Warning: adult content
Towards the end of last year, I published an essay about my vulva – in a book, and then in the Guardian. At 25, I’d spent years considering labiaplasty and having sex with the lights off, because of things ignorant boys had said, as well as some of my friends. I felt a deep sense of shame about my body, which over time became crippling.
It’s this shame that photographer Laura Dodsworth is aiming to overcome with her latest project, Womanhood. In a book and accompanying film for Channel 4, she tells the stories of 100 women and gender non-conforming people through portraits of their vulvas. It’s the third instalment in a series: in Bare Reality and Manhood, Dodsworth photographed and talked to people about their breasts and their penises, respectively (both stories featured in Weekend magazine). The photographer has described the series as an “unexpected triptych”; she didn’t know the project would take this direction at the start (and, when it was first suggested to her, she didn’t want it to). But the more she thought about photographing women’s vulvas, the more necessary she felt it was.
“I’d been considering this idea, but kept pushing it away,” she tells me. “And then there were three things I read in a couple of months. One was about female genital mutilation. When I read about women around the world having FGM, I felt sick.” She read a news story about girls as young as nine asking UK doctors for labiaplasty. Then there was a description in a health leaflet of the vagina as a “front hole” – language she felt was inaccurate and harmful. Finally, Dodsworth wanted to move on from the penis project, which had seen her hailed as a champion for men: “How am I, a card-carrying feminist, a champion for penises, but not women and vulvas?”
Photographs: Laura Dodsworth
Vulvas are rarely seen outside porn and childbirth, which Dodsworth puts down partly to their position on the body. “Cocks are right there at the front. They are visible, whereas vulvas aren’t. If you’re a straight woman, you don’t see many.” And, as she writes in her book, they’re not easy to look at: “Let’s be honest, it’s tricky to witness our vulvas for ourselves, legs awkwardly astride pocket mirrors, bums shuffled up close to full-length mirrors, or taking a selfie with the unflattering lens of a smartphone.”
It’s also a part of the body we know relatively little about – historically, there has been a lack of scientific understanding; about the clitoris, about orgasms, sexual pleasure. Meanwhile there is a pervasive squeamishness about vulvas, which may be one factor behind the fact that, in England, cervical smear test rates are at their lowest for two decades. This gap in knowledge may also be responsible for the growing numbers of people who undergo labiaplasty: according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there was a 40% increase in procedures in the US between 2015 and 2016.
Dodsworth’s vulva shoots were a very different experience from Manhood. For many women, being photographed was the first time they had looked at this part of their body in close detail. “I feel like men were revealing themselves to a woman, in a sympathetic space,” Dodsworth says. “This time, women were revealing themselves to themselves. Some women were shaking, asking me if they were normal.”
Dodsworth had worried that it would be awkward to be in such an intimate situation with her subjects. She writes that she needed to overcome her “‘good girl’ socialisation and internal self-censorship”. In fact, she found the experience liberating – posing for her own portrait, too. “I couldn’t ask people to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” she tells me. “So I’m in it. And I remember when I took my photograph and I put it up on my Mac screen, I just thought, ‘Wow, there is a lot going on there.’ I remember looking at my episiotomy scar and it looked tiny. In my head, when I touch it, it feels huge – because I was holding on to huge memories of a traumatic birth.”
The stories told in Womanhood are vast (even if there are few people of colour included, which Dodsworth puts down, in part, to cultural taboos, as participants self-selected). The pages are filled with people of all ages and sexual orientations, speaking honestly about key life experiences. “The vulva is often seen just as a site of sexual activity,” she says. “But we talked about so many areas that aren’t ‘sexy’ – periods, menopause, infertility, miscarriage, abortion, pregnancy, birth, cancer.” In this sense, she saw herself as a “kind of midwife, helping women to birth their own stories”.
The vulva stories Dodsworth has collected made me laugh and cry, moved by the openness with which each person talks about sexual liberation, grief, loss, abuse and everything in between. But I first opened the book while on a train, and found myself skimming past the photographs so that commuters looking over my shoulder would not see.
The very fact that vulvas feel so controversial to look at underlines the power of the project. Would my attitude to my body be different if I’d read this book as an adolescent? There is a spread of shapes, sizes and pubic hair that you don’t see in pornography, or in any mainstream context. It goes some way towards showing there’s no “normal” or “abnormal”, just a never-ending list of variables.
I ask Dodsworth if it feels right to call a project about vulvas Womanhood, since it implies that sex equals gender. She tells me that none of her projects is a manifesto, or a dictionary definition of what it means to be a man or a woman. “It’s a chorus of voices. However, body parts play a very definitive part of what it is to be a man or a woman.”
She says the project has had a profound impact on her own life. “People started to see me a little differently,” she writes in the book. “Unexpected offers, eyes opened – my own explorations took me on new sexual and emotional adventures. I am approaching perimenopause, just at the tipping point when society might deem me past my best, yet I feel freer, happier, more sexually potent, more in my prime, than ever before.”
Dodsworth’s book and film arrive at a time when the vulva appears to be having a cultural moment. Next month sees the publication of Lynn Enright’s book Vagina: A Re-education, and live events that aim to reclaim the body are increasingly popular – from body-positive life-drawing classes to “pussy-gazing workshops”. Meanwhile, campaigns such as Bloody GoodPeriod target period poverty while encouraging young people to shake off any shame about menstruation.
Are we about to see a shift in what people think looks “normal”? Dodsworth thinks so. “Things rise up in the collective consciousness at the same time. It’s partly in the wake of #MeToo. I think it is so long overdue that we reclaim our bodies and our stories. Right now seems to be the time.”