Evulving: How I Learned to Love My Vagina
My relationship with my vagina, similarly to many other women out there, has always been a strained one. Maybe it’s because of agonizing heavy periods, consistent and painful boughts of cystitis, or the onslaught of hormones I have to pump through my body to avoid it expelling a child that I can neither afford nor care for suitably. Maybe just because having one meant that I was told “no, you keep that a secret,” whereas my male peers would often tell you to “look under the table” and surprise you with a full view of their prepubescent penis. Clearly they were taught that they had something to be proud of and shout about rather than to hide away. The first time I remember being self-conscious about the appearance of my vulva, I was 12. It had started evolving from the neat, hairless knoll it had always been; the way everyone else’s was. I was sure something was horribly wrong with me.
“It has, like, a triangle thing poking out of it...” I confided to my mum’s best friend, whom I was also very close to. Confused, she suggested I show her and immediately threw her head back and started laughing. “That’s your clit, you pleb!” I left the situation both relieved that she seemed to know what it was but embarrassed that I didn’t.
Feeling slightly more confident that it wasn’t some kind of hideous sore, I broached the topic with my friends at a sleepover not long later. One acted disgusted that I dare bring up such a topic whereas the other drew me a diagram to try to explain what this fabled clitoris was. Neither of us quite understood the function. She’s still my best friend to this day. Our sleepovers later evolved into Googling things like “Can I get pregnant if I touched his willy then touched my vagina with the same hand???” God bless public school sexual education. I believe the only lessons we were ever given in school involved the boys being whisked out of the room whilst the teacher briefly explained what periods were (a lesson my wonderful mum had already given me - diagrams included) and a demonstration of how to put a condom onto a dildo, an experience that many of the girls politely abstained from.
I started having sex at a very young age, too young. I know now that I wasn’t actually ready, just giving into the pressure of a long term boyfriend. But I don’t regret it. We’d been together for a year and a half and we loved each other; at least what two 14-year-olds constituted as love. He always told me that my vulva was beautiful and that he loved it. It was only a few months ago when we experienced a weekend of fully-matured, passionate nostalgia together and he reiterated those statements, that I realized; I actually believed and agreed with him this time.
I don’t know whether it was simply because I’ve magically matured and evolved and accepted that my vulva “is what it is” or because I was finally single for the first time since I was 13 and was no longer obligatorily sharing her with someone else. She was all mine for once and I finally had a chance to explore her and understand her. A few weeks ago during a bought of hypochondria, I sent a picture of my vulva to my best friend (we’re way past diagrams now, hun) to see if she thought I had eczema or thrush or some horrible life-threatening case of herpes. I thought it a fitting souvenir from my first ever one-night-stand. Everything was fine, but I realized it was the most I’d ever looked at my vulva; ever.
At 24 I still had this preconception of her but had never really got the mirror out, thrown my legs up and looked at her. She was beautiful. The most intricate, fascinating thing I’ve ever seen, so bold and full of character, not the messy beast I’d always described her as. I was inspired. So I fished my oil pastels from the box propped atop my wardrobe and drew her. It was so easy, I hadn’t drawn something so quickly and intently in so long. I was so proud of her. This was the first piece of art that I had created in years that I was really proud of. It felt honest and vulnerable and unapologetic. It said, “This is me, in my rawest form.” In that moment I remembered how it felt to be made insecure of my body because it didn’t look like the ones the inexperienced 15-year-old boys at school drew on the desks.
I recently shared the drawing on Instagram, not as the strong feminist post that I wanted it to be, but as a humorous picture of my male friend, naked and surprised, with only his genitals covered by the drawing. On seeing the drawing, my best friend praised my artistic ability. Another close male friend well-meaningly praised my vagina without really understanding that his approval wasn’t what this was about. And the friend who became my “Model” had exclaimed that we should take pictures of ourselves with it and proceeded to make me cry with laughter at his poses.
I was nervous to upload something so personal for the world to see. Even without explicitly acknowledging that it was mine and hidden behind the charade of humor, I knew people would assume it was me. The post didn’t get a lot of attention. My followers consisted of friends and family, but the people who did like the post were predominantly female. I like to think that they saw what was behind the picture. It wasn’t about sex or attention or approval, it was about acceptance. We are all different people, and we all have different insecurities. This is mine and I’m ok with it. Embrace yourself and your vulva, it doesn’t matter if other people think it’s ugly or weird. It is part of your womanhood and not just something for your partner to enjoy. Love her, appreciate her, and accept her.
