Category Archives: the story

Graffiti-covered wall outside a metal, curved-wall entrance and a guy walking out of the scene.

What did you expect? Why is that?

I’m trying to ask myself this more often and to notice. What did you expect? And why is that? Especially when I’m dissatisfied, heatedly so, about how things are. Big picture, smaller stuff. 

How did I get here? 

What matters here? 


What do I want? 

What am I willing to do to get there?

To get there. Not to get it. It is the journey, the experiences, the relationships. Not just events and the score. It’s the story.

I was in a conversation with a friend the other day, who was thinking about someone in her life who had committed suicide. She didn’t know why. It didn’t seem like anyone who knew them knew why. All of the stories we take with us when we die—that don’t get heard. By anyone. Maybe not even by ourselves. There is so much to parse through to understand. What matters? Why?

I think about expectations more and more lately. As I get ready to start my big research project, I have a new kind of appreciation for expectations. I used to just think they got in the way. Underneath them though, is the point of the story we’re living now.

Some people waiting on line to enter Philadelphia's Magic Gardens (PMG). It's a metaphor for inclusion.

DEI 101: the neuroscience behind diversity, equity & inclusion (part one)

I took a morning workshop on diversity, equity and inclusion recently. It was led by Paloma Medina, Performance Coach and Founder of 11:11 Psychology, Work & Life Supplies. It took place at  the World Domination Summit in Portland, OR. Today, I wrote up my notes and read through the slide deck. Not sure I have ever done that before! I could probably boil it down to one (huge) idea: Inclusion is a core human need. What we do to get it, or when facing the absence of it…that’s where things get interesting hot.

This talk was science-based and unexpectedly profound. I don’t know what I expected actually. I don’t have a team I want to build (yet), or a company diversity-box I want to check off. What drew me to the workshop is that it’s time to break my habits around listening. This seemed like a super-relevant line of inquiry. I don’t usually think about how we’re wired, or consider what is useful from an evolutionary – survival view

We feel things first.

All data/information goes to the amygdala first. The amygdala is part of the limbic system. It’s the older, emotional, fight or flight center. That’s where we register threats and rewards. It’s where we notice patterns of threat.

Next, there’s the prefrontal cortex (PFC), where we handle complex matters, think things through. The PFC is the more recently evolved part of the brain that handles rational and creative thought.

When something threatens a core need, the amygdala shuts downs the PFC. It’s been referred to as amygdala hijacking. There’s no time for the PFC to think through the situation. The amygdala is way faster and has already identified a threat. And it feels threatened by things like exclusion

Belonging, or inclusion, it turns out, is a core human need.

Think of what we do for family, or for love, that puts us at risk. It’s not Maslow’s hierarchy of needs working here. We care about belonging, about our people, first.

Experiences of social pain, like exclusion, are akin to physical pain. They feel the same to our brains, and we do what we need to do to avoid them.

Emotions rule and our reactions are all signs of our nervous system moving energy and focus to where it can best protect us.

There are culturally accepted (and rejected) expressions of emotion (like no crying in baseball—is that still the case?), but no one is actually less emotional than anyone else. We just deal with it differently. Some withdraw, some shout, for example. Most of us, when threatened, experience  tunnel vision, increased heart rate and tensed muscles. We are all emotional beings. About a third of our experiences are PFC-based, while two-thirds are our emotional life, ruled by a more primitive part of our brains. Think about that…

This helps to make sense out of (way too many) experiences I’ve had losing my cool, to put it mildly. It also helps to explain why so many conversations where we have not been able to connect and just talk things over. One or several of us was, no doubt, in a completely different emotional state than the others. Whether you could tell or not. I don’t mean just the hot-headed outbursts, tears, or storming off. I mean, we’re all endlessly dealing with feelings that I don’t think we’re trained to identify, understand and handle.

We have evolved. We do have the PFC. Just, all things being equal, the amygdala will run right over it every time. 

Unless—we rewire our brains. 

This can be done. 

The workshop ended with homework.

Some steps leading up to a townhouse, with potted flowers all around.

The way forward

One of the things I’m working on is learning how to listen better. What does that mean? Well, I’ve got it down to a list of habits I want to break and skills to develop.

Habits to break

  1. Doing that thing where you’re really just waiting  for your turn to speak. This is where it starts. What does just listening to someone feel like?
  2. Interrupting, even if it’s because I’m so interested in what you’re saying,  and have something to add that I feel sure you’ll be happy, relieved, excited to hear
  3. Taking it for granted that I actually know anything about your view of things, or what interests you and why, what worries you, excites you, or just plain turns you off. The odds are our relationship has gone deep or long enough for that. And, anyway, if I wasn’t such a good listener before, I am probably projecting my ideas all over you.

I know. This is gonna take some doing. 

It came up first on a personal note, when I began noticing that I was having a hard time communicating at work, with family, and with friends. It didn’t feel like we were on the same page. Hardly ever. And when it did feel like it, I’d find out later that that page wasn’t what I thought it was. I used to think that I was having a hard time getting things done with a slew of external factors governing whether things were working, but lately, I’ve decided that it’s because I’m just not very good at listening. I’m habitually doing those things I listed above (worth re-reading) and not actually hearing people. And that throws off my expectations, and sets me up for misunderstandings, mis-alignments and generally walking into walls. 

Then, as I turned to work on this idea of creating space for conversations we don’t usually get to have, I saw that while it seemed like I was in touch with what mattered to women, the only research I had done was via the questionnaires I formulated in the first phase of the project, and conversations I had with women here and there—both would be steeped in my biases as I hadn’t begun to think critically about my capacity to listen, much less to work on it.

