Why is it so hard to call a vagina a vagina, and a vulva a vulva?

Shame, sexuality, and power, and how our health is suffering.

Laura Dodsworth is a photographer, artist and author. Over the last five years, she has photographed & interviewed 300 women and men about their breasts, penises and vulvas, for her projects Bare Reality, Manhood and Womanhood - busting taboos, one body part at a time.

Laura and her project Womanhood were the subject of a Channel 4 film 100 Vaginas.

Here she tells us here at The Eve Appeal why women shouldn't be afraid to open up about their bodies.

‘How many sexual partners have you had?’

‘Um. Four.’

I was shocked to be asked, so I answered. Like a good girl. Abnormal cells had been found following a cervical screening test in my 20s and I was about to have a biopsy on my cervix. The gynaecologist asking me this question might have asked every woman who came before him, perhaps it was important data gathering, but the question and context weren’t explained, and I felt ashamed that I must have brought this on myself, by having sex, with more than one partner. A connection was made between my body, my sexuality and shame – not for the first time

One woman told me “There’s a lot of stigma around having a gynaecological disease. Somebody at my old job asked what kind of cancer I had, and when I said cervical, she said, ‘Oh, how do you get that?’ You wouldn’t ask the same if I’d said breast, bowel, or brain. People don’t ask those questions because they’re common places to have cancer, but when it’s something in-between your legs, there’s an assumption that you’ve done something wrong as a woman, that you’ve slept with a lot of people.”

Re-wind to aged six, and I remember sitting on my mum’s bed, crying, worried she would never come home. She had aggressive cervical cancer. She recovered, she was fine, and life went back to normal. But I still vividly remember feeling like a scared small child, missing my mum, worried nothing would ever be the same again.

With this background – and quite the history of gynaecological problems in my family – I knew that when I photographed and interviewed 100 women about their vulvas and vaginas that there would be stories about gynae cancers. In fact, I was determined to find and include them and bring the reality of the experiences to light. I found women with uterine, vaginal, vulval and cervical cancers to take part, although didn’t manage to find a woman with ovarian cancer who would agree to be in my bold photographic project. I was also determined to support a cancer charity with my platform and proceeds from book sales.

© Laura Dodsworth

Eve Appeal was the perfect fit for me with their focus on all five gynae cancers, and their remit of research, prevention and, all importantly, breaking apart the taboos and shame that unnecessarily connect our bodies and sexuality. And here is where my creative work really intersects with Eve Appeal. Let me tell you, I’ve been called a few things in the course of photographing 100 women’s breasts, 100 penises and 100 vulvas, but my favourite was ‘Slayer of Taboos’. (Can I have that on a headstone please.) I was blown away by one of Eve Appeal’s simple but effective tweets – ‘Vagina is not a dirty word’.

No body part inspires the curious and potent blend of fear and worship, lust and hate, pleasure and shame, as the vulva. Shame holds all of down, but shame is specifically utilised to hold women down by suppressing our confidence, sexuality, anger and therefore our power.

One woman told me: “I remember my Macmillan nurse saying to me, ‘Have you been angry yet?’ and I said ‘No, not yet.’ Then about two days later I absolutely lost it in Curry’s because I hadn’t bought my son any Christmas presents yet. I absolutely lost it with the manager of Curry’s because he wouldn’t ring up to see if there was a PlayStation at the next branch. I called him a c**t and I got barred from Curry’s.

“Really, a lot of this anger was because I was angry with myself, because I’d not gone for a regular smear test. I only had myself to blame, didn’t I? There was a lot of that sort of talk in my head: ‘You’ve only got yourself to blame. You’ve slept with too many men. You’ve not looked after yourself. You’ve not gone for your smear test, so what did you expect?”

