It's been just over eighteen months since I wrote about how my vagina smells like shame. That article went viral. Shame is something most of us have felt at one time or another. For women like me who have been conditioned in sex-negativity-layer upon layer, lover-upon-lover, and body shame mostly by my own demons, vaginal shame can mean we are sickened by our sexuality, our genitals appear ugly and disgusting.
More generally a negative body image distorts our perception of ourselves, lowering our self-esteem and driving us into a spiral of self destructive behaviour. That's how it used to be for me.
As a teenager, I would spend hours examining every fleshy pore and every cellulite driven indent. My examinations usually ended up with blotchy red skin where I'd poked and prodded what I believed were imperfections, trying to eliminate them from my skin or my person. Where my vagina was concerned, no washing or shaving was ever enough. Smeg was dirty. Blood was foul. As was I.
But I'm a veritable poster girl for reframing painful perspectives. One of my passions is to help people, particularly women break free from society shame, to help them love their bodies, so that they may be able to stand confidently and happily, no matter what they - or their vaginas - look like. I'm on my own journey, as I help others through theirs. How am I doing? You may well ask...
I'm particularly proud of my daughter's education. We have a coffee table book of the artwork Great Wall of Vagina showcasing over four hundred different vaginas, those with large protruding labia, those with small discreet lips, those of trans-women, those which have multiple piercings, and even those which have been circumcized.
We've looked at it many times and she also has a colouring book from the same artist designed for children of her age. Helping her embrace all of her own body, has helped me. I have had to fake it till I make it, because as we know, children do as you do, not necessarily as you say.
The word vagina is not over-emphasized, but nor is it shunned in family conversation. She uses the term as a body part, in the same way as she might mention her 'ears' (although it's pronounced... bagina :) and since she's five there's no need to inject power and sexuality into the mix just yet.
That verbal hurdle crossed, I later wrote a post with the word 'cunt' in the title, as I tried to confront my shame head on but when my hand hovered over the button 'publish' I creased in anticipation of rejection because maybe it was a cunt too far.
I worked on reclaiming the word with a woman who runs cunt workshops and I entered into the fray to defend those woman who still feel ashamed of their vaginas and their smell, against a society who expects us to shut up about it and a feminist who expected that the conversation was now irrelevant. As 2014 drew to a close I added sex scenes to the new edition of The Husband Swap; writing about my vagina's actions and the beautiful sex I enjoyed, was liberating. In short, this past year has seen me freed conceptually of all my prior hang-ups to the point where it has become rather trite to write about vagina, and no more interesting than say, writing a post about doing the dishes. I accepted my vagina, yet still wasn't able to embrace it as beautiful.
I had the wrong focus and dear reader, I confess. It was not my own work that made the biggest difference.
My lover had a liver transplant last year which could have taken his life but thankfully didn't. Whilst he was at his most vulnerable he had five or so tubes leading out of his body, all hues of amber, red, yellow. His wounds leaked pus and bile whilst he healed and as I looked at these fluids fascinated by what miracles doctors could achieve, I saw the human body. Exposed. In all its animalistic physicality. He was alive, I was so deeply grateful for life that I found it beautiful. Not despite those fluids, but because of them.
Surprisingly for me then, my reframing of vagina might have been supported by the work I had already done but has finally been achieved by a recognition of something I thought unrelated. I finally recognized just how amazing our bodies really are. Although believing a pristine, immaculate, and photoshopped vagina to be beautiful is a far easier prospect in our society than facing reality and loving one which sometimes has a faint whiff of urine, one that is bloody, or one that has smegma smeared around its labia, it was the utter gratitude I felt for that evidence of life, which allowed me to finally piece together my own jigsaw. My ideal of beauty was still until then, clean, dry. One might say, dead.
My ideal of beauty now is far juicier. A flower is more beautiful as it oozes sap, a stamen is more beautiful when its exposed and swollen. Now blood is no longer foul, it is rich with life. Sexuality is inextricably linked with juices, the swapping of juices, the explosion of juices and the desire for juices. My vagina is full of life. I don't have to do anything to make it beautiful; it already is.
The Vagina Voyage
I've been on quite a journey to try and love my vagina. Many of the people I grew up with are appalled. Others I've got to know, love me for trying to love myself. And I think that's quite a beautiful thing.