Skills to learn

  1. Developing empathyCognitive empathy vs emotional empathy. With cognitive empathy (you don’t need to agree, but) you’re consciously cultivating understanding of other perspectives. It takes learning and practice to do this. Because of all the biases. Emotional empathy is where you support someone through what they’re feeling. In this, I’m focusing in on connecting through understanding vs through recognizing and accepting another’s emotional state. That’s emotional empathy and what we usually think (I think!) when we talk about empathy. This is about really seeing (hearing) each other as we are. Not easy through all the noise in my head.
  2. Listening sessionsNon-directed  interviews, open-ended conversations. I’m shooting for a few conversations/week and kicking this off later this month. If you’d like to get in on that, let me know. You don’t have to have attended a vagina vérité exhibition to participate. 
  3. Mental model diagramming—In product development (or service offering) terms, this is a way of deeply understanding  your problem space by documenting what your people think, feel and care about. By your people, I mean the ones you want to serve and support with what you make or provide. It’s where you come to understand—independent of them becoming customers, what matters to your people? What are they trying to do that your offering helps them do? Not how do they use or feel about your product. How do they think; what do they feel, and what are the underlying principles guide them as they aim at an intent or purpose? One larger and more personal than what your product or service covers. The mental model diagram is a method for making a visual map of the content provided in listening sessions, and where we’ll be able to view the women’s bodylife landscape generated directly from your voices.

I’ve just started working on this, and in addition to being pretty excited about it for how it will no doubt change me personally, I just know this is the way forward for what vagina vérité can become.

We need access to each other’s experiences: women’s bodylife stories, information and services. It needs to be easy, safe and universally accessible. Don’t you think?

Often, it’s hard to see what matters

I have wanted to do this for a long time.

To create welcoming, open-minded, safe spaces for the exploration of uncomfortable, not-openly discussed and often taboo subjects that comprise much of what is normal life for women.

I started the project back in 2000, and very quickly, even before I shot the first v-portrait, so many topics came up. About our public lives and our private lives. 

A list of vagina-related topics of a public nature
The original’s page of vagina-related topics of a public nature.
a list of vagina-related topics of a private nature
The original’s page of vagina-related topics of a private nature.

I tried to organize them in the container of the website, established each section to get filled in over time (you can see the ending Tables of Contents in the screenshots above), but I was endlessly worrying about how to do it, about not being an expert—or much of a researcher, and really uncomfortable opening up subjects that I didn’t know much about. Afraid of failing women who were having a harder time than I was with their bodies, with health and wellbeing, with discrimination, and objectification, and violence. I so wanted to get it right, to do it the way someone who knows things I don’t know would do it. Someone who has the skills of a researcher-journalist-cultural-commentator-pundit writer, or at least the snappy confidence that others have when they write or say these grand-sweeping or sparkling-quippy things, and everyone nods would do it. Stuck in the conversation going on in my head…I worked on it less and less, with a full stop in 2013. sigh.

Stopping was good in that I really didn’t know where I was headed by then. I just couldn’t see through all the voices in my head. Some of them though, were bugging me to keep going. Eventually, I lived my way to a place where the shrill critiquers are being outdone by the persistent c’mon already! voice of the underdog lover of openness, of showing up as is. You really never know how things will go, or how long they’ll take. Often, it’s hard to see what matters.

I haven’t gotten any better at any of the things I thought were so important. I have worked on other things though, and we’ll get to all that as we go.

Self-portrait winter 2017

I have always wanted to be invisible.

I have always wanted to be invisible.

Just talk to me. Don’t look at me.

Looking didn’t feel like interest. Respect wasn’t a given among us. That’s how it felt to me. Everyone a critic. Of everyone else.

Seemed like all we did was look up and down each other, and rate what we saw.

So, when I see that you’ve looked, at me,

I need to know: why are you looking?

What do you want from me?

To do with me. 

I know you’re skimming my surface and assessing its value to you. I felt it every time I was told to be careful at night.

Surface looking. That’s all we talked about, the surface of things, of people. Our ratings became truth because we didn’t discuss it. We just did what we thought we had to do. Rate, agree with the first, or loudest rating, counter-rate, debate, take a poll and group rate. The surface.

I think it just seemed like the simplest solution. If I was invisible, I wouldn’t have to deal with this problem of how you see me. or any body.

Gabrielle helping me install over 100 vagina portraits.

How does one install 110 vagina portraits?

How does one install 110 vagina portraits? With a laser level, good hair and nails c/o of @havenspanyc aka your best friend and partner in loao (laughing our asses off)!

I’m behind the lens with the upcoming hair date at Haven.

It’s the morning after my first exhibition of vagina vérité in ages and apparently there is no emoji for how full of :lovegratitude: I feel for everyone who had a hand, heart and mind in making it happen with me. Friends and contributors to the project, going back to the beginning (2000!) and at many stops on the way. Artists, performers, speakers and crew of both Vagina Festivals, my unofficial, always has my back staff for all things vagina vérité friends (Marla, Pfunk, Gab) and family (especially my parents!), vagina portrait models, supporters, word-spreaders and believers in diversity as a normal state (not to mention the female body and all it does, on its self-sovereign terms, as a normal state—and a human right). In attendance last night IRL or in spirit.

This is how it’s done, the beautiful meaningful things: always with the help of many. I wish I could name everyone! Each of us a one. to be counted one by one. Not sorted into types and categories and groups of what you think you know about anyone who is not you. Or not like you. No one is like you. Enjoy the beauty of that. Respect everyone else’s right to the same. Expect diversity. It’s normal.

We all have a lot of rethinking to do.

Insert the :lovegratitude: emoji that doesn’t exist yet, but really should. (I canNOT do giphs. We can’t even talk about it, ok?)