Three years ago I went to the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London. I saw a fabulous illustrator called Jo Harrison who handed out colour-by-number, annotated vulvas. I took mine home and put it on my fridge. My friends would come round – educated, feminist, female friends – and they’d look and squint and tilt their head and say, “Oh! So that’s what that bit’s called.”
I was pretty horrified. It turned out that not many of us knew what our vulvas actually looked like, let alone what all the flaps and holes and mounds were called. This just didn’t sit well with me. If we don’t have the language to talk about our own bodies then how can we speak up and speak out about them? And if we don’t know, or like, what we look like, then aren’t we missing a very important part of ourselves?
So, I set up @thisisavagina, an Instagram feed dedicated to vulvas of all sizes, shapes and colours, to help us know what they look like and love them no matter what. I was utterly shocked to learn that girls as young as nine are going to doctors to ask for labiaplasty in the UK. The fact that young girls dislike themselves so much at such a young age, so much so that they want to have invasive surgery to change themselves, broke my heart.
These days, we gain much of our knowledge of vulvas from porn, an industry based around fantasy. Far from seeing a variety of normal and hairy vulvas as we grow up, many of us have never even looked at our own genitals in a mirror. Yet, somehow we still feel there is something wrong with them. Asymmetrical, too big, lop-sided, sticky-out – not the neat, little, ever-smooth Barbie vaginas we see so often.
As well as making vulvas visible, I talked about vaginas. A lot. At work, with friends, with partners, with my parents, at parties with people I didn’t know. It became seriously apparent that the words ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ are words we loath to use, or even to hear. Most people prefer to mutter ‘down there’ and flutter their hands around their crotch or blush and stammer out the word ‘fanny’.
To be so embarrassed by such an integral part of you that you can’t even utter its name is restricting and sad and perpetuates the problem. It’s also detrimental to our health: 66% of 18-24-year-olds don’t go to see a doctor about vaginal problems because they are too embarrassed to even use the word ‘vagina’.
Alongside regramming work from brilliant artists on @thisisavagina, I created my own vulva artwork, including the geometric vulva that I use as a logo.
I fell in love with it because I think it looks like a vulva and a strong woman with her hands on her hips and a superhero motif all in one.
It represents everything I feel about being a strong woman. It started life as a screenprint on a t-shirt and as I wore it to parties, the pub, work and the gym, I had people asking where I got it and whether I could make them one too.
And so I did. I used a company called Teemill because they are ethical and sustainable and I couldn’t put my vulva on anything that wasn’t organic (a general lesson for life, too). Before long they were whizzing off t-shirts from the little print factory on the Isle of Wight to people all over the globe.
I wanted my fierce little vulva to go out into the world and start up more conversations. The more we talk, the more we know and the less embarrassed we become. And the more we can make women and girls love their bodies for what they are and what they look like, the better. We have enough to be fighting for without having to fight our own bodies.
I donate half of the profits to Bloody Good Period, a fabulous organisation that collects and delivers menstrual products to asylum seekers and homeless women in the UK. They are utterly brilliant – I’ve never met a group of people who throw the word ‘vagina’ around more than I do.
My t-shirts are a symbol of pride and love for vulvas. They are a way to start conversations about why it is important that we can use the words ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ without blushing or looking away. And they are, hopefully, a tiny step in helping women and girls to love their vulvas no matter what they look like.
So buy a t-shirt and join the vulvalution!