Category Archives: unabashed exploration

A friend telling me why she didn't attend the exhibition.

It’s still so much about what they think

 “I wanted to go, I really did… I was with my boyfriend that weekend and with all the vaginas on display, I would be embarrassed if he spotted mine and knew I posed!”

A friend asked me the question that gave birth to vagina vérité (do you like the way your vagina looks?) during the summer of 2000. I shot my first vagina portrait that September. Documentary-style photographs, just a little larger than life—for women, so we could see ourselves for ourselves.

Over the course of ten years, I made over 100 vagina portraits. The women who posed may, or may not, have been comfortable with their bodies, or with being seen. They range in age and lifestyle, and relationship with their vaginas. The only thing they have in common is trusting me with their v-portraits.

All along, I kept thinking that maybe I didn’t really need to do this. Each time I saw that The Vagina Monologues was being performed or that the word “vagina” was showing up on tv, I thought these were signs of the end of a chapter, that we were good, we had space for our bodies and our stories. It’s amazing how I could take such small moments (important moments, but still just moments) and extrapolate out what I wanted to be true. That we had sovereignty over our bodies, that it was our view that mattered. That we would trust ourselves first. Before anyone else’s idea (or what we think they think), that we were trusting ourselves before any claim about how we should be, as womxn, having a body.

“I wanted to go, I really did… I was with my boyfriend that weekend and with all the vaginas on display, I would be embarrassed if he spotted mine and knew I posed!”

The exhibition she didn’t attend was on 08-Dec-2018, titled Normal Is Diverse. You can read some of the thoughts of some of the womxn and mxn who attended here.

Normal Is Diverse

Something that should just be normal.

Something that should just be normal.

It’s so important that people see these + that women start to unlearn all the shame that we’ve been taught. It amazes me that in our culture the female body is so over exposed / sexualized + yet vaginas are so taboo + shocking. I think so many women feel disconnected from this part of our bodies + try to avoid or ignore or wish away something that should just be normal. I feel so lucky to see this exhibit. Thank you.” —IRL post from Saturday’s exhibition: Normal Is Diverse, NYC.

It’s not just that we don’t expect diversity among our bodies. It’s that it’s not normal to get to see womxn’s bodies as we are. Ourselves. Not as object. As being.

There is no right way to look.

A man at the exhibition told me that this exhibition was just for women because men seeing this wouldn’t want to have sex again, because it isn’t attractive. I couldn’t begin to reply. I waited to see if he could hear himself claiming vaginas for men like that. His wife was standing next to him. I waited. He pointed out that I did say that I wanted to hear people’s thoughts. (I do.) I was only able to point out that he can speak for himself, but probably not for all men. I was winding down by then. I kind of had cruise control on, enjoying that people were looking, and talking with each other. I didn’t have it in me to cross a gap that wide. My mind was racing reacting. I am standing right in front of you. There are mainly women standing in front of the vagina portraits you’re pointing at. And, still, when you look, you only see a body part, an object for some man’s use?

I know. I know. I need to be more prepared for the conversations I want to have. Most of my training (when not totally avoiding or hanging behind my camera) is in growling an incoherent rant and stomping off though. Often that all happens in my head. I have a lot of work to do.

Image of the Normal Is Diverse exhibition of vagina vérité, Saturday, 08-Dec-2018, at Lower East Side, NYC.

Normal is diverse.

Normal is diverse.

I am only beginning to understand it. I can’t say I actually live that truth on a broad scale in my life, as if it was natural. Though it is. natural. I get that we’re all different, each unique. Even so, I keep expecting something familiar, or more like me, or like what I want, believe I need, or would just be easy, or at least easier. I’m thinking about more than vaginas now. And more than about appearance, but appearance is where we usually begin. And, often it’s where we stay.

When I say I’m only beginning. to understand it, it’s because it runs deep, deep inside us. These assumptions about ourselves and each other. They’re hard to get at: often so familiar that we don’t recognize that we are complicit in maintaining mean fictions. Even when they work against us.  

The hierarchies of power and entitlements that follow from these ideas go against what is plainly apparent. when you just look: that normal is diverse. There is no one right way to be.

But still we keep expecting sameness, judging and demeaning anything other than the stereotype in the media, in our minds, that our families, schools and neighbors told us was the way to be. This stuff runs deep, the right way/wrong way us-and-them view of the world is so old it’s almost invisible. It’s the basis of so much of what we each believe matters, think is true, is to be feared, hated and avoided. So you can’t always tell when you’re part of the problem. Even if you’ve been hurt.

Normal is diverse. We have to keep looking. To see what is. Stop thinking you know. Just look. In the mirror, and at each other. What do you see?

The view in progress.

Instructions for viewing

Normal is diverse. 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.

Yet we expect.

We compare against idealized versions, retouched photography, and a small set of examples that show up over and over in our super-sorted world of likes and targeted advertising. These have become the model for how we are to live and to look. Especially to look.

…Normal is diverse.

