Womanhood: Talking to Women about Their Vulvas Made Me Feel Angry for the First Time
‘How will you deal with the anger? Have you thought about a smudging ceremony when it’s all over?’
This was one friend’s suggestion, when I told her how much I had been impacted by some of the stories in my project, Womanhood: The Bare Reality. Another friend said I might need counselling when it was all over.
Why were my friends concerned? I photographed and interviewed 100 women about their vulvas, vaginas and their lives as women for my latest book and project, and it brought up some serious anger. I’ve been in the privileged position of hearing the most intimate stories women can relate. Some have been inspiring, fascinating, funny, hot, glorious and juicy. Others have been painful, shocking and traumatic and they connected me with a reservoir of rage I had never felt before.
I totally get where my friends were coming from. We are trained to see anger as unhelpful, something that needs to be pushed away or dealt with. Anger is particularly unpalatable in women. Things have happened in my life that I could, perhaps, have been angry about. But anger has never been my first emotion, or a particularly natural response for me.
I am a card-carrying feminist, a follower of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and yet I was stunned by the multiple stories of childhood grooming, sexual abuse, assault, rape, plain bad unsatisfactory sex, and medical trauma that were so consistently and deftly woven into the tapestry of women’s lives.
In my previous projects Bare Reality and Manhood I focussed on breasts and penises, but Womanhood connected me with anger more than either of those works ever did. Of course it did, there is no body part as revered and feared, lusted after and hated. The interviews in Womanhood tapped into the deepest reservoir of medical, birth and sexual trauma.
“My relationship with sex wasn’t good for many, many years. My first sexual experience was actually rape. I don’t really remember the act. I was 13, at a party and very drunk. The guy, who was 16, is a genuinely nice person and I don’t think he had an understanding of what he was doing as rape. But it’s clear now I couldn’t have consented, as I was too young, and I was drunk to the point of passing out.”
It was inevitable that the vulva would evoke these stories. I had a sense with this project that the reveal for us women was to ourselves. By looking at our image, up close, clear and sharp on a camera back, we unearthed surprising stories buried deep.
"This hasn’t been about showing myself to others, but showing myself to me.”
The first time I viewed my own photograph on my mac screen it was shocking - there was a lot going on there! But it was fascinating. When I touched my vulva I thought my episiotomy scar felt large, noticeable (and surely hideous?) but I could barely see it in the image. I’d been holding on to a big traumatic birth memory, not a physical reality. Looking at my vulva, and the site of the scar, recalled memories to me in different ways. It was like learning new routes through an old landscape. I remembered joy, pleasure, birth and orgasms, but I also remembered miscarriage lost heavily down a toilet, sex I didn’t want to have, invasive gynaecological exams, assault.
"I have seen, touched, indeed worshipped many vulvas in my life. I appreciated each one. And yet I have never had the courage to look at my own.”
That anger has stayed with me, and I am glad. I will not be smudging, or seeing a counsellor. It’s a quiet, deep anger that has left me more certain of my own boundaries, more sure of my ability to stand up for others, more assertive, more determined to create change in the world. I like this anger.
Not only did Womanhood connect me deeply with anger, but also with my sexuality.
Tapping into anger and sexuality made me feel more powerful. Somehow, I think I started emanating a little more power, a little more juiciness.
“It takes women so long to let go of embarrassment and shame that’s ingrained in us. I’ve potentially missed out on years of great pleasure because it’s been smothered by tension or embarrassment or shame. I was dead keen to be part of this because I see it as a means to change the conversation. I’m pissed off that people are still able to frame vaginas and vulvas as mechanical things, or things for men, rather than us owning our vulvas and vagina, and all the pleasure that is possible."
Shame holds everyone down, but shame is specifically utilised to hold women down. Shame keeps our anger, our sexuality, and our power in check. Photographing hundreds of men and woman and interviewing them about their lives for Bare Reality, Manhood and Womanhood has changed me for the better. I’m not just more comfortable in my own skin, I finally feel more powerful in it. It’s about time we reclaimed our power and our Womanhood, in our own image and in own words. Like vaginas and vulvas, women bounce back, we are resilient and powerful.