Image of a long, light wood table, set with 18 chairs of black-edged backs of light-colored rattan. The table is set with small rectangular sheets of white paper and a black pen at each chair and 4 x 6 cream-colored watercolor sheets with words and phrases on them. There are a 100 laid out on the table at different angles. Not so many that you can’t still well see the table top, but it’s a lot. This table is set for the first Bodylife Library Lab, held at the Wing club in SoHo, NYC. In the back, a woman is passing by and there is a floor plant and some comfortable dark orange upholstered chairs in the background, with a woman seated in the way back. You can just see her head.

Tell me again, why can’t we talk about body stuff?

Tell me again, why can’t we talk about body stuff?

Your body is your home.

It’s your primary medium of self-expression — your voice, your hands gesturing, making things, touching someone, legs walking toward, stepping away, hips dancing, butt seated, with arms folded — are you angry, bored, worried, satisfied? You breathe…I hear you.

Your body is your receiver and interpreter of the world around you, and the people in it with you.

It’s integral to your life.

How can it be weird, embarrassing, inappropriate, to talk about your bodylife?

What happens inside your body is literally defining your experience of the outside world, and of yourself, and your possibilities.

Our bodies aren’t sealed containers. 

They are living— We are living beings.

Nutrition, hydration, elimination of waste, sweating, breathing, menstruating — these things happen in our bodies and outside them.

We make choices about our behavior, buy supplies, clothing, fixtures — we are involved in the care and maintenance associated with these aspects of our body lives.

Why wouldn’t you talk about it?

Why wouldn’t you be interested in ways to improve the quality of your experience, or someone else’s?

Why would it be unusual or unacceptable to share your experience, to ask questions, to get advice? — like you would when it came to any other aspect of your life.

Why wouldn’t it be normal to be interested in the quality of your bodylife?

What exactly is more important than that? 

What exists outside of that? For you.

A rectangular image of a some muslin, with raggedly cut edges across the bottom and the words “There is no right way to look” handwritten in black marker overlaid across the top half.

There is no right way to look

There is no right way to look.

We are individuals after all. Not interchangeable in any respect. You don’t have my experiences behind you, nor do I have your family, or you my ideas, not my stories, triumphs, pains or dreams. You have yours and I have mine. And, most certainly, your body is not mine, and mine is not yours.

If I was to try to replace your anything with mine, you wouldn’t like it. Even if you love me, we are not the same. We are different. I will inconvenience you over and over.

Yet we expect.
Sameness.

Endlessly seek a kind of ease that is unnatural. Idealized. Programmed. Controlled. 

We compare against idealized renditions, retouched photography, and a small set of examples that show up over and over in our super-sorted world of likes and targeted advertising. Legitimizing through repetition.

Funneling photoshoots into an algorithm, we codify. 
How everyone should be.

And we haven’t gone below the surface yet. We haven’t moved. No one has taken a breath, had a thought, felt anything, wanted, worked for, wished for anything. 

Normal is diverse. There is no other way. And yet, we do not. expect. diversity. 

Diversity is inherent in being.

There is no right way to look.

And that isn’t the point of having a body anyway.

An image of a partial view of Merge New York studio, where words and phrases from bodylife listening sessions are posted on the wall to loosely frame today’s conversation experience. Vagina portraits, printed as if they might be oversized Polaroids, square with thick white borders, a thicker one at the bottom, inviting you to hold up the image, are laid out on three tables. Just one of the v-portrait tables is in view (in the foreground). The images are laid out on it on a muslin tablecloth, that has “normal is diverse” painted on it with black fabric paint. In the background, the studio’s gong is visible behind the writing table that has two chair set with it, and stands just in front of the wall of windows, that show the building across the street awash in some later day bluelight.

Telling our own stories

It wasn’t quite what she expected. She imagined there would be vagina portraits on the walls. Actually, nearly everyone said the same. I can understand that.

What does an art & conversation experience mean anyway?

There were women who told me that they really liked the table installation format, the intimacy and directness of it.

I like it too.

Still, I know that disorienting feeling of “Wait, where am I? Is this the right place?” — it can be off-putting. Even for way less provocative subject matter than viewing vaginas.

I’ll be providing more info up front going forward.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d just share these photos, so that they’re available when I organize the next art & conversation experience (that happens to be in a similar space, with our words on the walls and vagina portraits laid out on tables for us to turn over and view and arrange however we like), and I can point you here to get a glimpse of what we’re gonna do together. Or at least what it might look like when you enter.

The conversation is different every time.

An image of a partial view of Merge New York studio, where four women, two each by a table of vagina portraits, are deep in bodylife conversation. A third table of vagina portraits is peeking out in the forefront. A nighttime view of the building across the street is visible through the back wall of windows. The left wall has watercolor word cards (black paint on cream-colored paper) taped to it. Their content was sourced from bodylife listening sessions and is not readable from here. A writing table is arranged in the back with two chairs, cups of pens and paper, so they can add their stories to the wall. Two women did.
Telling our own stories.
Image of exhibition window, showing Straingers, a multi-media installation, by Cecile Chong.

