Photographer Laura Dodsworth is already known for her “taboo-breaking” projects.
In 2015, for a book about women’s breasts, she snapped everyone from streakers to nuns to Holocaust survivors. In 2017, she took photos of naked men from the waist down for a similar book about penises.
And now, the fruits of her latest project have just aired on Channel 4 in a documentary directed by Jenny Ash, called 100 Vaginas, that has got everyone talking about issues like female genital mutilation (FGM), women's reproductive and sexual health, and gender-based violence.
These are issues that are reflected in the work of the UN's Global Goals — 17 goals that work together to end extreme poverty — including Goal No.3 for health and wellbeing, and Goal No.5 for gender equality.
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Dodsworth has spent the past year photographing and interviewing 100 women about their vaginas, with the aim of changing the way that women and girls — and men and boys — are thinking about and viewing vaginas and the female body.
The result is a taboo-busting, empowering, self-affirming, normalising, denormalising, celebration and acknowledgement of women, their vaginas, and everything that they go through together.
“If I had thought my first two projects were taboo; this was the next level,” Dodsworth wrote, in an article for the Telegraph. “So taboo, in fact, that most women have no idea what is ‘down there’ and don’t know what to call it.”
#100Vaginas is such an overdue, important and informative piece of TV. It shouldn't be courageous to talk about female anatomy, but these women are doing something that is so, SO needed. The taboos and issues discussed are absolutely integral conversations we should be having— Olivia Grace (@livpurvis) February 19, 2019
Feminism has become so consumerist & egocentric, that this tv show was a breath of fresh air. #100Vaginas was radical, compassionate & taboo breaking. Should have actually been called '100 Vulvas,' but hey, it's on the right path. https://t.co/z6ETAYZVwY— BISHI (@bishi_music) February 20, 2019
So Dodsworth decided to take photographs of women’s vaginas and then show them the photos, giving them the opportunity to see for themselves exactly what is “down there.”
At the same time, as Dodsworth talks to the women about their vaginas, they covered everything from losing their virginity, periods, transgender identity, discharge, porn, infertility, miscarriage, birth, and ageing — breaking the stigma and the silence around parts of women that, generally, our society would mostly prefer to pretend don’t exist.
One fun fact from the show: scientists didn’t really know how big the clitoris was until 1998.
The general reaction to such open, honest discussion of having a vagina and all that that entails was relief, joy, that finally this huge unspoken secret is out in the open.
Body positivity and stripping away of stigma, as the documentary highlighted, isn’t just a “nice-to-have.” It’s vitally important, for the health and well-being of women everywhere.
Squeamishness and embarrassment about vaginas, for example, has been reported to be putting women off getting smear tests, to screen for cervical cancer.
Some 3 million women across the UK hadn’t had a smear test for at least three and a half years, according to reports in October — and experts put it down to embarrassment, lack of awareness, and just putting it off, according to the BBC.
Wish I’d been able to watch #100vaginas when I was much younger, the stigma around the female body is so strong and has so many damaging effects that it needs to be spoken about more— Isabel (@isabelhermione1) February 20, 2019
#100vaginas Such an empowering programme with incredibly frank discussions about all things vulva; sex, periods, childbirth, menopause & 'shock horror' masturbation! Well done Laura Dodsworth literally exposing female life with subjects that shouldn't be taboo in 2019 #channel4— Deborah Mann (@DeborahMann119) February 20, 2019
Still crying with laughter my son went to put his PS4 back on and a full on vagina bigger than him appeared on the telly, He kinda spun, flipped, fell into and then got stuck in the clothes airer all at the same time😂😂😂 #100vaginas— Claire🥳 (@Clairedashian) February 20, 2019
#100Vaginas was just astounding - such a wonderful piece of television - refreshingly candid - it should definitely become a go-to sex-ed tutorial. Thank you @_BurningBright_@Channel4 & @BareReality for such a brave & beautiful documentary— Lime Actors Management (@LimeActors) February 20, 2019
One survey, by the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, found that 35% of young women were embarrassed to attend smear tests because of their body shape, 34% because of concern about how their vulvas look, and 38% because they were worried about the smell.
A third of the more than 2,000 women asked said they wouldn’t go for their smear test if they hadn’t waxed or shaved.
