I’m putting my eyeliner on, but when Diamond, who’s next on stage says, “Hey can I check my shit?” so I move over to give her space at the mirror. She pulls down her panties, she bends over, ass side to the mirror, spreads her cheeks, looks through her legs at the mirror, checks, straightens up, straightens her panties and walks out of the dressing room.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m a stripper in an all nude club. Strippers need to “check their shit” because they show their “shit.” Since I see my coworkers’ vaginas on a pretty regular basis, I’ve learned there’s nothing regular about vaginas and I’ve been on a personal mission to convince women of all occupations that their non-regular vaginas are plain normal. Hence, I was thrilled to be getting a book all about vaginal diversity.
The book, I’ll Show You Mine (Show Off Books 2011), is the brainchild of a stripper. Two pages of text from Wrenna Robertson introduce the book and her concerns about the increase in labiaplasty, mainstream porn beauty standards (hairless and with little to no visible inner labia), and the lack of non-shaming language for female genitalia. “This project,” she says, “stands in defiance of the societal constructions which serve to limit our growth, understanding, and empowerment. Displayed on these pages is a diverse range of female genitalia and an equally diverse breadth of female experience.” After the introduction, we turn the page and we are plunged into a two page spread—pun intended—of full color pussy portraits taken by photographer Katie Huisman.
Sixty vulvas are each shown on two pages and two photos. One photo is from the front, similar to what a person standing in front of a mirror looking at her vulva would see, and the other is as if the viewer is about to perform cunninlingus, looking at the whole vulva face-to-face with the subject’s legs spread. The women are between nineteen and sixty years old and encompass a range of racial appearances (I actually found it difficult to determine vaginal ethnicity and age and I expect the editor purposefully did not include age/race statistics for each vagina) and gender histories (a transgendered woman proudly writes “This is the genitalia I have, not the genitalia I was born with”).
Each vagina introduces herself (i.e. “My Name is Silvi”) and then there are one to three paragraphs written by the vagina’s owner telling a vagina story. Some of them are the “I am sacred-wonder-goddess, portal-to-the-universe, hear-me-roar!” variety. Some whisper their stories of years of shame while others bravely recount sexual abuse. One shrugs her shoulders and says, “I don’t have a love/hate relationship with my vulva, or a spiritual connection, or anything. It’s there, I’m aware of it, I like it fine, and I’m okay in general with being a woman.” And a few comical vaginas throw out a pun or two; my favorite being “It’s time for us, as a species, to Evulva!”
I was having lunch with a group of ladies who are not strippers the day my book arrived. In short time the book was being passed around the group. Eyebrows raised and fingers pointed, “Really?!” gasped one of my friends. “Yep,” I said.
“Look at that one!” and “That one looks like mine!” and “Wow! Having an innie or an outie has a whole new meaning to me.”
At the time I am writing this, I have already shown the book to a dozen other people. I don’t give them any disclaimer about what they’re getting into, I just hand them the book and ask them to peruse it. The first reaction is usually loud and surprised and then every single person proceeds to tell some version of their own vagina story. Everyone has a vagina story. Love stories about their vagina. Discovery stories. Fear stories. These are stories that my friends and my family have never shared with me.
One friend mused that she just couldn’t help thinking vaginas are ugly. “I mean I want to like them. I pride myself actually in seeing beauty in unusual things but for some reason, vaginas just make me cringe. I wonder why and if it means I have some subconscious problem.” One friend of mine told the story of her daughter discovering her own vagina in the mirror, accidentally while checking a bug bite on her inner thigh. When her outer lips parted in the mirror she looked at her mom and asked, “What’s that?” “That’s your vagina,” my friend responded. “Whoa!!! There really are layers and layers and layers.”
Another friend opened the book, immediately shut it, started fanning herself and saying “Oh my god, Oh my god! Wow. I am really uncomfortable with my sexuality. Wow. I am really uncomfortable looking at all these vaginas.” She took a couple breaths, reopened the book and turned page after page. “I have a lot of work to do on my sexuality and feeling good in my body. Wow. This is already helping.” She then asked to borrow the book. I showed the book to my mom, the woman whose vagina I slid out of and into this world and she said, “You know this is something I’ve never been worried about. I certainly haven’t seen many and so I just thought they all looked the same and mine must be right,” she added, “This is really interesting. I didn’t know that some of them could be this way.”
Along with the vagina stories came vagina questions. One friend questioned, “I don’t think my feet are cute. So what if someone doesn’t think their vagina is cute. Is that so destructive? It’s just another body part.” she paused. “I guess it is also an access point.” And vagina discussions began as piercings and pubic hair were debated.
Of course, that night, I had to photograph my own pussy. I took photos from the two angles the book had used. I, who look at my pussy every night I work checking for bits of stray toilet paper or applying cover up to an ingrown hair, was surprised. Rather than bent over, butt cheeks spread peering through my legs (the doggy-style angle, if you will) I was looking at my vagina from the cunninlingus perspective. It looked lovely, I thought, and different from every other vagina in the book. Of course.
“The book is not intended as erotica or as art. It is, quite simply reality,” says the one pager accompanying the book and I can’t think of a more accurate description. The explicitly educational purpose and objective, detailed photographs make this, as far as I know the only resource of its kind. One response I got from a friend, “They need to pass this around a sixth grade sex ed class.” I can not think of one single reason why showing photos of real life genitalia would be damaging for young people as they explore their new bodies and inevitably ask what is and isn’t regular. And whether being regular is important. I can think of a million reasons why it is emotionally stressing to show young people line drawings of symmetrical vulvas and then expect them to be able to find a clitoris on themselves or their partner.
The book’s educational force is more powerful, however, than what the book contains. Yes, the images teach we all come (and cum!) in different shapes, colors, sizes, lengths, and widths. And that in itself is an important thing to know. However, you may find the inspiration to look more closely at your own vulva and find another layer of acceptance or celebration. I don’t actually suggest that everyone own this book. This is the type of book I suggest one person own and share with ten others—women, men and children included. It is in the conversation where learning becomes exponential and surpasses the content of the book. You will learn about your friends. You will learn about your family. You will learn about your lover. It’s a dialogical learning that allows stories to be shared by and with those you care about, and what is learning if it is not relevant to us and ours?