Great article by David Hansen about the 101 Vagina exhibition that will be at Laguna Beach from 1-8 May, 2014.
David and I spoke at length about the project and related issues. It was interesting for me that he was surprised that this was still an issue. As he reflects in the article, he had thought that all this was dealt with in the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 60’s and 70’s . But if that was the case then why are the numbers of women seeking out labiaplasty (genital cosmetic surgery) skyrocketing?
There is also a lot of discussion in the media about rape culture. How could rape culture exist if we were all truly comfortable with our, and other people’s, sexuality? This is a huge issue, and until we deal with the underlying sexual repression and suppression, we won’t get anywhere near getting rid of sexual abuse in our society.
So, yes, this issue has not nearly gone away.
Click this link to read the full article:
I came to your exhibition yesterday at Think Tank and just wanted to say that I found your exhibition so beautiful, empowering, enlightening and f-king awesome!! Its such a celebration of diversity and a huge dose of positivity towards the ultimate power of femininity – which of course is so suppressed and covered in disgust in all societies.
The diversity and ownership seen in the photographs and stories is a fresh and powerful experience. No more sweeping vaginas under the rug and breeding insecurities and shame.
One image that stood out the most for me was the one with a woman on her period with a tampon string. I have never seen this – periods are associated with blue liquid anywhere else (!!!). To see this normal cycle in action was so good to see. Its natural, we go through this one week out of four. Real, raw and capturing the truth.
Here is the live radio interview on Joy FM 94.9 Hide and Seek program with Andrew the Apprentice and Avi Miller, Thursday 31 October 2013.
You can also listen to the audio file through the player below.
They called to ask me onto the show in response to an article I wrote in the Good Men Project titled “Getting over shame through nude photography“.
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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 where people are afraid of the simple realities of their bodies. 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, 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 loose it’s 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 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 and 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 knock on 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.
Remember also that with 101 Vagina, in particular, 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 Vagina 101 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 por over a draft copy of the book, getting completely engrossed in the images and the messages.
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.
Where can our readers go to learn more and how can they support the project?
Please visit the crowdfunding page to support the project here: http://pozible.com/101vagina.
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. For this event we can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“8th of May, 2011
This piece is dedicated to – the beauty of my vagina. :)
The potential violence/ power/ debilitation of self-consciousness:
I didn’t start becoming self-conscious of my vagina until I had wanted to be sexually intimate with boys. Suddenly I had a whole new perspective of my vagina – the critical eye had awoken. It looked uglier and darker, and the labia minoras were larger than I had remembered. I agonised over this for weeks, not allowing my boyfriend to touch me or see my vagina as I tried to sort out what to do – the situation needed to be “fixed”, clearly not accepted.
Because I was fairly ashamed, I didn’t feel I could talk to anyone else; I was debilitated, stuck in my own despair and unease.
One desperate night I had the urge to pick up the scissors, head to the bathroom and try to chop my labia minoras back, to trim them short and neat, like my labia majoras. I sat there agonizing over the procedure, balancing the possibilities of: how easy it would be, how much it would hurt and how desperate I was.
…I spent several hours there, for several nights over the space of several months.
Each time, I would begin to cut into the skin, feeling the cold metal against my soft flesh and realising the pain I was going to inflict on myself – there had to be another way! I wasn’t aware of labial reconstruction, even if I was, I probably would have been too embarrassed to admit the supposed imperfection.
Thus, as our relationship continued, I continued to hide my vagina, not allowing him to touch or see it, even the first time we made love. This ashamedness continued on less severely through a relationship with another boy who openly and lovingly praised my vagina and its beauty, however, I had not found it in myself to love and cherish it.
However, with time, I have come to appreciate, and open to the wonders of my vagina because of the beauty, pleasure, sacredness and transcendental experiences she embodied and can offer me at any time. The external expectations and images in my mind of what a vagina should be like have faded away. I have moved away from the dis-ease and towards beginning to realise the vastness of feminine beauty.
I now look at my vagina with awe, gratitude and reverence – she is truly amazing.
However, I still have so far to go on the path of honouring, revering and listening to her. Viva la vagina!”