100 Vaginas: the vulva from a woman’s perspective

A new documentary and book turn the lens on how women feel about womanhood

Jenny Ash is the director of a new Channel 4 film ‘100 Vaginas’, based on the new book from photographer Laura Dodsworth, ‘Womanhood – The Bare Reality’. When making the film Jenny turned to the Positive Birth Movement to find photos of women birthing or in the first moments after the babies were born. Jenny spoke to the PBM about her own journey into making a film about their bodies and the stories, emotions and memories that are attached to them. 

 

 

Everything went into slow motion as I saw my son Luc being lifted up out of me – dripping with gunk, like a creature from outer space. It was the most magical moment in my life.  When I think about that first cry it still sends shivers down my spine. It was a long journey for me – three rounds of IVF in my 40s and then a Caesarean when I desperately wanted a natural birth. But as soon as he came out all that melted away. Being a mother has definitely been the most interesting and creative thing I’ve ever done. 

When I was invited to collaborate with Laura Dodsworth and direct a C4 film – ‘100 Vaginas’ – based on her amazing new book ‘Womanhood – The Bare Reality’ I was thrilled as I’ve long been a fan of her work. So often seen through a pornographic lens and the male gaze, the book and film explore the vulva in a radical way – from a woman’s perspective. In the film a group of women from 19 to 77 candidly discuss feelings on topics from puberty, periods, masturbation, orgasms, birth, motherhood, infertility, menopause, gender, sexuality… to FGM, rape and cancer. 

Both Laura and I were keen to make birth a big part of the film– after all it is one of the most defining parts of being a woman. We wanted it to be an honest portrayal to encompass the huge range of feelings women have about it – for some it is orgasmic for others it is traumatic. I cut a river of voices of different women talking about how they felt. By layering different experiences together it allowed the sequence to reach towards the full diversity of the female experience. Every time I watch it I feel quite emotional. We used some beautiful film archive of women giving birth. We also did a shout out on social media asking for women to send in photos of their babies being born or in the first few hours after birth. The response was incredible – thank you everyone from the Positive Birth Movement who contributed. I was also thrilled when my friend Leticia Valverdes, another brilliant female photographer, donated some of her stunning images of women from her ‘Birth Marks’ series. 

We also created a section on breastfeeding – and I was really happy that the incredible and brave women we interviewed were so honest. One of the funniest memories triggered by their interviews that I had totally forgotten about was that moment when a baby is breastfeeding and your uterus contracts and you have a gush of blood shoot down into your knickers –I wasn’t expecting that but actually grew to love that feeling!

We also have a beautiful and searingly honest sequence in which women talk about miscarriage and infertility head on. There’s still so much stigma and taboo around the subject and it’s important for us to talk about it and normalise it.  It’s so moving hearing our interviewees talk about how it has made them need to redefine what being a woman means – something I have thought a lot about myself on my journey through womanhood.


 

100 Vaginas will air on Channel 4 on 19 February 2019.

Womanhood: The Bare Reality is published by Pinter & Martin on 21 February 2019, £20

 


 

Laura Dodsworth is an artist, author and photographer, telling powerful, moving human stories for art, editorial and commercial commissions.

Her books ‘Bare Reality: 100 women, their breasts, their stories’ and ‘Manhood: The Bare Reality’ attracted worldwide media coverage and excellent reviews. The third book in the series, ‘Womanhood: The Bare Reality’ is out 21 February 2019.

She has photographed and interviewed 300 women and men about their breasts, penises and vulvas and vaginas. By turning her lens on physical taboos, she catalyses a ground-breaking conversation into figurative and social taboos, and offers a deeply personal perspective into our most private, painful, pleasurable and powerful stories.

Here Laura shares two of the stories and image sets from Womanhood.

 


 

I orgasmed when I gave birth 

42 years old, three children

 

I was a bit worried about having the photograph taken. What if there was discharge and toilet paper on me? I thought there would be a gaping crevice, but it’s tidier than I imagined it would be. Actually that photo is fine. It’s less hairy than I thought it would be too. I don’t like my little middle-aged tummy, which never used to be there.

More than the photographs, I think what’s interesting is having conversations about things which are normally private and hidden away. My vulva has served me well and I don’t have any bad emotion around it. My vagina has given me three children. Luckily I’ve never had any bad experiences.