Diversity is inherent in everyone

For me, when I think about diversity, it isn’t just about our affiliations, or group identities, demographics, the stuff that seems easy to know about someone, someone else, though, right?

Diversity is inherent in everything and everyone. Everything living that is. Especially people though, with our minds and memories, endlessly varied experiences, specific family lives, and capacity for learning and growth. In spite of what we may want to keep the same, and hold still in order to feel safer.

We are individuals.

We are individuals. That’s what diversity is about. We bring a universe of being that exists and is generated inside each of us to every encounter.

I am enlivened by the beauty of our inherent diversity, emerging from the inside out. I will definitely start shooting vagina portraits again soon.

Window credit: Straingers, by Cecile Chong, a multi-media installation on view at Main Window until Monday, Dec 16, 2019. It stopped me in my tracks as I passed. You can learn more about Straingers here.

An images showing two “normal is diverse” stickers torn off the roll, on a hassock.

If there are stickers, then it’s a thing.

Stickers! The normal is diverse sticker is here! Two shown here on a hassock. A word not said often enough for how fun it is to say: hassock!

Almost a year ago, I exhibited vagina vérité in the Normal Is Diverse exhibition. That there is no right way to be has always been a core, underlying theme of the project, but it wasn’t THIS clear to me until I blurted it out, so nicely packaged, and with such force and settled sureness, when I was pressed to just say it already: Clearly and simply, why do I make vagina portraits?

Well,

Because we need to see ourselves for ourselves.

We need to KNOW it for ourselves: that normal is diverse.

That how you are is how you’re supposed to be. There is no other way.

Say it with me: Normal is diverse.

Clearly, I was working on this in some deep part of myself for years. In my conscious life, I rarely have any sureness. I mean, other than about how much space you’re taking up in just inside the subway door, your cologne, your use of Fabuloso, and the volume of a voice on your phone in a shared space. In these areas, I am totally sure that if I am aware of any of these even IN THE SLIGHTEST, then you have crossed a serious line, and should dial it back A LOT.

Anyway, we have stickers now.

The truth that lives in our bodies can now be found on our laptops and notebooks.

I printed lots. Lemme know if you want one. I will mail it to you.

Woman passing quickly by a now-empty store, with jet stream hair and RISE behind her.

You are not free.

I don’t want to just get through this.

This is an opportunity to step off the inertial way of things, and build the world we actually want to live in.

For me that is a society whose systems, governance and norms support the widest range of bodylives, not just one take on the life of a male-born-and-self-identifying-as-male. This isn’t about men vs women. What I want is a world that is based on the reality of being human, varied, complex —because we all are— and in it together, regardless. Regardless of what you thought or were taught is how it should be. I wish it was easier too. But mostly, I wish it was reality-based, honest, sincerely respectful and kind.

More than half the world lives a different bodylife than the standard-male bodylife on which we base our norms. One in four women have had, and will have, an abortion. This statistic has been around for a while. Abortion is normal. For bodies that can get pregnant, managing the number of pregnancies, the timing and the circumstances of pregnancy are a normal part of their life. If it’s not your body, it’s not your place to decide what, how or when. Ever.

Mid-year status report on freedom

State legislatures across the South, Midwest and the Plains enacted 58 abortion restrictions, 26 of which would ban all, most or some abortions. This surge in abortion bans is a distinct departure from the strategy deployed by abortion opponents for decades, which was to adopt incremental abortion restrictions with the cumulative impact of denying care to patients and forcing clinics to close. This approach had led to passage of laws that were less likely to be challenged in the courts than outright bans.

The much more radical strategy of enacting abortion bans hinges on the hope that these bans will be the subject of court cases that will give the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to undermine or overturn long-standing constitutional protections for abortion. However, both strategies have the same goal—making abortion impossible to both provide and obtain.

Elizabeth Nash, Lizamarie Mohammed, Olivia Cappello, Sophia Naide, Zohra Ansari-Thomas, State Policy Trends at Mid-Year 2019: States Race to Ban or Protect Abortion, July 2019.

Maybe you’re like me and you’re just beginning to understand the significance of these maneuvers, or your role here. We cannot let this happen. Safe and unrestricted access to abortion is a human right. It’s a matter of privacy, liberty and equality.

This is about you.

When it comes to personal freedom, we either all have it or we don’t. Everyone has control over their bodylife, or no one does—because it’s not freedom then, it’s the privileged space you were lucky enough to find yourself in within a larger, controlled space. Maybe you’re the controller—for now. Still, then you’re bound by the mandate to dominate and control the others. You just aren’t free. Not if everyone is not free.