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This class will look at how feminist thinking has impacted the arts—both by looking at the work of women artists influenced by these ideas since the s, and by considering how a feminist lens can change the way we look at art made throughout history, and even the category of art itself. Because this is a vast project, this lesson uses just one or two artistic examples per theme, and offers them in relation to subjects likely to have come up in past lessons, in order to engage students in critical thinking rather than attempt a historical narrative. This means a class on feminism will come quite late in the semester, if not on the last half of the last day, if at all.
First it was breaststhen penises — now photographer Laura Dodsworth has taken portraits of vulvas.
She tells Liv Little why. T owards the end of last year, I published an essay about my vulva — in a book, and then in the Guardian. I felt a deep sense of shame about my body, which over time became crippling. In a book and accompanying film for Channel 4, she tells the stories of women and gender non-conforming people through portraits of their vulvas. One was about female genital mutilation. Vulvas are rarely seen outside porn and childbirth, which Dodsworth puts down partly to their position on the body. Meanwhile there is a pervasive squeamishness about vulvas, which may be one factor behind the fact that, in England, cervical smear test rates are at their lowest for two decades.
For many women, being photographed was the first time they had looked at this part of their body in close detail. Some women were shaking, asking me if they were normal. Dodsworth had worried that it would be awkward to be in such an intimate situation with her subjects. In fact, she found the experience liberating — posing for her own portrait, too.
In my head, when I touch it, it feels huge — because I was holding on to huge memories of a traumatic birth.
The stories told in Womanhood are vast even if there are few people of colour included, which Dodsworth puts down, in part, to cultural taboos, as participants self-selected. The s are filled with people of all ages and sexual orientations, speaking honestly about key life experiences. The vulva stories Dodsworth has collected made me laugh and cry, moved by the openness with which each person talks about sexual liberation, grief, loss, abuse and everything in between.
But I first opened the book while on a train, and found myself skimming past the photographs so that commuters looking over my shoulder would not see. The very fact that vulvas feel so controversial to look at underlines the power of the project. I ask Dodsworth if it feels right to call a project about vulvas Womanhood, since it implies that sex equals gender.
She tells me that none of her projects is a manifesto, or a dictionary definition of what it means to be a man or a woman. However, body parts play a very definitive part of what it is to be a man or a woman. She says the project has had a profound impact on her own life. I am approaching perimenopause, just at the tipping point when society might deem me past my best, yet I feel freer, happier, more sexually potent, more in my prime, than ever before. Meanwhile, campaigns such as Bloody Good Period target period poverty while encouraging young people to shake off any shame about menstruation.
Dodsworth thinks so. I think it is so long overdue that we reclaim our bodies and our stories. Right now seems to be the time. Interview by Liv Little, editor-in-chief of gal-dem.
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I think society tries to frighten women by talking about our vaginas and our vulvas as though terrible traumas happen to them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find birth incredible, even after all these years. I discovered my vulva after I got into birth work. I think my vagina is magical and powerful now. Black female bodies have been politicised, eroticised and fetishised. There are two pleasure spots. My mind is a fertile field. That brought me no peace or joy. It made me really want a black lover. I think there will be more freedom.
We live in a time when women live much longer and menopause is coming up more in the conversation. My vulva reminds me of a pink cupcake. The labia and clitoris look like layers of piped pink icing. When I was 24, I noticed that I bled a lot between periods, and also after sex with my then boyfriend. I went to the doctor, and although I was too young for a smear test, she did one anyway.
I was sent to the hospital and two weeks later it was confirmed it was cancer. It was almost like I was watching a film of my own life. I was there, and hearing what the consultant was saying, but not present at all, and I felt hot, sweaty, shaky. I could have ignored it.
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I had a stage 1B grade 3, which is small but nasty. Thankfully it was caught early. It took a long time for me to like my body again, because it did change. It took a long time for me to forgive my body. I was incredibly nervous about having a photograph taken. The ageing process is interesting, because people talk about your body going south and they mean your breasts, face and tummy, but of course your vulva goes south, too. I miss having tight curly pubic hair. We had small groups all over the country.
We talked about everything: childbirth, sex, men. We said the personal is political, and we tried to connect up our experiences in different ways. We learned how to do a self-examination. It was absolutely amazing to take control of our bodies. We saw the variations in labia and inside vaginas, the ways in which we were incredibly different, and yet had something in common, too. I told them they had to be joking, but the doctors insisted.
I got my sterilisation. There have been a lot of changes during my lifetime in regard to vaginas and how women feel about them. Some good changes and some of them, unfortunately, going backwards. When I became a lesbian, the word cunt really came into its own for me. Women use it in a very sexual, exciting and comforting way.
When I masturbated when I was younger I used to hate it when my clitoris got bigger — I thought it looked like a penis. I felt very self-conscious. I thought my labia were too big as well. I even questioned if I had half male and half female parts.
I had to be drunk to have sex; I was drunk my first time. From that time on, I always just let partners do what they wanted, but I never let anybody pleasure me.
Porn made me feel bad in all sorts of ways: my weight, my boobs, my vagina. I watched a documentary that talked about porn stars who were having operations to make their labia smaller. I realised it was something you could have done and I went to my GP and had a bit of a breakdown. I think it was a really low day.
He referred me to a private doctor. That convinced me that I needed it. Before the procedure, they gave me some numbing cream. I was awake throughout. He injected anaesthetic into the labia and up into my bottom and then just sliced away.
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I lay there thinking how much better my life would be afterwards. My recovery was horrific. Now, I feel a lot more comfortable day to day, sitting down, crossing my legs in jeans, the type of underwear that I can wear. My labia used to be saggy, wrinkly, brown, hanging bits of skin.
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I feel happier. I still wish I could be more confident and powerful. I really wanted to do this. I was born into a Muslim Pakistani family.