Towards the end of last year, I published an essay about my vulva – in a book, and then in the Guardian. At 25, I’d spent years considering labiaplasty and having sex with the lights off, because of things ignorant boys had said, as well as some of my friends. I felt a deep sense of shame about my body, which over time became crippling.
It’s this shame that photographer Laura Dodsworth is aiming to overcome with her latest project, Womanhood. In a book and accompanying film for Channel 4, she tells the stories of 100 women and gender non-conforming people through portraits of their vulvas. It’s the third instalment in a series: in Bare Reality and Manhood, Dodsworth photographed and talked to people about their breasts and their penises, respectively (both stories featured in Weekend magazine). The photographer has described the series as an “unexpected triptych”; she didn’t know the project would take this direction at the start (and, when it was first suggested to her, she didn’t want it to). But the more she thought about photographing women’s vulvas, the more necessary she felt it was.
“I’d been considering this idea, but kept pushing it away,” she tells me. “And then there were three things I read in a couple of months. One was about female genital mutilation. When I read about women around the world having FGM, I felt sick.” She read a news story about girls as young as nine asking UK doctors for labiaplasty. Then there was a description in a health leaflet of the vagina as a “front hole” – language she felt was inaccurate and harmful. Finally, Dodsworth wanted to move on from the penis project, which had seen her hailed as a champion for men: “How am I, a card-carrying feminist, a champion for penises, but not women and vulvas?”
Vulvas are rarely seen outside porn and childbirth, which Dodsworth puts down partly to their position on the body. “Cocks are right there at the front. They are visible, whereas vulvas aren’t. If you’re a straight woman, you don’t see many.” And, as she writes in her book, they’re not easy to look at: “Let’s be honest, it’s tricky to witness our vulvas for ourselves, legs awkwardly astride pocket mirrors, bums shuffled up close to full-length mirrors, or taking a selfie with the unflattering lens of a smartphone.”
It’s also a part of the body we know relatively little about – historically, there has been a lack of scientific understanding; about the clitoris, about orgasms, sexual pleasure. Meanwhile there is a pervasive squeamishness about vulvas, which may be one factor behind the fact that, in England, cervical smear test rates are at their lowest for two decades. This gap in knowledge may also be responsible for the growing numbers of people who undergo labiaplasty: according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there was a 40% increase in procedures in the US between 2015 and 2016.
Dodsworth’s vulva shoots were a very different experience from Manhood. For many women, being photographed was the first time they had looked at this part of their body in close detail. “I feel like men were revealing themselves to a woman, in a sympathetic space,” Dodsworth says. “This time, women were revealing themselves to themselves. Some women were shaking, asking me if they were normal.”
Dodsworth had worried that it would be awkward to be in such an intimate situation with her subjects. She writes that she needed to overcome her “‘good girl’ socialisation and internal self-censorship”. In fact, she found the experience liberating – posing for her own portrait, too. “I couldn’t ask people to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” she tells me. “So I’m in it. And I remember when I took my photograph and I put it up on my Mac screen, I just thought, ‘Wow, there is a lot going on there.’ I remember looking at my episiotomy scar and it looked tiny. In my head, when I touch it, it feels huge – because I was holding on to huge memories of a traumatic birth.”
The stories told in Womanhood are vast (even if there are few people of colour included, which Dodsworth puts down, in part, to cultural taboos, as participants self-selected). The pages are filled with people of all ages and sexual orientations, speaking honestly about key life experiences. “The vulva is often seen just as a site of sexual activity,” she says. “But we talked about so many areas that aren’t ‘sexy’ – periods, menopause, infertility, miscarriage, abortion, pregnancy, birth, cancer.” In this sense, she saw herself as a “kind of midwife, helping women to birth their own stories”.
The vulva stories Dodsworth has collected made me laugh and cry, moved by the openness with which each person talks about sexual liberation, grief, loss, abuse and everything in between. But I first opened the book while on a train, and found myself skimming past the photographs so that commuters looking over my shoulder would not see.
The very fact that vulvas feel so controversial to look at underlines the power of the project. Would my attitude to my body be different if I’d read this book as an adolescent? There is a spread of shapes, sizes and pubic hair that you don’t see in pornography, or in any mainstream context. It goes some way towards showing there’s no “normal” or “abnormal”, just a never-ending list of variables.
