Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Seeing Ourselves for Ourselves

April 12th, 2010 by Chris Bobel

Guest Post by Alexandra Jacoby



Controversy Rages Over Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery”. You can read the full article by Betsy Bates in Ob.Gyn. News. Bates interviews doctors as to whether performing these procedures meets a need or exploits a lack of body-knowledge among women. Both sides claim to be taking care of, and empowering, women.

One of the doctors who performs genital cosmetic surgery is not only sure that women are well-educated on the range of diversity of normal-looking vulva, he also feels it would be insulting to our intelligence and confidence to raise the question.

From where I sit, he is mistaken about this – we do need to be educated! – and, on another note: why is it disrespectful to offer information?

Admittedly, Ob.Gyn. is not my field, nevertheless, I’d like to say a few words. No – wait, it IS my field, or rather I’m its field – as I am a woman. One who didn’t give her body a lot of thought – until I started photographing vulvas.

The photography project began as a response to a friend who told me that she “didn’t like the way her vagina looked”. I wanted her to know that there was no one right way to look, that we were all unique.

I’ve photographed 107 vulvas so far, and produce exhibitions of the v-portraits. The most common response among women is “Wow! So, we really are all different.” The next most common response is “I guess I’m not so weird after all.”

I’ve been exhibiting since 2002, and these are consistently the most common responses.

One response to the project back when I first announced it was: “Great. Another body part to worry about!” She had not given what her vulva looked like a thought until I brought it up.

Here’s a response emailed to me after an exhibition last summer:

“…The photographs made me aware again of how incredibly different and beautiful we all are, and how (taken out of context) the images look like intricate, unique sculptures. The colors and shapes and attitudes are so utterly individual…

It made me wish I had had an experience like this (encountering you and this open attitude) when I was in college (now more than 30 years ago) because at that point I was completely clueless and embarrassed about my body. My ignorance was stunning, and I was ashamed of that ignorance. I have since learned to love and appreciate my body, even though it in no way conforms to the traditional standards of what’s supposed to be beautiful and sexy. Beauty and sexiness are emotional, not physical, and all of our bodies should be celebrated. And you gave me a view of myself I had never had before…”

My friend, she hadn’t seen other vulvas. Most of the women attending the exhibitions, they hadn’t either. Some women told me that they were nervous to come to an exhibition, and then were relieved and empowered having attended. They now felt they were part of something. A continuum of unique and normal.

So far no one has told me to cease and desist my v-portraiture because OBVIOUSLY we’ve all seen this before.

I do it, too. I don’t always offer information because I don’t want to offend anyone by thinking that s/he doesn’t already know the answer. Similarly, I don’t always ask questions because I believe I should already know the answer. And, I ALWAYS regret both withholds.

This is not a good reason to skip over offering women the opportunity to see the diversity of our vulvas that is normal before they make a decision about surgery.

I don’t want to draw a line between medically-indicated and cosmetic surgery and eliminate the cosmetic. Decisions about your body are yours. The article raises questions about safety and also about how and where procedures are being taught. Since, I’m not an Ob.Gyn., an academic or a regulator, I’m not in those conversations. My conversations center around what we women look like down there. And, from what I’m hearing women say [and not say because it’s too embarrassing], I had better get my vulva photography project finished sooner than later because women need to see ourselves for ourselves

One response to “Seeing Ourselves for Ourselves”

  1. Jane Dora says:

    This reminds me of an episode of Embarrassing Bodies here in the UK, where a woman was concerned about her inner labia being too large – they weren’t, in case it matters, in fact they were on the small side). Rather than the [female] doctor in the show telling her that it is normal, explaining to her all women are different, or suggesting ways of dealing with her body-issues, she instantly told her to go to a plastic surgeon. So many women seeing that, ignorance and body-issues to deal with, and needless to say just half an hour later the online community I spend time on started coming up with posts from young women concerned about their labia.

    I’m thankful for vaginaverite, but also pages, Vaginapagina’s ‘Real vulva’ project (shame it’s password protected, but a great idea where women of the community shared photo’s of their genitals to show girls what’s ‘normal’), All About My Vagina’s links to pages of vulva images including link to The Y Project photos, and of course Scarleteens article on labia which is a must for forums as it’s a safe site appropriate for young people so can be posted to help girls without breaking forum rules. The more sites and projects like these the better.

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