‘v’ who shall not be named
Why is it that the imagery of the female genitalia causes such controversy? You often see stone statues depicting men in all their naked glory in a public space, so it got me thinking, what is it about the beautifully natural aspects of a woman’s body that people find so confronting? Even women themselves shy away from the subject, so how can we shift this perspective?
This particular article was prompted by the shocking discovery that women photographed for adult magazines are not only airbrushed, but sometimes digitally edited so that their vulva appears ‘more attractive’ to the readers, the majority of whom are men. Each is individually assessed and edited in such a way that in my opinion, detracts from the realism and natural uniqueness of the female form (by removing any visible hair, changing its shape, size and texture and reducing the visibility of the vulva) whilst degrading the model herself by insinuating that her body is not ‘up to standard’ for widespread publication. And furthermore, giving both men and women a completely distorted view of what the female genitalia truly looks like. So why is the ‘real thing’ such a confrontation?
Even the words ‘vagina’ or ‘vulva’ are rarely used and an array of different definitions are replacing these ‘clinically correct’ terms, such as ‘twat’, ‘axe wound’, ‘sideways smile’ and ‘clam’, which I do admit can get a giggle, but what is it about the true terms that generate such hesitation and why are these colourful phrases invented? If it is to avoid embarrassment, then are we implying that the female genitalia is something to feel shy about?
There aren’t enough true representations of the female genitalia amongst printed photographs either – not any we can distinguish anyway – so we often turn to art for a more accurate interpretation – although, even in this context, it is repeatedly censored in some way or another. But one artist that has managed to create a stir with her fantastically complex and visually confronting installations is Sheila Pepe, the creator of 2 amazing artworks ‘Yo Mama’ (Pictured) and ‘Mr Slit’ which both depict the female genitalia woven from wool, so big in size that you can literally walk right through them! In my interview with Pepe, she discussed the impact that ‘Yo Mama’ had upon the viewing public when confronted with the image of a big and beautiful woolly vagina:
‘Yo Mama was made specifically for my solo show at Naomi Arin Gallery in Las Vegas, “Yo Mama: Sheila Pepe and Friends”. The basic idea was “What happens when you take a big cosy crocheted vagina to Las Vegas?” I figured it was a place that was very sex friendly – but wondered how much “polish and glamour” was required of the vaginas. I found out – a lot!
‘The women there loved it and were happy to get their pictures taken standing in it…but everyone was pretty taken aback – not by the sex, but by the overt feminism. Not only was it 7-8 foot long and somewhat architectural, it had a massive main of black, grey and silver “hair” that filled the space. Of course this was the abstracted element of the installation, but it was pretty hard to miss as something not all in compliance with “Brazilian wax” standards.’
Another curiosity of mine is that during the birth of a baby, a woman’s genitalia is often shown, which is of course completely natural and beautiful, but it doesn’t seem to delve beyond this, as though the miracle – and acts – of conception and birth are the only two instances in which this image is not considered confronting and that there is “no other purpose” of the female genitalia – such as orgasm, pleasure or menstruation for example – that “needs” to be discussed or articulated. It is the 21st century, yet we cannot seem to move past the fact that a woman’s body is more than just an object.
We see Libra advertisements for tampons – which, let’s face it, are items we insert into our vaginas to soak up menstrual blood – with smiling women riding their bikes or with their friends on their way to a party, but this isn’t usually the reality for most. The real use of the tampon is pushed aside and we ignore their purpose, creating an “appropriate” image of what a menstruating woman should be. These cloth saviours become a gift-wrapped whirlwind of confusion for the first timer, who bought them, but then felt hesitation to use them because there was no explanation of use or insertion. Even the diagrams printed on the packaging only show a particular view with minimal detail. All because instructions for use would most likely use the words ‘vagina’ or ‘vulva’ and any visual aid would be too confronting when in fact, the more information we can absorb (no pun intended) the more likely a woman will feel confident in her body and in herself.
So where can we go to from here? Maybe it’s just a matter of being more open about our sexuality and our bodies as women, as well as engaging in dialogue that generates more complex discussion than avoidance and embarrassment, then maybe, just maybe, it won’t be so confronting.
By Rhayven Jane
(Image credit: ‘Yo Mama’ by Sheila Pepe.)