Laura Dodsworth photographed and interviewed 100 women about their vulvas for her third book Womanhood: The Bare Reality and a ground-breaking Channel 4 film 100 Vaginas, which airs on February 19th. Here’s what she learned
After the publication of Manhood, my last book in which I photographed penises, I found I had become a champion for men and their manhood. Asked many times by readers and journalists if I would turn the lens on women’s private parts, I batted the idea away.
Let us reclaim our womanhood on our terms and in our words
Three events in one summer changed my mind. I was heartbroken when I read about the numbers of girls in the UK enduring Female Genital Mutilation, a brutal violence inflicted on girls to suppress their sexuality.
I also listened to a report about girls as young as nine asking doctors for labiaplasty because they were worried about how their vulvas looked. From smooth Barbie dolls to internet porn, girls and women are tyrannised by the ideal of a porn-perfect, pink, neat vagina. They grow up with a very narrow view of what they should look like, even though in reality there is an enormous range.
I hope the photographs will help women realise their vulva is normal the way it is
Finally, I was irritated to read some health advice that referred to a vagina as a ‘front hole’. Isn’t it long past time we grew up and used the right words? Why is it necessary to assert the vagina is not the front hole, it’s the middle hole, and it’s not just a ‘hole’ anyway.
There’s a lot of confusion about the terminology. In fact, vagina is actually the birth canal, the correct name for a woman’s sexual anatomy is actually the vulva, which comprises the clitoris, labia and vaginal opening, and the opening to the urethra (the hole you pee out of).
I hope that the photographs will help women of all ages, but especially young women, to realise that their vulva is normal the way it is, and to feel comfortable and proud in their own skin. The tidy pussy of porn is only one of a myriad of magnificent colourful cunts. I hope that women will occupy their vulva and vagina from a place of pleasure not an anxious imagining through a lover’s eyes. Not ‘How do I look?’ but ‘How do I feel?’
Let us reclaim our womanhood on our terms and in our own words. This is what I learned in the process of creating Womanhood:
1. Most women don’t even know what their vulva is
According to the Eve Appeal charity, 60% of women don’t know how to identify the vulva on a diagram. That’s right ladies, we don’t know where one of the most incredible parts of our body is.
If we don’t know where it is, it’s no surprise we also don’t know what to call it either. Vagina, privates, ‘down there’, bits, lady garden, fanny, pussy, beaver, foofoo, front bottom, fairy… So many options, so many euphemisms, all so unsatisfactory. Many women leave ‘it’ nameless. There are no female terms equivalent to the friendly ‘willy’ and comfortable-to-say-in-all-settings ‘penis’, or the subtly sexy ‘cock’.
One main point of reference is internet porn that peddles the stereotypical ‘pink neat vagina’
So, women try not to say anything at all. And isn’t it interesting that the most insulting and negative word in the English language is ‘cunt’, when it is the part of a woman’s body which can give life and pleasure?
The vulva is the external part of the female genitals, including the labia and clitoris. A lot of people call it a vagina, but the vagina is the internal tube, the birth canal.
2. They look really different
This sounds really obvious, doesn’t it. But do you have any idea just how different they look? I thought there were ‘porn’ vulvas and then ‘normal ones’ like mine. The first shoots for Womanhood completely confounded those expectations and I realised how different we look.
There is the most amazing variation of labia size and shape, clitoris size and position, pubic hair and skin tone. Vulvas are pretty hidden away and mysterious, it’s hard to see our own – a mirror or a selfie are a step removed from being in the flesh, so to speak.
privates, ‘down there’, bits, lady garden, fanny, pussy, beaver, foofoo, front bottom, fairy… so many euphemisms, all so unsatisfactory
Our main point of reference is internet porn, and that peddles the stereotypical ‘pink neat vagina’ which is only one of a myriad variety of vulvas. We need a healthy dose of reality. The final artwork of 100 vulvas looks amazing to me now, like a seabed of anemones or a forest floor of delicate flowers.
3. They have a life of their own!
I’m not going to tell you that they have legs and can walk away, but they do move!
One woman said she would like to part her labia so I could photograph her beautiful vagina and vulva better. So, she did.
As I leant down with my camera, her labia closed. I told her this and she parted them again. Once more, as I leant down they closed. This time I thought I wouldn’t say anything and I just photographed her as she was – I decided her vulva might be feeling ‘shy’, or just chilly.
The fact is that vulvas can move of their own accord, in response to air temperature, comfort and arousal. It’s quite fascinating to see.
4. Pubes are optional
Before I started Womanhood I was determined to make sure there would be hair. I didn’t want to present the same bare, naked look that I thought young women must feel pressured into. I grew my own pubic hair into a fulsome bush to represent the natural woman.