I ask Dodsworth if it feels right to call a project about vulvas Womanhood, since it implies that sex equals gender. She tells me that none of her projects is a manifesto, or a dictionary definition of what it means to be a man or a woman. “It’s a chorus of voices. However, body parts play a very definitive part of what it is to be a man or a woman.”
She says the project has had a profound impact on her own life. “People started to see me a little differently,” she writes in the book. “Unexpected offers, eyes opened – my own explorations took me on new sexual and emotional adventures. I am approaching perimenopause, just at the tipping point when society might deem me past my best, yet I feel freer, happier, more sexually potent, more in my prime, than ever before.”
Dodsworth’s book and film arrive at a time when the vulva appears to be having a cultural moment. Next month sees the publication of Lynn Enright’s book Vagina: A Re-education, and live events that aim to reclaim the body are increasingly popular – from body-positive life-drawing classes to “pussy-gazing workshops”. Meanwhile, campaigns such as Bloody Good Period target period poverty while encouraging young people to shake off any shame about menstruation.
Are we about to see a shift in what people think looks “normal”? Dodsworth thinks so. “Things rise up in the collective consciousness at the same time. It’s partly in the wake of #MeToo. I think it is so long overdue that we reclaim our bodies and our stories. Right now seems to be the time.”
‘Women are taught to fear their bodies’: 51, five children
I’m a doula; I support women through pregnancy, childbirth and postnatally. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at vulvas and watching them open as babies come out. I think society tries to frighten women by talking about our vaginas and our vulvas as though terrible traumas happen to them. I’m not just talking about abuse, but also birth – we talk about it with such frightening language. If you scare a woman about the way her vulva won’t open, then how will she trust it to open? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I find birth incredible, even after all these years. Every time is an awe-inspiring moment, watching a woman’s inner goddess come out, however she births, whatever the situation. I discovered my vulva after I got into birth work. I think my vagina is magical and powerful now.
I’m matter-of-fact about myself and my body. I don’t buy into other people’s ideas as to how I should view my body. I’m 51, I’m a black woman and I live in a world that denigrates everything about my own personal beauty, except for when it’s trendy to like it. If a white woman were to wear and do the things that I do, it would be edgy and urban and exciting; but with me, it’s synonymous with fetishism and eroticism. I don’t like it. Black female bodies have been politicised, eroticised and fetishised. It’s difficult for us to own and love our bodies, because our bodies haven’t belonged to us for the longest time.
There are two pleasure spots. My mind is a fertile field. I love erotica, but I find it gets boring because there aren’t many black women in it. There’s a song with the line, “Oh I love your brown skin, I don’t know where mine ends, I don’t know where yours begins.” I had a white boyfriend who really liked the differences in our skin tones; he liked seeing my brown skin against his white skin. That brought me no peace or joy. It made me really want a black lover. Of course, you know what will happen now – I’m going to meet the most amazing, incredible white guy and then have to apologise for this story.
I hope there’s good sex after the menopause. I think there will be more freedom. We live in a time when women live much longer and menopause is coming up more in the conversation. If good sex comes my way, then I’m going to enjoy every moment of it, whether I’m 51 or 91.
‘My vulva reminds me of a pink cupcake’: 28, no children
My vulva reminds me of a pink cupcake. The labia and clitoris look like layers of piped pink icing. The little mole to the left of my labia reminds me of a chocolate chip that’s just been popped on the top. When we’re having sex, I enjoy the imagery of the penis being a knife that is cutting into the layers of the rose velvet.
When I was 24, I noticed that I bled a lot between periods, and also after sex with my then boyfriend. I went to the doctor, and although I was too young for a smear test, she did one anyway. She didn’t even need to wait for the results. I was sent to the hospital and two weeks later it was confirmed it was cancer.
It’s really difficult to put those feelings into words. It was almost like I was watching a film of my own life. I was there, and hearing what the consultant was saying, but not present at all, and I felt hot, sweaty, shaky. I was so glad that I went to the doctor with those symptoms, because I wasn’t in pain: it was just blood. I could have ignored it. I had a stage 1B grade 3, which is small but nasty. Thankfully it was caught early. I had my cervix removed, the surrounding tissue area and the top third of my vagina and, thank God, didn’t need further treatment, like chemotherapy.
It took a long time for me to like my body again, because it did change. You can’t really do much activity for a while, and you put on weight. I can still get pregnant, but because there’s no cervix there’s a high chance of miscarriage or early birth. If I choose to have children, I’ll have to have a caesarean at about 36 weeks.
