“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.