The more comfortable women are with their appearance, the better sex they have in general
I’ve got to say, the women surprised me. From bare, to styled, to natural, women are doing their own thing now, aside from a few of the younger women, we don’t feel as under pressure as I thought we did. And that’s exactly as it should be.
5. Getting comfortable with your appearance could improve your pleasure
The first time I viewed my own photograph on my gigantic iMac screen I nearly fell off my chair – there was a lot going on there. But it was fascinating.
I thought my episiotomy scar would be huge but, in fact, I could barely see it. When I touched my vulva I thought the scar felt large and noticeable, but it turns out what I was holding on to was a big traumatic birth memory, not a physical reality. I became desensitised to my own photographs and started feeling quite tender about my vulva. I think she is really pretty now.
Since I made my peace with my literal and figurative scars, I’ve noticed a very lovely and very surprising difference in sexual response; I feel more sensitive and am having more orgasms, bigger orgasms and, new for me, vaginal orgasms.
This correlates with my findings from the other women. The more comfortable women were with their appearance, the better sex they were having in general. Pleasure is about more than nerve endings. Settle down with a pocket mirror and a torch and, over time, maybe you will reap the benefits too. here are two stories from Womanhood.
37 years old, no children
My pussy looks quite cute in the photo. I like the crop. If you saw more, with open legs, it might make me think of someone going down on someone. I’m not happy with the full frontal because of my body size, but it is what I look like.
I’ve always called it pussy or vagina but I’m trying to use the word vulva more because I think it’s more correct. I don’t like cover-up words like ‘flower’. I have a pretty healthy relationship with her. I don’t particularly care what my vagina looks like as long as it feels good. It’s there to make me feel aroused, enjoy sex, have a good sex life. It’s much more fun now than it was when I was younger. It wasn’t a part of my body that I really knew about and I was embarrassed to explore or understand.
I used to believe that my vagina was ugly and it smelled, so you just don’t go there. I picked that up from hearing boys slating other girls for how they looked and smelled. We were only teens. I wouldn’t be surprised if the boys had never even seen a vagina; maybe they’d just heard older boys talking about them.
At the same time I worked at Superdrug and there were so many feminine hygiene products for sale. I can remember thinking that they can’t all be necessary. If you think about it from a chemical point of view, it’s unhealthy.
My reference for vulvas and vaginas was as innocent and unhelpful as the sex pages in teenage magazines that used Barbie and Ken naked. They don’t even have genitalia! As a girl you never see them in the changing rooms. I didn’t know what reaction I would get from boyfriends.
One time I thought my boyfriend at university was going to go down on me, but what he did was lay his head on the top of my vulva and just stay there, hugging the side of my body. He was just comfortable; it wasn’t worship or anything, but it was a completely different experience. And I thought, ‘Woah, he’s quite happy and so comfy there, he could kind of fall asleep down there.’ Then he went down on me. He had a completely different way of seeing and being with female bodies. I felt appreciated, as if it was an honour for him and he really enjoyed going down on me. A whole different world opened up for me.
Before that I’d been curtailing my pleasure because of embarrassment, which is such a shame. That taught me to start exploring myself and use sex toys. It wasn’t just about actual penetration, it was more about vibration or different ways of having pleasure, different ways of having orgasms.
I saw a documentary about labiaplasty and girls who were 14, 15, 16 wanted to be surgically ‘enhanced’, which is the wrong term entirely. I was just thinking, ‘No, you get so much pleasure from those areas of your body, why would you remove them? Please don’t do that.’ But they were talking about having long lips and wanting to look neat and tidy.
My labia are brilliant. The pleasure starts there because it’s on the outside so just warming up by touching them is really important before moving on to the clitoris. Labia aren’t gorgeous, but I don’t think dicks are that gorgeous either. Is there a need to be gorgeous? I’m not that arsed. When I’m going down on a man I’m not thinking he has a beautiful dick, it’s about how much pleasure I can give him.
‘Sex wasn’t just about actual penetration, it was more about vibration or different ways of having pleasure’
I can come really quickly, although that won’t be a great orgasm. I rub my labia and then rub my clitoris and it just depends on the pressure and the environment. If I’m in a warm room and there’s a lot of sunshine and it’s very relaxing, first thing in the morning, it’s much easier because there’s nothing going on in in my head. If I’m in the wrong mind space then it’s very difficult. I usually start with a fantasy to get myself into the right head space, but I am trying to focus more on the sensations these days.
The best orgasm that I ever had was quite spiritual actually. I was 23. It was a summer’s day, the windows were open, there was a gentle breeze, my body was warm. I was comfortable and we felt very connected. We’d taken everything really slowly.