There’s a lot of stigma around having a gynaecological disease. Somebody at my old job asked what kind of cancer I had, and when I said cervical, she said, “Oh, how do you get that?” You wouldn’t ask the same if I’d said breast, bowel, or brain. There’s an assumption that you’ve done something wrong, that you’ve slept with a lot of people. It is a cancer that’s associated with sex, as in most cases you get it from the HPV virus, which is transmitted through sexual contact.
I feel a bit broken as a woman, because we’re supposed to carry babies. And I’m also broken in the pleasure way, because I have a shorter vagina now. I felt angry that the part of my body which defines a lot of women, and is central to women’s identity, had done a number on me at such a young age. It took a long time for me to forgive my body. I don’t know if I have, to be honest.
‘Your vulva goes south, too’: 77, two children
I was incredibly nervous about having a photograph taken. I’m old and my body has changed. My legs, my face, my hands, I can see those changes, but I don’t see the changes in my vagina all the time. It didn’t look as bad as I thought it would.
This little vulva is 77 years old now, so it’s gone through rather a lot. The ageing process is interesting, because people talk about your body going south and they mean your breasts, face and tummy, but of course your vulva goes south, too. I miss having tight curly pubic hair. I’m not quite sure why, but it becomes wispier as you age.
When I finished the menopause I didn’t stop desiring sex, I didn’t stop wanting orgasms. I love to wank. I always have and hopefully I always will, until my dying day – wouldn’t that be a great way to go! There is something magical about making love with someone else, but it’s lovely to be secure in the knowledge that you can pleasure yourself. I’m quite orgasm-oriented. I use a toy called a magic wand, it’s a real lawnmower of a vibrator. It’s electric and it never runs out of energy.
In the 1970s, I was part of the women’s liberation movement. We had small groups all over the country. We talked about everything: childbirth, sex, men, kids. We said the personal is political, and we tried to connect up our experiences in different ways. One of the things we did was to meet in church halls, and places like that, and hold a whole day’s workshop about women’s health. We learned how to do a self-examination. We’d take turns getting up on a table, with a mirror and torch, and use a plastic speculum, not a cold, horrible metal one, and we would look at our own cervix. The first time I saw my cervix I thought, “Oh my God, this is me – this is inside me.”
Once we’d done it, we felt elated. It was absolutely amazing to take control of our bodies. We saw the variations in labia and inside vaginas, the ways in which we were incredibly different, and yet had something in common, too.
I decided to get sterilised when I was in my 30s, after I’d had two kids. To my amazement, I was told I needed my husband’s permission. I told them they had to be joking, but the doctors insisted. I knew enough about the law, and I told them I refused to get my husband’s permission. I got my sterilisation.
There have been a lot of changes during my lifetime in regard to vaginas and how women feel about them. Some good changes and some of them, unfortunately, going backwards. When I became a lesbian, the word cunt really came into its own for me. Women use it in a very sexual, exciting and comforting way.
‘The doctor said labiaplasty would definitely help me’: 30, one child
When I masturbated when I was younger I used to hate it when my clitoris got bigger – I thought it looked like a penis. I felt very self-conscious. I thought my labia were too big as well. I even questioned if I had half male and half female parts.
I didn’t talk to anyone about these fears. I had to be drunk to have sex; I was drunk my first time. I didn’t even know that I’d done it until the next morning, when he said I had to get the morning-after pill. From that time on, I always just let partners do what they wanted, but I never let anybody pleasure me.
I thought the area of the vagina should look like the ones that I’d seen in porn on the internet, and they looked the exact polar opposite to mine. Porn made me feel bad in all sorts of ways: my weight, my boobs, my vagina.
I watched a documentary that talked about porn stars who were having operations to make their labia smaller. I realised it was something you could have done and I went to my GP and had a bit of a breakdown. I think it was a really low day. The consultant I saw said that labiaplasty would definitely help me, but it wouldn’t be done on the NHS. He referred me to a private doctor. That convinced me that I needed it. Before the procedure, they gave me some numbing cream. I was awake throughout. He injected anaesthetic into the labia and up into my bottom and then just sliced away. I lay there thinking how much better my life would be afterwards. In reality, my labia were probably quite small pieces of skin, but to me they felt like big elephant’s ears.
My recovery was horrific. I thought I’d have a week off work and I ended up needing two. It was so swollen, I couldn’t walk.