Meanwhile, according to government analysis, deprivation has also been linked to lower screening attendance and a higher rate of cervical cancer incidence. The government suggests this could be due to a number of factors including: higher rates of smoking; first having sex at a younger age; and lower socio-economic status.
One 28-year-old woman in the documentary had been diagnosed with cervical cancer a few years ago, and had to have her cervix and some of her vagina removed as a result.
“It took a long time for me to like my body again,” she said. “I feel broken … I feel angry that the part of my body which defines a lot of women had done a number on me at such a young age.”
Meanwhile, globally, period stigma and taboo is a massive obstacle in ensuring women and girls are able to access safe, hygienic sanitation facilities, and period products.
In Nepal, for example, at least four people died in January alone in so-called “menstrual huts” — into which women and girls are banished during their periods as part of the centuries-old Hindu practice of “chhaupadi,” despite it being officially banned.
Many viewers of the 100 Vaginas documentary have also called for it to be shown in schools, to counteract damaging images that children and young people might be finding online.
In fact, some 50% of children between 11 and 14 have already seen pornographic material online, and concerns have been raised that the vaginas they’re seeing are highly-groomed — perhaps even surgically altered — and that this is communicating an unrealistic idea of “normal.”
Girls as young as 9 years old, for example, are reportedly trying to have labiaplasty — surgery to reduce the size of the labia minora (the flaps of skin either side of the vaginal opening) — out of fear that their vaginas don’t look right.
Although it’s sometimes performed for medical reasons, labiaplasty is the fastest growing form of plastic surgery in the UK — at a rate of about 45% each year.
Stop what you're doing and watch #100Vaginas— Shamil Makhecha (@shamspeaks) February 19, 2019
Remarkable documentary. At this time of night, can't find the words to describe just how important it is
I don't know. I think the taboos and norms are so powerful, I can't think of any other way to break them. This kind of project has been done before, but nothing has ever had this impact. It feels like more than a TV show, feels like something changed. #100vaginas— Babs (@BabsSheKing) February 19, 2019
What an inspirational bunch of women. Kindly sharing their candid accounts of deeply personal and intimate thoughts and experiences. It’s about time women’s anatomy and all it’s awesomeness was spoken about so openly... Thankyou 👏🏼 #WeAreAllBeautiful#Liberating#100vaginas— Leah Callander (@LeahStmCU) February 19, 2019
According to Dodsworth, something that she hadn’t expected to come out of the project was the level of violence experienced by some of the women she interviewed.
“I wasn’t prepared for the amount of trauma and pain I’d hear about,” said Dodsworth in voiceover for the documentary. And the trauma and pain she speaks of seems to be a direct result of vaginas and female sexuality being sinful, frowned on, or demonised.
Some of the women she spoke to had experienced and sexual assault; others had psychological trauma from extreme religious upbringings; one woman had had full female genital mutilation performed on her, spending six years in hospital and being now infertile as a result.
“The morning I had FGM it was like Christmas,” said one of the women in the documentary. “Imagine being seven years old and having a massive party — with a woman to do your makeup and another one to do your hair.”
“I felt the needle going in but after that, everything went quiet,” said another. “And the woman looked at me and she said ‘now you are a woman.’”
“They stitched it up all the way down until they left me a little hole that was no bigger than a matchstick,” she continued. “FGM took away my childhood. It took away my chance to be a mother. I will never know what it is like to carry a child — all of that was taken away just to prove I would be a virgin.”
For another woman, her extreme religious upbringing and fear of sin had induced vaginismus for years. Vaginismus being the involuntary tightening up of the muscles around the vagina, generally upon “threat of penetration.”
“I was completely scared of… thinking about it,” one woman said, who had grown up in a strict Christian family. “It was an extremely scary portal to trouble and shame.”
“I tried penetrative sex once or twice and it was distressing, it was a horrible experience,” she said. “I felt like my quality of life was done for an that I wouldn’t be loved, and I wouldn’t be able to be in a relationship or be accepted. There were moments where I didn’t know if I wanted to live.”
Dodsworth’s project, and Ash’s documentary, have understandably sparked a great deal of conversation — because when was the last time you saw vaginas on TV? But it’s a whole lot more than a publicity stunt, or a “titillation.”
It’s about giving a platform for women to share their stories, to talk directly to other women and girls; it’s a chance for women to be open about their bodies for a change; for us to all learn together about what having a vagina really means — both the pain, the trauma, the beautiful, and the joyful.