“Is the vulva still a taboo“? I’m sit­ting in my living room, three self-pain­ted pic­tures of vul­vas ent­hro­ned on the wall behind me. Across from me sits a jour­na­list asking me this ques­tion. I hesi­tate, think about it but it’s clear: “Yes, the topic of vul­vas is (still) a taboo”. Not so much in my apart­ment or on my Insta­gram account, where nume­rous vulva artists cavort, not so much in my cir­cle of friends or in my “bub­ble” sen­si­ti­zed to vul­vas. But in my opi­nion in the broad social dis­course it is. 

The vulva: mysterious and afflicted with shame

This taboo also influ­en­ces me. Alt­hough I often deal with topics rela­ted to the vulva in depth, the dia­lo­gue about it is some­ti­mes still asso­cia­ted with inhi­bi­ti­ons. So, why can’t we talk to our supe­ri­ors about the vulva and mens­trua­tion in the same way we talk about our nose and nose­bleeds? Why are we embarr­as­sed to talk about vagi­nal fun­gus with our friends? Why do we say cunt, pussy and belittle the vulva when we don’t do the same for other parts of the body, such as the legs or the ears? My ans­wer: Because the vulva is still shrou­ded in a mys­te­rious taboo and at the same time in shame and inhibition.

The vulva and things rela­ted to it, such as sexua­lity or mens­trua­tion, can­not be tal­ked about openly. When these aspects are dis­cus­sed, it is often in a euphe­mistic, idea­li­zed way. The vulva is sup­po­sed to con­form to a cer­tain ideal of beauty. Mens­trua­tion must be invi­si­ble and smell good. This crea­tes and rein­for­ces shame and inhi­bi­ti­ons because it is not even pos­si­ble to ful­fill these ide­als. All vul­vas are dif­fe­rent and mens­trua­tion does not smell like roses. That’s okay. Diver­sity is the norm.

Photo Credits: Dunja

A norm that should not exist

Unfor­tu­n­a­tely, this is not how it is por­trayed in the media and in porn. This cau­ses fee­lings of shame, which, tog­e­ther with inhi­bi­ti­ons about vulva-rela­ted topics, can lead to con­si­derable dis­tress. For example, Hilde Ata­lanta (2019, p.20) wri­tes in her book “A Cele­bra­tion of Vulva Diver­sity” that people with “non-nor­ma­tive” vul­vas can feel uncom­for­ta­ble, find sex stress­ful and have lower self-esteem. This can lead these people to expose them­sel­ves to poten­ti­ally more dan­ge­rous sexual situa­tions, such as unpro­tec­ted sex. This is all due to a rejec­tion of one’s vulva because it doesn’t fit the norm – a norm that really shouldn’t exist. 

The sheer num­ber of plastic sur­ge­ries shows how deeply roo­ted the shame about one’s own vulva is in our society. Anne Kre­klau et al. (2018) men­tion in their study “Mea­su­re­ments of a ‘nor­mal vulva’ in women aged 15-84: a cross-sec­tio­nal pro­spec­tive sin­gle-cen­ter study” that more and more people undergo vulva lip reduc­tion because they feel pres­su­red by pre­vai­ling beauty ideals. 

Language against taboos

What can we do to reduce this shame? How can the vulva be de-tabooed? How can we raise awa­reness of the diver­sity of vul­vas? These ques­ti­ons have been on my mind for some time. One ans­wer, in my opi­nion, con­cerns lan­guage or naming. If we learn to apply cor­rect ana­to­mi­cal lan­guage equally to geni­tals as to other body parts, we can nor­ma­lize the issue. Com­p­lai­ning about a bro­ken leg, an itchy nose, or an aching vulva is then equally pos­si­ble without shame. 

Vulva art as an antidote

I found ano­t­her ans­wer to the above ques­ti­ons: In art. In the sum­mer of 2019, I star­ted pain­ting vul­vas. In the spring of 2020, this resul­ted in “Vul­ve­ria,” my vulva art pro­ject, which, in addi­tion to de-taboo­ing and rai­sing awa­reness of the issue, also rai­ses money to sup­port femi­nist pro­jects. My vul­vas are big, small, colo­red, gol­den, black and white, round, angu­lar and thus show diver­sity. They are abs­tract and play­ful, which makes them more acces­si­ble. I believe that by depic­ting the vulva, an awa­reness of this taboo sub­ject is created. 

