Women » Features

"101 Vagina" Goes on National Book Tour

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Monday Apr 7, 2014

Is that a vagina on your coffee table? It is now! Photographer Philip Werner has compiled 101 black and white photos of women's vaginas, with a message, story or poem written by the subject to accompany the photo. The result is the profound and cheeky "101 Vaginas."

Inspired by Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" and Greg Taylor's "Cunts... and other Conversations," he began a project three years in the making, with the goal of breaking taboos and celebrating women. Werner said that he was concerned about the lack of vaginal pride, and the increase of labiaplasty -- cosmetic surgery by women and girls who believe that their vagina is not normal, or is unattractive.

He is now launching the tour of "101 Vagina," moving through Canada and the U.S. The tour will run from April 5-13 in Los Angeles, April 19-27 in San Francisco, May 17-25 in Toronto, June 3-8 in New York and June 14-22 in Toronto.

Werner shared some of his thoughts around the project in this exclusive interview with EDGE:

EDGE: How did you become interested in this topic?

Werner: I was first inspired after reading "The Vagina Monologues" by Eve Ensler in 2007. I’d heard about it for some time and finally decided to engage with this issue since it was popping up around me here and there.

Reading the book brought home to me how debilitating the taboo can be on a personal and societal level, but it was also a great example of how tacking these taboos head-on can really help.

EDGE: Do a lot of women have body image shame?

Werner: Well, it appears to be the case, and not only women either, but I personally encounter it in women again and again. And is it any wonder? From a young age we are told to cover up; cross our legs; don’t touch yourself; look like this; wear that; don’t look like this; etc. It’s relentless.

The mainstream media rarely gives people the message that they are fine just the way they are, and even if it does, the ad break may then cut straight to a commercial for "beauty" products, etc. More and more the message is getting out that the standards that are expected of us (or we expect of ourselves) are unrealistic, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

EDGE: How can this book help?

Werner: This book shows and discusses an uncensored, unedited, diverse and normal range of vaginas. Where do we otherwise ever get to see this? I’ve had many people tell me they think this book should be part of sex education in schools.

On top of the images, the messages that the women have written are very powerful and give the book immense depth. There is a huge variety of thoughts and feelings expressed, which again conveys the message that "normal" encompasses so much more than the mainstream media has space for.

So, the book helps by simply getting the message across that I’m ok and you’re OK. We’re all normal, we’re all fine. We don’t need to look, think or feel any other way than we do. I think this can relieve a lot of stress, much of which may also be quite unconscious.

EDGE: Who does labiaplasty and what is it for, medically speaking?

Werner: Well, labiaplasty falls into two main categories: Cosmetic and medical (or corrective). If there is actually a medical problem that can be resolved with surgery, then of course it makes perfect sense to do it. The problem is that many women are now seeking labiaplasty for purely cosmetic reasons. This is because they have come to believe that they are somehow not normal or attractive.

This, in turn, is due to the narrow representation in the mainstream media of what "normal" looks like. So, somehow the belief has formed that "innies" (where the inner labia does not protrude beyond the outer labia) are more common or normal than "outies," even though the opposite is true. It is more common for the inner labia to protrude.

Another factor many people believe has contributed to the rise in labiaplasty is the trend to remove pubic hair. When women have normal pubic hair it hides the vulva to a degree, and so it’s less apparent whether or not someone’s inner labia protrude. When a woman shaves her pubic hair it’s plain to see, and then if she feels her now-visible labia protrude more than she thinks is normal, she may seek surgery to cut them shorter. There are several great documentaries about this online.

EDGE: Did you experience resistance in trying to get this book published?

Werner: As you can perhaps perhaps imagine, I had a very good, long think about the implications and repercussions of doing a project like this before I began. As it turns out I haven’t ended up facing nearly as much resistance as I initially expected, I think I imagined the worst case scenarios to test whether I was up to facing that kind of fire.

So, the main issue has turned out to be the name of the book, with the contention being that I should have used the work vulva instead of vagina. So I wrote an explanation on the website here to clarify why I’m using the word vagina. Basically, the book is about more than just the photos, more than just the external area of the genitals, but I go into more detail in that explanation online.

Then, before the book launch in Australia, there were some outspoken feminists who were upset about the fact that I’m a man, claiming that I’m just another man exploiting women’s bodies. I understand the issues, but there has to be a point where my gender should not matter. I think that point comes down to the nature and intention of the work. The work is respectful and inclusive and definitely not exploitative. Lots of other people (including ardent feminists) have said they think it’s great that a man is doing this. Go figure, you can’t please everyone.

Also, I’ve seen occasions when someone has posted something about "101 Vagina" on a feminist blog, and several people will straight away comment on my gender without taking the time to engage with the project in any way: "Man taking photos of vaginas = bad." But the overwhelming majority of the discussion has been respectful and very supportive. There are plenty of women in the book who identify as feminists.

I also had several feminists tell me that it caused some heated, but much-needed, discussion in their circles. This was also complicated by the fact that I organized a peace march in honor of a rape and murder victim in my local neighborhood, which brought 30,000 people onto the street in Melbourne to protest against violence towards women. It was huge!

So I was obviously engaged with women’s issues in a positive way, and some people couldn’t reconcile this with my "101 Vagina" project.

EDGE: Has there been any institutional censorship in play?

Werner: There is an issue of censorship. At the first exhibition in Sydney the local police received complaints because the images were visible through the gallery windows. So they came and asked that the windows be covered, which the gallery complied with. Of course the media jumped all over it when that happened. Whoever complained to the police had no idea how much they would be helping us with publicity.

Then, at a group exhibition that was part of the Sydney Fringe arts festival the gallery owners required that the images be censored. So I got creative and censored them with QR codes, which people could scan with their smartphones. Each QR code took people to a different article about vagina censorship! I actually loved what I was able to do with the exhibition, addressing and highlighting censorship directly. I wrote a blog piece about all those censorship issues here.

EDGE: What do you hope to accomplish with this book and the tour?

Werner: Basically, I just want to open people’s hearts and minds. Though the nature of the work is confronting to many, what I’ve found is that it confronts people in a way that opens them, rather than closing them down, which is really beautiful to behold. The exhibitions are often very quiet, respectful and reflective spaces. There is often a kind of reverence that people hold as they engage with all the images and messages. That is incredibly satisfying.

From that point of view I have already succeeded with the project. Sure, there’s the financials, the large numbers of books I need to sell just for the exhibition tour break even and pay off debt incurred from self-publishing, etc., but that’s unimportant compared to the experience of knowing that my project is touching so many people in such a positive way. People express a lot of heartfelt gratitude and I couldn’t ask for anything more.

For more information, visit http://101vagina.com

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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