I tried to have a home birth with my second child. Unfortunately, I had to be in hospital in the end because I had an infection they wanted to treat. When I got to the hospital contractions stopped, they thought I wasn’t even in labour. They examined me and said I wasn’t even dilated.

As soon as they left the room I felt it start again and come on really strong. I hit the floor on all fours and I was mooing, like a big cow. An hour later they stuck their head round the door and I remember them saying, ‘Oh, maybe she is in labour.’ I’d gone from nothing to 8cm in an hour.

My son’s birth was amazing, but something unusual happened, I orgasmed when I gave birth to him. I actually orgasmed. I’ve never really told anybody about that, not my husband, and no one at the time.

There is a point when the head is crowning and it’s the hardest bit, like a ring of fire. At the point where the head released into my vagina, an orgasm started building. As the head passed through, it happened. Obviously this wasn’t an orgasm that went on and on for ages, but it definitely happened. I distinctly remember thinking at the time, ‘That’s weird.’ I was making lots of noises anyway, so I don’t think anyone realised.

I don’t really feel worried about people’s judgement of me anymore. I’ve grown up and matured, but at the time I probably felt a bit weird about it. I’ll tell my husband now it’s in a book. I worry about how my son might perceive it. I feel a little bit anxious about him identifying me and the story of his birth and then feeling strange about it.

After he was born he was delivered straight up onto my tummy. Again, like the orgasm, if I hadn’t experienced this, I would never have believed it possible, but he crawled up my stomach. It was the most primal thing, he literally moved up my body completely on his own. He latched straight on to my breast and breastfed immediately. It was amazing.

I was like a rampant sex maniac while I was pregnant. When we had sex again, a couple of months after the birth, I cried because it wasn’t the same heightened experience that I’d had all the way through the pregnancy. Of course, sex was wonderful again in time.

When I first started having sex as a teenager, I didn’t even realise that clitoral orgasms were a thing. I always had orgasms from vaginal penetration and didn’t pay much attention to my clitoris, which I now realise makes me unusual. With my husband I have orgasms from clitoral stimulation then other times from vaginal sex, when everything’s really, really slow. If I have an orgasm from penetration, usually it would be me on top and him not doing anything else and just me guiding the pace. It has to be slow.

I don’t carry a lot of hang-ups in my head and I’ve been very lucky with my vulva experiences. We’re all just little human beings bumbling along on this rock trying to make sense of it all. I think stripping us back to raw nakedness helps people with their hang-ups.

 

Women are taught to fear their bodies 

Fifty-one years old, 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.

During an undisturbed birth a woman opens slowly and closes back. When I see a disturbed birth and a woman being told how she should and shouldn’t push, sometimes it’s controlled – for want of a better word – pushing where the perineum stretches nicely and everything opens. Sometimes I see a cut and a tear. Sometimes that happens because the baby’s got a hand up against its head and nothing would have stopped that happening.

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. It becomes that thing that she fears. I don’t understand why women are continually taught to fear their bodies by people who don’t understand their bodies. 

I find birth incredible 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 came to understand the workings of a woman’s body so that I could support my clients well and know my stuff, and that was when I started to look at myself. I think my vagina is magical and powerful now. I think it would like to tell me to relax and enjoy when I was younger, seriously babe! 

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 then it would be edgy and urban and exciting, but with me it’s synonymous with fetishism and eroticism. I don’t like it. 

I know that I’m fabulous and no one can tell me that I’m not. I have to talk about my vulva in the context of being a black woman because 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 the difference in tone, and 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. But the older I become, the more I am aware of who I am and what I want. 

I hope there’s good sex after the menopause. I think there will be more freedom in sex after menopause. We live in a time when women live much longer and menopause is coming up more in the conversation. 

I love being 51. When I turned 50 I realised I wanted to walk into every room and spin around in celebration at being 50. If good sex comes my way then I’m gonna enjoy every moment of it, whether I’m 51 or 91.

I’m teaching my daughters not to be ashamed. They are not handmaidens, they are queens. They should take pleasure in their bodies. But it’s not just my daughters, I tell my sons it is a privilege to have someone else’s body in your hands, so why wouldn’t they want to honour that?