Many people are fasci­na­ted by the colors, see flowers or even bicy­cle hel­mets in the pic­tures. When they learn that the pic­tures are of vul­vas, most are sur­pri­sed, embarr­as­sed or deligh­ted. The initial fasci­na­tion helps to engage with the sub­ject. So in addi­tion to depic­ting a beau­ti­ful, diverse sub­ject, the images have the power to encou­rage dia­lo­gue. Since I star­ted pain­ting vul­vas, I’ve had count­less con­ver­sa­ti­ons on the sub­ject. It has hel­ped me to reco­gnize and actively over­come my own fee­lings of shame. First, by devo­ting my time and energy to the sub­ject: How do I feel about my vulva? What exactly does it look like? Am I asha­med of it and why? 

Vulva, Vulva-Kunst, Vulveria, Viva la Vulva, Vulva Diversität, Tabuthema Vulva, Vulvalippen, Vulva-Künstler*innen, Vulvabilder
Vulva, Vulva-Kunst, Vulveria, Viva la Vulva, Vulva Diversität, Tabuthema Vulva, Vulvalippen, Vulva-Künstler*innen, Vulvabilder

Photo Credits: Dunja

Open dialogue through vulva art

In addi­tion, I began to deal with other vulva artists and quickly rea­li­zed that they also like to show diver­sity and try to reduce shame and inhi­bi­ti­ons. My own shame dimi­nis­hed with every vulva that I saw. I quickly said good­bye to the alle­ged “ideal vulva” and diver­sity became my norm. This was fol­lo­wed by many con­ver­sa­ti­ons with friends, but also with my par­ents and even with people at work. 

The star­ting point has always been my vulva art pro­ject. This has shown me: art offers a pos­si­bi­lity for dis­cus­sion, for exchange and ser­ves to raise awa­reness and visua­liz­a­tion. Perhaps even gra­dual nor­ma­liz­a­tion. In the mean­time, I regu­larly receive pho­tos by people in my envi­ron­ment of vul­vas they reco­gnize in ever­y­day life in fruits, trees or rocks. This shows me: they have ope­ned up to this topic and it is more pre­sent for them. They are con­sciously loo­king and are not asha­med. This is just a small step towards mini­mi­zing the taboo. Howe­ver, if loo­king can help people feel more com­for­ta­ble and secure, it is a big step towards more well-being and phy­si­cal and psy­cho­lo­gi­cal freedom.

Vulva, Vulva-Kunst, Vulveria, Viva la Vulva, Vulva Diversität, Tabuthema Vulva, Vulvalippen, Vulva-Künstler*innen, Vulvabilder

Photo Credits: Dunja

Vulva art: Let’s paint vulvas!

My vulva art has shown me: small actions can make a big dif­fe­rence. The chance to sti­mu­late reflec­tion in one’s own envi­ron­ment and bey­ond is real. It needs people who con­sciously turn to the topic. People who have exhaus­ting, nerve-wracking con­ver­sa­ti­ons. Con­ver­sa­ti­ons in which they have to exp­lain them­sel­ves for their work on remo­ving taboos. Each explana­tion can mean ope­ning up to inte­rest, tole­rance, less shame and fewer inhi­bi­ti­ons. It takes people who are enthu­si­astic to find crea­tive and play­ful ways to raise awa­reness. Have you ever drawn a vulva? Have you ever tal­ked about vul­vas with your par­ents or your bosses? 

I encou­rage you to dare to engage in the con­ver­sa­tion. I would like to see an open dia­lo­gue on the topic of vul­vas and for diver­sity to be brought into everyone’s con­scious­ness. It needs to be nor­ma­li­zed. I wish for vul­vas to no lon­ger have gen­der, which means they are not auto­ma­ti­cally con­no­ted as female. Such a per­cep­tion can be discri­mi­na­tory, as there are many people with vul­vas who do not iden­tify as women, such as non-binary people or trans men. 

To return to the ques­tion from the begin­ning: Yes, the vulva is still a taboo, but not an untouch­a­ble one. We can image it, name it, cele­brate it, and in this way sen­si­tize and nor­ma­lize it. I bet like this, it soon won’t be uncom­for­ta­ble any­more to talk about vul­vas or mens­trua­tion in public. So, let’s paint vulvas!

Vulva, Vulva-Kunst, Vulveria, Viva la Vulva, Vulva Diversität, Tabuthema Vulva, Vulvalippen, Vulva-Künstler*innen, Vulvabilder

Photo Credits: Dunja

Vulva, Vulva art, Vulveria, Viva la Vulva, Vulva diversity, taboo, Vulva, Vulva artists, vulva pictures

Dunja (she pro­nouns) lives, loves and works in Bern, Switz­er­land. After stu­dy­ing lan­guages, she's cur­r­ently working in a social asso­cia­tion that works for a stron­ger cohe­sion of dif­fe­rent genera­ti­ons. She is inte­res­ted in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, lan­guages, queer femi­nism and of course vul­vas. She's try­ing to stand up against sexism, racism and ableism.