There are so many ways in which shame affects our relationship with our body and our health. So many women told me that they try to avoid naming ‘down there’ at all. If you can’t say the words vagina, vulva, labia to a doctor, will you put off going? There are so many childish euphemisms, like foofoo, lady garden, front bottom, bits, fairy, through to sexual diminutives like pussy, to violent references like axe-wound, to the English language’s most serious pejorative, cunt. Why is it so hard to call a vagina a vagina, and a vulva a vulva?

If you think your vulva is abnormal or ugly, or smells, are you less likely to go for a cervical screening or gynae exam? Have you ever even looked? Lots of women had never looked at their vulva before, and took their first peak on the back of my camera. Not only is vagina not a dirty word, it is essential to #KnowYourNormal. Recent research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that a quarter of women don’t go for cervical smear tests because of body shame and embarrassment.

One woman told me: “No woman alive wants to go for their smear test. I’ve always been overweight. I was embarrassed about my body. I’ve always been quite hairy, so I was embarrassed about that too. I was more insecure about my belly than my fanny. A lot of women are embarrassed about their bodies and their fannies. We’re taught from a young age that it’s private. Sometime we get reactions from doctors and nurses that don’t help. I went for the morning after pill when I was about 19 or 20, and as I was leaving the doctor said, ‘Don’t be such a slag next time’.”

Where does this shame come from? Smooth Barbie dolls, ‘porn-perfect pussies’, supermarkets peddling an array of products designed to make us believe we are too hairy, too leaky, too smelly. Blow jobs are ubiquitous in films, but you don’t often see women receiving oral sex. Women confessed to me that they wanted the lights off during sex, or didn’t want oral sex, because they were self-conscious of their vulvas. From going for essential health checks to enjoying sex, body shame is holding women down.

One woman told me: “A lot of emphasis is put on the way women look as part of their identity. My daughter’s 15 and she’s already talking about when she’s old enough to have lip plumpers, Botox and breast enlargement. I’m not so fussed about how I look. I would rather that people saw me for the person within.”

© Laura Dodsworth

I wanted my book Womanhood: The Bare Reality and film 100 Vaginas to lift the lid off shame. I wanted it to be a game-changer for women, especially young women who face a barrage of unobtainable airbrushed flawlessness in the media, and unrealistic depictions of sex and bodies in  internet porn. I really believe if I had read this book when I was 18 then so many things in my life would have turned out differently. (That’s another article…) For women who have cancer that could mean all the difference when it comes to treatment, outcomes, and even life and death.

One woman told me: “I was so glad that I went to the doctor with those symptoms, because I wasn’t in pain, it was just blood, I could have ignored it”

I’m often asked which is the saddest story in Womanhood, or the funniest, or the most surprising, as though women will only have one thing each to say. No wonder so little is expected of women in a world where they are given half as many words as men in films. And no wonder that there is a temptation to cast a woman who has had cancer in the role of ‘brave survivor’ or ‘tragic victim’. There is a lot of light and shade in Womanhood. The stories, like the women, are multi-dimensional. Some of the women with the saddest stories also made me laugh the most. Some of the most traumatic experiences were related alongside gasp-inducing moments of inspiration.

One woman told me: “People say you are brave when you have cancer. Actually, when you have cancer, there’s no choice, it’s not bravery. I think having my photograph taken today was braver. But believe it’s important that women feel more comfortable with their vulvas and vaginas, for lots of reasons, but also because they need to go for their smear tests.”

Having seen 100 vulvas up close, I know well how how much variety there is in the female form. One thing all vulvas and all women have in common? Just as the vagina and vulva are elastic, strong, and bounce back, women bounce back, resilient and powerful. I learnt so much from these 100 women. The familiarity I have acquired through photographing 100 women’s bodies and their authentic lived experience has helped me ditch the shame. And that has made me feel more powerful. I am a living embodied conclusion to Womanhood. The process of creating these stories and photographs has changed me. I hope they change you a little too.

@barereality

Womanhood: The Bare Reality by Laura Dodsworth is published by Pinter & Martin £20

10p per book sold is donated to Eve Appeal.