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

Bleeding Hearts / Lovewall by jgoldcrown and passersby.

Hunted

Every time I hear about another setback, my reflex reaction is to tense hard and run away.

There is, as of yesterday, another restriction on abortions in our country: in Georgia from six weeks on, they are banned. So, that’s you missing one period to give you the heads up about your pregnancy, and then a max of two weeks to make the decision and make it happen, while maintaining your life —family, work, commitments, restrictions and considerations, like privacy and safety and money and time. Time. Enough time for everything and everyone you will need to do, think about, talk through and actually getting there to wherever there might be a clinic or hospital that will take care of you.

It’s not going to stop, this active pursuit of us. It feels like pursuit because indeed we are, being chased down. State by state, region by region. Hunted like slaves who got away. Temporarily safe in the next country over. Only we’re all here. And we’re not safe. We never were. Safe.

We have yet to be mentioned in our Constitution.

I have been taking so much for granted.

—–

Image: Bleeding Hearts / Lovewall by jgoldcrown and passersby.

Give us a smile.

So many things, like this, so many so many times growing up, being told in some sugary voice to smile. Give us a smile. What? What’s wrong with that? Hey baby, how ’bout a smile? C’mon….What? You have a problem with smiling? Stop making such a big deal of things. C’mon, just a little smile.

You’re always seeing problems where there aren’t any. He’s just being nice.

It. doesn’t. feel. nice.  

—–

Art and inspiration: “Don’t Tell Me To Smile” by Lexi Bella installed in the First Street Green Art Park, NYC, for Women’s History Month.

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.

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.