Now, I feel a lot more comfortable day to day, sitting down, crossing my legs in jeans, the type of underwear that I can wear. My labia used to be saggy, wrinkly, brown, hanging bits of skin. Now there’s nothing there and I feel cleaner. I feel happier.
I still wish I could be more confident and powerful. I’m trying to stop worrying about what other people think of me. I want to find out who the real me is, because I still don’t know at 30.
‘It’s definitely not going to look like a porn star’s’: 31, no children
I’ve never looked at a photograph of my vulva – I’ve never even looked with a mirror. I’m a bit nervous that I might be grossed out. Maybe I’m worried about what my partner sees.
I really wanted to do this. Yet in that moment, when I considered looking at my photo, I thought, “It’s definitely not going to look like a porn star’s fanny.” I’m a feminist and an activist and yet my first thought is that I won’t have the kind of pristine fanny that everybody is used to. I’ve actively campaigned against FGM for the last 10 years, in various capacities. One of the things I do is talk about how women don’t look at their fannies; we don’t even talk about our fannies. I’ve talked about some really, really personal things with close friends, but not that.
I was born into a Muslim Pakistani family. I am no longer a Muslim and I don’t tell people that I am Pakistani, but I am. One turning point for me was the sexual violence stuff – your husband can have sex with you if he wants to. If you refuse, there are teachings that say the angels will curse you all night. As a devout Muslim, when I was first reading that, it was quite a scary idea. Now I have no interaction with the community that I’m from; I can take part in this project because it is anonymous. There are two things that my family don’t know about me that would push them over the edge. One, that I’ve had sex, and two, that I eat pork.
I’m in a very, very privileged position. It’s taken me 10 years to get myself into a safe situation where I can do and say whatever I want. “Honour” killings still happen, even here in Britain. I marched at Pride and I was decorated with body paint and had my tits out quite openly. There were objections, even though there were men in Borat-style mankinis, men in fetish animal costumes, men with their nipples out. None of that was a problem, but the odd female nipple here and there – maybe it’s why there are a lot fewer women at Pride than men. The threshold for nudity is supposed to be what you would wear on the beach. Women’s bodies should not be seen as more offensive than men’s.
‘#MeToo made me speak out about a celebrity’: 41, two children
At 15 I had an early sexual experience that I now see as potentially harmful to my relationship with sex. My boyfriend was 18 and seemed very experienced, and I was afraid that if I didn’t have sex with him, I would lose him. I kind of had an out-of-body experience – I remember looking down and seeing a very flat, still me.
When I was 19, I met a 34-year-old celebrity who came on to me. I was in awe that a celebrity would find me attractive. Quite early into the evening I realised what an idiot he was and then, scarily, that his mate wasn’t going to go away. But I went along with it because I’d put myself in a crazy, vulnerable position. I “consented”, but the night was just degrading – taking it in turns between the three of us.
I left in the morning and then completely rewrote everything. I saw my friend and said I’d had a lovely night. I continued to stay in contact with this celebrity, because I got a little buzz out of him still wanting me, until I saw him one more time. This time was really horrible.
We were in a room, but with people coming and going. We just sat next to each other, catching up. He put his hand at the back of my head and forced me to give him a blow job. It was cut short as someone else entered the room. I never mentioned that incident to anyone.
Subsequently I had inklings from the media that this guy had gone on to have relationships with younger girls. I never felt I could come forward with my story because I had told any friend that would listen that I had had great sex with him.
The #MeToo movement was hugely influential. I saw this guy’s name come up. I thought, “Maybe my story could help others.” So I went to the police, saying, “It’s a very small piece of a jigsaw puzzle, but this is what happened.”
I’m finally going to counselling and hope to unpick how it’s affected me. I wonder if at 15 the deal was done, with me going, “Right, this guy only wants experienced girls who know what they’re doing. I shall be that girl.” I’ve always liked sex with the lights on, eyes open, because for ages after those bad experiences I had flashbacks.
I admitted to my husband six months ago, after telling him these stories, that I don’t think I’ve ever had an orgasm. He’s been very understanding. I’ve got close several times. It feels like I reach the crest of a wave and then it quickly goes away. I do get great pleasure through sex, and enjoy the intimacy. I’m still struggling with pleasure, but right now my “foof” and I are friends, we’re happy, and things are getting better.