It’s inarguably the case that normal is diverse. There is no other way. And yet, we do not. expect. diversity. We duck it, think it difficult, find it wrong, or the cause of problems. It’s not worth our time, empathy or curiosity. When know it when we see it, even from a distance, and we go quickly back to the repeated familiar. We don’t expect diversity as the norm.

On Saturday, from 4-8pm, at Ludlow Studios, NYC, we’ll have the unusual opportunity to see 110 vagina portraits, and to see for ourselves that normal is diverse. Also, to share our individual thoughts, by writing them and dropping them in box, from which a volunteer will later pull them out and add them to our wall. The portraits will be on one side of the room and our words on the other, and we will be in the middle seeing what we see. No pressure to talk or reveal yourself, though talking is welcomed and encouraged.

Instructions for viewing

    • This is a space where our bodies are OUR BODIES, and it’s safe for womxn to reflect on themselves and each other.
    • Diversity is understood as normal, even if we’re not used to it.
    • Compassion, empathy and curiosity are expected.
      • We will each show up with our individual stories, experiences, expectations and comfort level with ourselves and with others, and this may change during the exhibition.
    • Respect for each other is required.

I am so looking forward to seeing you.

If you have not yet RSVP’d, please do so here. It’s free, but space is limited.

vagina vérité, ten years in the making (2:38 min on stage)

Last summer, I attended the eighth year of the World Domination Summit (WDS), in Portland, OR. It’s a weekend conference, that becomes a week-long experience as attendees organize additional talks, activities and experiences during the days leading up to it. Attendees often sign up for the next year on the last day to make sure they have a spot. The underlying themes of WDS are community, service and adventure. I know, the name doesn’t sound like it, but it’s like going to inspiration camp. If there’s something in you that you want to achieve, you’ll gain ground there.

I didn’t know this when I signed up, but it’s true.

After not-working on vagina vérité for a few years, I was just ready to try something different. I’ve been a reader, and a fan of, Chris Guillebeau, author and originator of WDS, since 2007. I reserved my spot at WDS2018 to get clarity on how to reboot the project, and forgot about it.

A few weeks prior to the conference, attendees received an email from team WDS, inviting us to submit our remarkable stories for the chance to share them on stage. They characterized a remarkable story as:

  • A time in which you needed to trust.
  • A moment that altered the trajectory of your life.
  • A quick lesson or life principle you think would help others.
  • A way in which you were inspired or influenced by someone else, or something that happened.
  • A story that is vulnerable and reflective.
  • A request that you think the WDS community can help you with.
  • A person you’d like to publicly thank.

By the second bullet point, I could hear myself saying “One day, I was meeting a friend for drinks, and before my butt hit the bar stool, she said, “Do you like the way your vagina looks?” I most certainly had a remarkable story to tell.

For as long as I can remember, I have been extremely uncomfortable speaking in public. If I notice the sound of my voice in the company of even three people, I want to stop it. Public happens very quickly for me. Speaking on a stage was miles from my wheelhouse.

But—I had signed up to attend WDS, specifically to get past the obstacles between me and giving the project its due. It began as a response to my friend, and I couldn’t let it end there. We need to see ourselves for ourselves. It needs to be shared, and shared widely.

This was an opportunity to work on that: I had to apply to tell my remarkable story in front of an audience.

Ugh.

I closed my eyes when I hit submit, and hoped they wouldn’t be interested in vaginas this year. Maybe they already had a vagina project on the docket.

But they didn’t. They chose my story.

They also provided help in the form of a storytelling coach, Marsha Shandur, and the new friends I made, Linda Ugelow and, especially, Rebecca Villareal, who helped me find the words.

This video of me on stage was shot at WDS. In it, I compress the ten-year experience of vagina vérité into a 2:38 min talk, including intro and outro.

Now, I have not seen the video end to end. I just can’t. I’m pretty sure I recited the script that you can see in my front pocket when the camera pulls back verbatim, but I am just too nervous about speaking in public to watch myself on stage, heart pounding nearly through my ribs, in front of 1,000 people.

When I got backstage after, I literally laid myself flat on the ground.

Still, it’s progress.

In a few weeks, the vagina portraits will be on exhibition in NYC. I hope to see you there. I totally plan to say something. I’ll probably still need to memorize it, and keep glancing at the ceiling to remember what comes next. At least now I know I can do it.

normal is diverse

You’re invited to a photography exhibition of 110 vagina portraits, so we can see ourselves for ourselves.

 

vulva diagram, with masking tape

vulva diagram on tracing paper

vulva diagram on tracing paper, with masking tape

I guess the tape means I used have this up on a wall in my apartment.

Diagrams and illustrations are helpful, information. The vagina portraits are more than that. They’re a mirror, even if it’s not your portrait you’re looking at. Because gathered together, as they will be for the normal is diverse exhibition, they become more than a document, depicting more than an aspect of someone, one. They’re a collective mirror.

You’ll see if you attend the exhibition next month. More like, you’ll feel it. Your stories lived in your body, your stories about women’s bodies, will recognize themselves in the faces of these vagina portraits.