vagina’ over ‘vulva’, I think it’s very important, because even as a professional, educated woman I wouldn’t have thought to call my ‘vagina’ a vulva. It’s not in common usage for me. It was not discussed at school or with those closest to me. I didn’t know the word until well into my 20s. I would hope young women today are receiving a better education, but I feel that the colloquial use of vagina is what has to be worked with to make this work accessible to women, who rightly or wrongly have a lack of language choices when it comes to describing something they have been taught to ignore (I’m British).

    Hopefully this book will open the door for a better education for all.

    • Dear Alison,

      That’s fantastic, thank you so much for your message!

      It’s great to read for several reasons. Firstly I’m so glad that the project has now officially helped someone who was considering labiaplasty by offering a counter argument of sorts.

      It’s also really great to hear your support of the use of the word vagina. Interestingly, I think it’s mainly women (and some men) who are militantly PC and already hyper-aware of these issues who seem to object, but they are not really the target audience anyway. They are the choir I’m not preaching to.

      Even Betty Dodson, a well respected educator, objected to the project because of it’s name. This suggests a disconnect from the average folk who search the internet for “vagina” rather than “vulva” when they want to find stuff. This is an important point all the detractors fail to realise.

      So, once again, I’m super glad that you got something out of this project!!

      And though the book launch is not slated until March, you can already pre-order the book here:
      http://101vagina.com/shop

      Kind regards,
      Philip

Speak Your Mind

*