- Beth Johnstone
Is Vulva Art the Key to Our Emancipation?
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
Oppose vagina-shame and sexist shadow bans by drawing a vulva.
Growing up, images of penises were ubiquitous. They were pencilled into almost every school textbook, with varying degrees of artistry and physical pressure – harder lines meant greater frustration, sexual and otherwise, we uncomfortably assumed. Amongst the boys in the class, the most veiny, bulbous representations seemed to warrant the most satisfaction. For people with vulvas, the pride attached to these details only made our own feelings of bodily disconnect more pronounced. “Tom, please don’t draw your genitals on my pencil case. My stomach sinks when you do as I realise, on a subconscious level, that in between my own legs I feel a total absence. In fact, worse than an absence, an embarrassing pit of shame and disgust that I would sooner forget in favour of these algebraic problems you’re determined to never understand.” That’s what we should have said.
Of course, it wasn’t just the boys at school that were obsessed. In 2009, we all laughed when Miranda Hart’s fictional joke shop sold penis-shaped pasta. The rise of social media and explosion of hen party culture meant that it was now considered normal to see photographs of adult family members and friends sipping from penis straws and throwing penis confetti. Yet the idea of my uncles cutting into a cake shaped like a vulva seemed, and indeed still seems, utterly absurd. Attitudes towards our respective genitals have never been difficult to translate. Pudendum is a Latin word meaning external genitals, especially female. Its literal translation is ‘shameful parts’ – learning this, as someone with a vulva, creates a strange internal cocktail of pain masked with apathy. I recognise the feeling from when Tom’s swollen rendition of a penis scrawled over my maths textbook.
Vulva Art Results in Social Media Bans
As if we didn’t already know our vulvas, and the illustrations of them we wouldn’t dare to draw, weren’t afforded the same privileges as the phallus, progressive artists have recently blown the whistle on social media’s role in upholding pussy oppression.
Following on from a long – if vengefully suppressed – history of vulva imagery, jewellery, clothing and homeware have become central to western feminism in the 2020s. In Ancient Greece, Baubo figurines served as a reminder of the vulva’s importance in continuing human society. In Ireland, the UK and Northern Europe, sheela na gig figures are connected to fertility, and are most commonly found within farming communities where people “relied on life-giving powers”, says Barbara Freitag, a former lecturer at Dublin City University. Though it’s doubtful that Lucy and Yak designed their vulva print dungarees in the hope of creating a more fertile world, the defiance of patriarchal values is shared, and products featuring images of vulvas are becoming increasingly mainstream.
Whilst established brands like Lucy and Yak can use images of vulvas with few repercussions, small independents are being banned from using Facebook and Instagram’s advertising services – reducing access to potential customers and leaving them feeling powerless. Nem Sarton founded VadgeBadges in 2019. After her heart-shaped vulva badges took off, Nem began experimenting with earrings, necklaces and cushion covers. The brand is a hit on Etsy, but a ban from advertising on Facebook and Instagram at the beginning of 2020, which Nem has appealed multiple times, has cut the growth of VadgeBadges short. Nem was shocked to see that in the guidelines she received from Facebook after appealing her ban, all ‘unacceptable’ images featured women in ‘suggestive’ poses, whilst Michelangelo’s David statue – balls and all – was used to show what would be considered ‘acceptable’.
© VadgeBadges, @vadgebadges via Instagram and Etsy
And Nem isn’t the only one – in early June 2021, a collaboration between period-care brand Callaly and the Vagina Museum had images of vulva sculptures outright removed from both platforms. But whilst larger brands like Callaly are able to access legal assistance, for Nem, refuting the ban another time will likely result in a permanent ban.
There’s only so much individual sellers and makers like Nem can do – the issue of sexist shadow banning now requires public intervention.
A Form of Art Therapy
Protecting the rights of vulva art is crucial, not only because of these sexist inconsistencies, but because creating vulva-inspired art is a force for healing. Oregonian Chelsea Fankhauser’s journey into the sexual activism scene began in 2016: “funnily enough, I had become fixated on drawing dicks” she says. This fixation kickstarted Chelsea’s artistic career: “The following year I released my first adult coloring book called The Dick Coloring Book. Naturally, my next step was to make a vulva coloring book!”
© Chelsea Fankhauser, @cheesepuddingpress via Instagram and Etsy
Chelsea quickly realised that either vulvas are more difficult to draw, or the pervasiveness of penis drawings had made them seem simple: “unlike with the dick coloring book, I actually used picture references in order to capture the beauty and variety of female genitalia. I spent quite a bit of time studying vulvas, and in the process I learned a lot.” And the result is beautiful – in 2018, Chelsea released The Vagina Coloring Book: A Very Vulvacious Coloring Book for Adults. By studying and drawing images of vulvas, in all their diverse majesty, Chelsea was able to heal her relationship with her body: “I felt very empowered to show the world just how unique each and every vulva is. All of this has definitely changed my relationship with vulvas - I’ve become more comfortable with my own in the process.”
This is the foundation of art therapy. Margaret Naumburg, a pioneer in the field, believed that bringing ideas and thoughts into the world through art could be cathartic in the same way as talking therapy. Through creative expression, patients are able to access repressed emotions, assess them and begin to heal. In the context of our ‘parts that shan’t be named’, the art therapy model helps explain why drawing vulvas can be such a transformative process. Whether drawn, worn or hung on walls, vulva art may just change your life.