Photo: Courtesy of Hilde Atalanta: The Vulva Gallery
All vulvas are different—they’re as unique as our individually quirky and beautiful faces, yet the shame we carry about this misrepresented body part runs deep—beyond our own mirrors and bedrooms. We cringe at the thought of OBs, midwives or other healthcare professionals getting a good look of our nether regions, during pelvic exams and labour and yet we're also mortified by our own pubic hair, so we'll even endure a painful bikini wax right up until delivery day. Then after the wonder of becoming a mother, when we should be truly celebrating the mind-blowing magic of our bodies, our sensitive self esteem about all things vulvovaginal often hits new lows. We are constantly apologizing for what we’ve got.
And sometimes, like we did in the title of this post, we don't even call our vulvas by the right name, referring to the external area made up of our labia, clitoris and urethral opening as our vagina—which is actually the canal that runs internally to our cervix. (We did it knowingly in case any readers were unsure of the distinction, but it's also reflective of the shame women face over the name and appearance of our own body parts).
Kristin Phillips, a pelvic floor physiotherapist in West Virginia, sees a lot of new moms and says she’s been heartbroken by the number of women who literally say sorry to her for the appearance—or smell—of their vulvas and vaginas. So she wrote an open letter to assuage these tired and devastating insecurities, accompanied by stunning graphic illustrations by Amsterdam-based artist Hilde Atalanta from The Vulva Gallery.
“As a pelvic floor and women’s health PT, I see a lot of external genitalia in a day. I’m heartbroken by the number of times I hear people with vaginas say, “I’m sorry I didn’t shave” or otherwise apologize for how their vulvovaginal region looks or smells. I want to scream. But, I get it. Everywhere you turn, there is advertising for body hair removal or a cream, supplement, or douche that will make your vagina smell like a midnight moon or fairy sprinkles,” she writes. “And people with penises often get to walk around with hairy legs and scrotums, and balls that smell like balls without apologizing for it. Ain’t that some sh*t.”
Besides the damaging messages we get from pop culture, media and the advertising industry, Phillips also blames the opposite sex (aka "the patriarchy") for keeping women down and making them obsessed with these perceptions of beauty. “Because if we are trapped in the bathroom or salons making our vulvas hairless and smelling like raspberries, we can’t be out in the world and dismantling the institutions that make us believe our bodies aren’t already perfect.”
Phillips goes on to reassure us that our vulvas and vaginas look (and probably smell) just like they’re supposed to. So take that from a professional: “Guess what, vaginas are supposed to smell like vaginas, not rainbows and unicorns and hair grows on the vulva naturally. And you should never EVER feel like you have to apologize for your body. EVER. I’m here to tell you that your vulva and vagina are perfect just the way they are… In a world that’s trying to convince you otherwise, I hope you know how badass you are. Your worth lies in your heart and soul, not in the appearance of your vulva.✊”
Within weeks of Phillips’ post going up on Facebook, it had gotten more than 14,000 shares and 6,000 comments, which were mostly positive but also include a fair share that missed the point entirely. Which just proves that we need to hear more of this empowering and inclusive message please.