That's Not How A Vagina Is Supposed To Look... Or Is It?

3 years ago

Warning: This post contains graphic photos of real women.

A couple of weeks ago my friend, The Hot Italian, sent me an article about vagina censorship. It seems that the oldest student newspaper in Australia, Honi Soit, published cover photos of 18 vaginas (vulvas really, with some labias poking out), and just before the paper went to print, the university decided to stick a black rectangle over the "juicy" parts of the photos to avoid a lawsuit.


Image: thefuturistics via Flickr

Australia has a law that only a closed slit can be shown. Most women don't really look like that once they've passed through puberty. Black rectangles to the rescue... or not. As it turns out, their rectangles were unacceptably transparent and the vulvas were visible. The university pulled the entire run of the paper.

You might ask, "Why the hell would a student newspaper want closeup photos of vulvas on the front cover of their paper?" I kind of wondered that myself. It's sensational, right? Vulgar? Pornographic? Unnecessary? Meant to send a message?

It was definitely meant to send a message. As this article explains, they were tired of the way vaginas are portrayed in the media, when they are shown at all: shaved clean, surgically altered, pale, "girlish" (youthful). They wanted to show what real lady bits look like, because a lot of girls and women really think that their vaginas are deformed; they don't look like what we've been told is the ideal. In fact, the author of the article notes that 12,000 Australian women a year have labiaplasty. I imagine the rates are higher here in the U.S. That's a lot of labias being changed.

I can see their point about the mystery and misrepresentation of female genitalia. Most women don't get a good look at adult vaginas other than their own (and rarely that) unless it's in adult X-rated movies (women who are intimate with other women being an exception). Those vaginas don't look like my vagina, at least not the more "modern" vaginas.

Their other point is that the vagina isn't just a sexual object. It's a body part like any other, and there's no reason it shouldn't be out there, free and proud. Hiding vaginas makes them seem dirty and only useful for sex.

They made some good points. I looked at the photo of the censored vaginas first. Here it is. I have to admit, that even censored, this photo would have caused a stir at any of the universities I attended or at which I taught.

Then I followed a link to the original photo, which one of the editors tweeted. Even though it's hard, I'm going to admit that it was a little strange looking at those disembodied vulvas all in rows. My first thought was that I should look away. They looked too private, like they shouldn't be posing like that. They didn't look especially attractive, alone there without their tummies and legs and breasts and faces. I had to puzzle about my reaction for a few days, because I was uncomfortable about those 18 vulvas, and that's not what I would have expected.

I'm still conflicted. Yes, on the one hand, I think we should stop chasing a surgically altered ideal of women's bodies. It's damaging to women and to men. I doubt there are many readers I have to explain this to, so I won't. The editors of the paper made valid points about why they wanted to show those 18 vaginas on the cover.

On the other hand, why these disembodied close-ups? The answer: there's no reason not to. My discomfort comes from my own socialization and indoctrination. Just like I find perky, round breasts, flat stomachs, smooth round asses, and long, thin legs most attractive, I also find those closed up, pale vulvas more acceptable too. Shame on me, but I do.

It's not how I want to think, but I have to be honest about this. Even though they look perfectly normal, those vaginas don't look like what public vaginas are supposed to look like.

It's some hard brainwashing to reverse.

(I'm going to cut myself a tiny bit of slack here and say that I wouldn't find most parts of the human body attractive if they were photographed this way, not even breasts. It's too clinical, which I suppose is one of the effects the editors were going for. For example, I could never understand it when a guy I was dating wanted me to send him a photo of my breasts. They look much better in context than they do in a static photo all alone. Same with my nose.)

The other thing I realized -- not to get too personal -- is that I don't much think of my pudendum (that's the Latin name for female genitalia) visually, like I do my breasts or my hands. I think of that area as a feeling area. I don't see it; I feel it there. I never think what it looks like. That's still no excuse though; these women are trying to normalize the visual.

I suppose I could go on and on about whether penises would have been censored (maybe not), and whether circumcision is just as bad as labiaplasty, and the unlikelihood that a student newspaper in Australia is really going to change anybody's mind about vulvas. (Yet here I am in a small Midwestern city writing about it.)

I decided to go with my own reaction because I'm disturbed by it, and I'm sad and ashamed and I doubt I'll be able to change it -- certainly not by looking at or writing about these 18 vulvas. I do think this photo changed something though: It changed the women who undressed, stood still for the photo, and agreed to have it printed on the cover of the oldest student newspaper in Australia. I know for a fact it changed them a lot, because I've recently experienced a similar adventure. As my friend Moxie would say, "It made them feel like goddesses."

Those women are changed forever, and 18 changed women is better than zero. Who knows? Now that those 18 young women risked showing their real vulvas to the world, maybe 18 more will do it and be changed. Maybe they won't react like I did -- in spite of myself. Maybe they will persuade 18 other women not to surgically remove their labias just because they think they should look like porn stars or little girls instead of real women.


I debated fiercely with myself about whether I should post the original, uncensored photo here. I believe I will lose readers if I do. I believe I will disappoint other readers if I don't (but I doubt they will stop reading because of it).

I struggle with knowing I don't find those photos attractive. I know it doesn't fucking matter if I find them attractive. They just are. It's not even my business whether they are attractive or not. Trying to define what's attractive is how we got into this mess in the first place. Then again, as much as I've written about vaginas, I've never posted photos. I don't write a sex blog.

I finally had to wonder what I would want me to do if I were one of those brave young women who bared their vaginas on the cover of their school newspaper. I have no doubt what the answer to that question is: "Yes. Override your own discomfort and post the photo. Be one of us."

For that reason, here is the uncensored photo of real women's vulvas, some with labias poking out. This is what we look like. (Editor's Note: The image may not be safe for work- FJ)

That's all I have to say. I would love to read what you have to say though. Comments are open below. Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and let me know what you think.

 Originally posted here:

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