He was giving me oral sex and using the edging technique, where you build up to the orgasm, then come back down, then build up again, and so on. Such a slow build gave me a very powerful orgasm. At the end of it I felt like I had electricity going through my whole body all the way to the ends of my limbs and it was just a complete state of bliss. All I could say was, ‘Don’t touch me,’ because I didn’t want anything to take me out of that feeling. It was phenomenal. In a way I’ve been seeking a sexual and spiritual experience like it ever since.
‘It. takes women so long to let go of the embarrassment and shame that’s ingrained into us’
It’s opened the doors to lots of other things that I would have scoffed at just as nonsense really. I’ve become more interested in spirituality and how that’s connected to my body and sex. I’m now exploring yoga, meditation and chakras. Yoga for me is about stretching and so that just releases tension, and meditation for me is about calming and so that releases tension, and tension gets in the way of orgasm. In general I am more attuned to sensual experience now.
Part of me is pissed off that I’ve had to figure all this out so late. It takes women so long to let go of embarrassment and shame that’s ingrained into us. I’m pissed off that we’re not having these kinds of conversations about the body and the possibilities, and that 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 to have babies, or things for men, rather than us owning our vulvas and vagina, and all the pleasure that is possible.
42 years old, three children
I was a bit worried about having the photograph taken. What if there was discharge and toilet paper on me? I thought there would be a gaping crevice, but it’s tidier than I imagined it would be. Actually that photo is fine. It’s less hairy than I thought it would be too. I don’t like my little middle-aged tummy, which never used to be there.
More than the photographs, I think what’s interesting is having conversations about things which are normally private and hidden away. My vulva has served me well and I don’t have any bad emotion around it. My vagina has given me three children. Luckily I’ve never had any bad experiences.
I tried to have a home birth with my second child. Unfortunately, I had to be in hospital in the end because I had an infection they wanted to treat. When I got to the hospital contractions stopped, they thought I wasn’t even in labour. They examined me and said I wasn’t even dilated.
As soon as they left the room I felt it start again and come on really strong. I hit the floor on all fours and I was mooing, like a big cow. An hour later they stuck their head round the door and I remember them saying, ‘Oh, maybe she is in labour.’ I’d gone from nothing to 8cm in an hour.
My son’s birth was amazing, but something unusual happened, I orgasmed when I gave birth to him. I actually orgasmed. I’ve never really told anybody about that, not my husband, and no one at the time.
There is a point when the head is crowning and it’s the hardest bit, like a ring of fire. At the point where the head released into my vagina, an orgasm started building. As the head passed through, it happened. Obviously this wasn’t an orgasm that went on and on for ages, but it definitely happened. I distinctly remember thinking at the time, ‘That’s weird.’ I was making lots of noises anyway, so I don’t think anyone realised.
I don’t really feel worried about people’s judgement of me anymore. I’ve grown up and matured, but at the time I probably felt a bit weird about it. I’ll tell my husband now it’s in a book. I worry about how my son might perceive it. I feel a little bit anxious about him identifying me and the story of his birth and then feeling strange about it.
After he was born he was delivered straight up onto my tummy. Again, like the orgasm, if I hadn’t experienced this, I would never have believed it possible, but he crawled up my stomach. It was the most primal thing, he literally moved up my body completely on his own. He latched straight on to my breast and breastfed immediately. It was amazing.
‘When I first started having sex as a teenager, I didn’t even realise that clitoral orgasms were a thing’
I was like a rampant sex maniac while I was pregnant. When we had sex again, a couple of months after the birth, I cried because it wasn’t the same heightened experience that I’d had all the way through the pregnancy. Of course, sex was wonderful again in time.
When I first started having sex as a teenager, I didn’t even realise that clitoral orgasms were a thing. I always had orgasms from vaginal penetration and didn’t pay much attention to my clitoris, which I now realise makes me unusual. With my husband I have orgasms from clitoral stimulation then other times from vaginal sex, when everything’s really, really slow. If I have an orgasm from penetration, usually it would be me on top and him not doing anything else and just me guiding the pace. It has to be slow.
I don’t carry a lot of hang-ups in my head and I’ve been very lucky with my vulva experiences. We’re all just little human beings bumbling along on this rock trying to make sense of it all. I think stripping us back to raw nakedness helps people with their hang-ups.
100 Vaginas will air on Channel 4, Tuesday 19th February.
About Laura Dodsworth
Laura Dodsworth is a photographer who specialises in telling powerful, moving human stories. Bare Reality was funded on Kickstarter, the online platform for creative projects, in just one day. An exclusive extract from Manhood: The Bare Reality was one of the top ten most-read articles on the Guardian website in 2017, with over 2 million readers. For more information about her work visit lauradodsworth.com @BareReality www.facebook.com/BareReality