The only people who questioned it, the only people who demanded I admit that that was my vagina, were men. One was well-meaning and simply concerned that I had brandished my vagina all over the internet. The other in the comment section, making a clear attempt to shame me and make me admit that I dared show the world something that the patriarchy has trained us to reserve for only our husbands. How dare I embrace my own body and casually put it out there shamelessly for all to see.
The same goes for even TALKING about your vagina or sexual experiences. We have been raised in a world where we have been taught to hate our bodies and to keep the sexual parts of ourselves a secret – that talking about our vagina is rude or crass and that somehow you are a lesser being for vocalizing these things.
With the explosive popularity of social media and sites such as Instagram we have this platform that we are advised to portray only the best of ourselves; a picture of a lavish brunch that I spent 15 minutes photographing so the food ended up cold by the time I ate it, a selfie that I’ve edited to an inch of its life so that my skin just looks like a smudge. We are all guilty of it. I think that’s why I was so afraid to post the drawing of my vagina; it doesn’t matter how many filters you put on that, it’s still a big pink vagina with a lot of labia and a lot of character, not the cute, petite Barbie vagina that porn would have us believe is the norm, and I was daring to acknowledge it and be ok with it.
Not only do the users perpetuate the idea that we should only show our perfectly filtered lives but Instagram itself censors any sort of real depiction of women’s bodies. I recently saw an image of a woman in her underpants and Instagram had blurred out her bum crack. Her BUM CRACK! It wasn’t a sexual image, just a picture that her husband had taken of her in the back of her van with her dogs. This hypersensitivity to unedited, unfiltered, and unenhanced women’s bodies is so damaging. It tells us that it is ok to have your body plastered over billboards, advertising beer or bras if it fits the societal norms of beauty, but if you don’t look like that, it’s something that should be hidden and ashamed of.
Luckily, the times they do seem to be a-changin’, in light of the recent Me Too movement, more women than ever are sharing their stories and embracing their bodies - claiming them as their own, despite having had people try to take them from them or make them feel like less because of the experiences they have been victims of. More advertising companies are using “Plus-sized” models or using a diverse selection of genders, sizes, races, and abilities. Movements like Jameela Jamil’s “I Weigh” and “The Vulva Gallery” are showing real women, real people, embracing the things that society have always told us to want to change. The more we fight the constant stream of subliminal messaging that tell us that we are gross and weird and need to be fixed or be silent, the more we fill our feeds and our world with strong messages of acceptance, diversity, and self-love; the more the world will start to listen.
This isn’t just for us, so that we can look at our vaginas and our bodies without wincing or have sex with the lights on; it’s for our daughters - the generation after us, so that they don’t have to grow up thinking that they are worthless for not looking a certain way or because of the experiences that they have had, so that they never have to feel ashamed over something they have no control over. Self-love is not just a trend that justifies posting sassy pictures of ourselves – it’s a revolution. The more we share our experiences and embrace our bodies, the more we expel shame or embarrassment – The more we take away its power.
However, I appreciate that self-acceptance is a slow journey. It’s easy to tell the world to change, but undoing years of societal and culturally embedded shame is easier said than done. I wish I was the strong, fearless woman who could shout from the rafters “This is my vagina and I don’t care who knows it!” and post the picture I drew with an ode to my vagina but as much as I love my vulva, I’m not quite ready for my colleagues to comment on it over breakfast. They can speculate behind my back all they like for all I care. But I still find the thought of one of my superiors asking if that was my vagina they saw on their Instagram feed last night, a little intimidating. Growth is all about taking baby steps, wear that crop top that makes you feel fabulous, send that nude if it makes you feel sexy! It’s your body and YOU create your own boundaries. Apparently, this is mine. I have a way to go, but I’m getting better and stronger, and if one person sees that picture and thinks; “Hey! That vagina looks like mine!” and it makes them feel a little better about themselves. That’s a win in my books.
By: Cheyenne Hughes