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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This previously appeared at Get Lusty for Couples.