‘Sex as a man was confusing. Sex as a woman makes sense’: 38
When I was eight, I came to the realisation that I should have been born a girl. I grew up in quite a macho town and went to a Catholic school. There were very regimented, strict ideas about what it was to be a man and a woman. It was not a great environment for a boy to realise he should be a girl. I couldn’t tell anybody.
Puberty was a problem. My penis wouldn’t leave me alone, it needed constant attention. It needed to be relieved, so yeah, I kind of had to masturbate. It wouldn’t let me not. My teens were drug-fuelled. I don’t really remember a great deal about those years.
When I was 22, I contacted the doctor to make a referral to the gender clinic. There was a lot going on in my life at the time, so I went back when I was 28. I had the psych evaluations and a diagnosis. I went ahead with the operation when I was 31.
I was excited before the big day. I had a penile conversion. They take skin off the penis, and they use the nerves that run along the shaft to make the clitoris. The whole thing gets sewn up, inverted and they make a space, between the prostate and the anus, so it’s in there. The testicles go, and they use the scrotum skin to make the labia.
The first time I had sex after the surgery was surprisingly good. I enjoyed it. Sex as a man could be fun, but ultimately it was confusing. Sex as a woman makes so much more sense. My vagina is just as sensitive as the penis before it. Masturbation also makes more sense now. I feel relief after an orgasm, rather than confusion.
I think my vulva looks good. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. I like it. As far as I’m concerned it’s better than what was there before. They’ve done a sterling job.
Let’s be up front about this: I don’t have a vagina. I would describe mine as a neo-vagina. I’m not a real woman. I’d have loved to have been one, but that didn’t happen for me and I have to make do. I can’t claim womanhood. I have a different body to women, I have different biology, different needs, I grew up differently. I don’t think it should be something to feel embarrassed or shamed about. I’m a transwoman, and that’s fine by me.
I didn’t have a girlhood, I wasn’t socialised as a girl. I have some similar experiences to other women. I deal with everyday, casual sexism now. The world can be a challenging place for a woman, but I’m certainly far more comfortable in it now, as a transwoman, and can contribute more than I could as a man.
‘My 30s were centred on having kids, and losing them’: 40, two children
When I was younger, I didn’t think a lot about what being a woman was. I was too busy enjoying myself. I spent a lot of time trying not to get pregnant, then from the age of 30 it flipped. Then it was about staying pregnant, having a baby, then breastfeeding. All of that really made me understand what it was to be a woman compared to being a man. Because it’s all on you. Your partner can support you, but other than the initial sex, all the rest of it is up to you and your body.
My entire 30s were centred around having kids, breastfeeding them and losing them. In between my son and my daughter I had two miscarriages. The first knocked me on my arse, to be honest. Before it happened, something didn’t feel right, and then when I was 12 weeks I started bleeding. I should have gone to A&E earlier than I did; I ended up having to have a blood transfusion. The foetus had to be manually removed.
I felt like the pain gave me closure. I had a few weeks off work, and then it was all about getting pregnant again. It took us a year, which was rough emotionally. I had another miscarriage at 10 weeks and that one was completely on my own at home. It wasn’t as bloody. I felt like I knew what was what now, and once I’d passed it, I could tell it was over.
After the second miscarriage, we decided to just accept we were supposed to have one kid, and to not use contraception but otherwise stop trying. Of course, I got pregnant immediately.
Both of my births were vaginal and pretty good. I think I’ve been quite lucky. It’s a lot, isn’t it, a baby coming out of you? It’s amazing to think how much the vagina stretches.
Having sex after you’ve had stitches is scary. It took me a good few months to feel like it again. I was scared the first time. The fear probably made me tense up, and it was sore, but fine after the first time. I noticed after having my son that the labia are less even and I have one dangly down bit like a skin tag, which might have been caused by the tear. But it doesn’t bother me.
My vagina might be looser, but I would say that sex is better since having children. I’m a lot more comfortable with my body. I know what it is capable of, so I don’t care about how it’s changed. If I’m on a beach in a bikini I feel OK, because I’ve got the body of a woman who has had two kids. Perhaps pre-children I felt I had no excuse to be a bit wobbly. It’s a shame I wasted so much time feeling like my body wasn’t as good as it could be. I would tell my younger self to be kinder.
• This is an edited extract from Womanhood: The Bare Reality by Laura Dodsworth (Pinter & Martin, £20). You can order a copy for £15 from the guardian bookshop here, or call 0330 333 6846.
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