That title got your attention didn’t it! The spark that inspired this post is a documentary everyone must watch called 100 Vaginas which aired recently on Channel 4. It should be made a part of the curriculum as far as I’m concerned, it is compulsory viewing for teenagers and adults of all ages and genders. Artist Laura Dodsworth, on whose work the documentary focuses, has previously created photo series on breasts and penises, and has now turned her attention to the vagina, which she calls ‘the last taboo’. Let’s get some anatomical definitions out of the way before we go any further, most of the time when we use the word vagina we are not talking about this specific internal part of the female genitalia, we are using it as a catch-all term to describe the female genitals in their entirety. Dodson is really photographing vulvas, a fact which is pointed out in the documentary. In this post I will also use the term vagina here as short-hand for the female genitals.
In 100 Vaginas we meet some of the 100 women whose genitals Dodsworth has photographed. These pioneering individuals have frank and intimate discussions about their own vaginas and how they feel about them after being shown the photographs Dodsworth has taken. A broad spectrum of people are interviewed, which means that the viewer is given insights into the lives of a variety of different individuals; from survivors of FGM and cervical cancer, to trans and non-binary people. Hearing other women talk about their sexuality, masturbation and their relationship with their bodies was as fascinating as it was exciting. Being privy to such personal stories which were relayed with such honesty and without fear of reprisal made me feel brave, proud and strong. The way this documentary is filmed is gorgeous, it is sensitively and sensuously done, and it was genuinely joyful to see so many different kinds of vagina on my tv screen. Although I was shocked by how shocked I was, I don’t think of myself as a prude and was disappointed in my initial wide-eyed surprise at the images and footage being shown. But really it was natural to be shocked, we never see female genitalia on tv, and we rarely see penises, what we do see a lot of are breasts. So yes, you may well be shocked by what you see, but that’s ok.
Facets of the stories that the women featured have to tell will resonate with anyone who has a vagina, and will educate and inform those who don’t. It is a crucial exploration of what it means to have a vagina, as journalist Roisin O’Connor says ‘It’s not a radical thing to have a vagina, but Channel 4’s documentary does feel quietly revolutionary.’ I recently read that cervical screening rates, or smear test rates, are at their lowest level in two decades. This is a huge issue, as this simple test can prevent 75% of cervical cancers. After the death of Jade Goody from cervical cancer in 2009 at the age of just 27 the number of women getting tests rose, but since then numbers have gradually declined. Surveys have shown that one of the main reasons women are avoiding this routine test is out of embarrassment. 100 Vaginas and the normalisation of discussions about the vagina could, therefore, save lives. I recently had my routine smear test, a lovely female nurse who I had a good blether with carried it out, and the appointment itself lasted all of 15 minutes. If you feel uncomfortable with your smear test being carried out by a male nurse or doctor you can always request a female conducts it, and I can confirm after speaking to my Grandmother who was a nurse for 30 years they really have seen it all before. Yes there is momentary discomfort, and yes I did bleed a little for a day or so afterwards, but I left the doctors surgery feeling excellent, as I do when I leave a voting booth. I’d just done an eminently sensible thing, which could end up saving my life. So if you have a vagina, look after it, respect it, and never ever be embarrassed by it.