Interview: The Vulva Gallery

Below is an interview with The Vulva Gallery. According to their website “The Vulva Gallery is a series of illustrations of all kinds of vulvas - celebrating the vulva in all its diversity all over the world”. The Vulva Gallery was created in 2016 by Hilde Atalanta, who is an illustrator that’s based in Amsterdam.

Why do you feel this project is important? / What gave you the idea to paint your first vulva?
All vulvas are unique - just like our hands, noses and eyes are. The problem is that there’s just one kind of vulva shape being displayed in the popular media. Whether it is in magazines, mainstream porn, or even biology books, all over the world we are constantly confronted with an image of the ‘perfect’ vulva, which has led us to believe that we don’t fit this ‘normal’ image. As a result, girls as young as 9 years old are researching labiaplasty surgery (the surgical procedure that alters the aesthetic appearance of the labia and/or clitoral hood) online. Besides this there’s a sharp global increase in labiaplasty surgeries performed on girls under 18 (and even under 15), making this procedure one of the fastest growing types of cosmetic surgery in the world. We’ve somehow gotten the idea that there’s something wrong with us, but there isn’t. To show this, I started The Vulva Gallery in 2016. The Vulva Gallery is an online gallery and educational platform celebrating vulva diversity, aiming to improve sexual health education and opening up conversation about topics that are still being stigmatised. Since 2016, together with a rapidly growing community of over 280,000 followers, I’ve been working on improving this stigmatised image of the vulva. About a year and a half ago I started sharing vulva portraits and personal stories in the gallery, and the response has been amazing. I’m receiving dozens of messages every week from individuals from all around the world who want to become part of the gallery and share their story with the community.

Have you faced any criticism about the perceived vulgarity/lewdness of this project? And if so, how have you responded?
When I just started with The Vulva Gallery, I noticed that people wondered why I would draw so many vulvas. My mission wasn’t clear to them, or I would receive a question like ‘shouldn’t we keep these things private’? I don’t think sexual health education is about 'private' or 'public'. I think partly because we keep parts of the human body so private, even in education, that this leads to a distorted picture of how a 'normal' human body looks. If the only times a young adult sees other vulvas they see them on the internet (for example in mainstream porn) their view on what a normal vulva looks like may get distorted. It’s hard to find real and honest diversity in imagery.

I believe it’s important to normalise talking about all sexual health-related topics, as they are things we all cope with on a daily base. We need to be able to talk to other people, as sharing our experiences and listening to the stories of others can give a feeling of belonging, support, and confidence. We shouldn’t feel ashamed about things that are so natural and part of what makes us human. It’s comforting to know that your body is normal - and that the things you might be struggling with are things others struggle with as well. To be reminded that  you are not weird, but perfectly normal. That you are not alone. We need open conversation about these topics to as it’s something that concerns us all, and to build confidence from a young age on. Not only our generation, but also the generations yet to come. It goes further than ‘private’ or ‘public’; it’s about normalizing the natural human body and how we experience it, and seeing it in a positive way again.

Do you have future plans for the project to expand to other media platforms? (We want a TED talk!)
Not at the moment, but I’m definitely open to giving more talks. Let’s see what the future might bring!

Considering you’re coming from The Netherlands, which has such a progressive national sexual education program, do you imagine your work ever potentially being integrated into those education efforts?
At the moment my illustrations are world wide being used in several high schools during sexual health classes and in practices of sex therapists, psychologists and gynaecologists. And last year I collaborated with a sexual health organisation in The Netherlands, to include vulva- and penis diversity illustrations in sexual health courses in high schools. And I’m definitely open to integrating my illustrations in more health education courses, as I feel they provide a very accessible way to show diversity.

Has your perception of your own body, self, purpose changed through your work on this project?
In the past two years I’ve received so many different stories, and I have painted over a 1000 vulva portraits; it has greatly increased my admiration for diversity and appreciation for the human body. I’m not sure if it has affected my own confidence so much, but it has made me realise I’m part of an incredible natural variety. Besides that, I also realised that everyone with a vulva has their own history, relationship and emotions towards their vulva. Knowing this has deepened my respect for every individual with a vulva.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone looking into a labiaplasty?
Everybody’s story is different, and there are many reasons to undergo labiaplasty - so it’s hard to give one simple advice. But I think the most important thing to keep in mind is: whatever you choose, do it for yourself and never for someone else (for example because you’re afraid someone else might not like the way your vulva looks). If you’re insecure about the way you look, it can be very helpful to look at diversity (for example The Vulva Gallery) and see how different we all look, and how our stories all differ. Something that surprised me in a way when individuals who underwent labiaplasty surgery shared their story with me is that when they had surgery because they thought their vulva looked ugly, they often regretted this in a later stage in their life (in contrary to individuals who experienced severe discomfort and pain, and had surgery because of that). I’ve also received stories and photos of individuals where surgery went wrong because of an inexperienced surgeon. Another thing to keep in mind: your inner labia are not just a piece of skin. They are part of your vulva, protecting it from dirt and bacteria, and they are also a very important part of the erogenous zone. The inner labia contain erectile tissue and many nerve endings that play and important role during sexual arousal and sensitivity. Cutting this away may change the way you experience sex afterwards. I think it’s very important to keep all these things in mind when deciding to undergo surgery, to really think about why you want to do it, and if you decide to do it make sure you choose an experienced surgeon. And take your time in deciding, as it’s such a delicate part of your body; once changed, it will never change back.

Why did you choose Instagram as your platform?
It’s a very visual and accessible platform, and by using the right hashtags it’s easy to reach your target audience. It’s a platform used by many young individuals of which I feel they would be interested in The Vulva Gallery. Also, Instagram has a big and active feminist/body positive community, so it felt like a natural choice to use this platform.

Can you speak to the impact of the positive feedback you’ve received? There are a lot of people responding on Instagram, expressing how this project has helped them learn to accept their bodies, but what has this project done for you as a person, an artist, a female-bodied creature of the earth?
The amount of messages I receive tells me that there’s a huge need for open conversations about body diversity, and that there’s a need for education. Many of the people that approach me, tell me that before they saw The Vulva Gallery, they didn’t know that there was so much diversity in vulvas. That they learned for the first time that they are normal. This sends out a strong message about the level of education people all around the world receive. The sexual- and anatomical education many individuals receive is at a bare minimum. Genital anatomy is something that kids don’t learn about, and even in textbooks there is little to no room for showing and explaining about diversity. Many young individuals don’t even know that half of all vulvas have inner labia that are longer than the outer labia. This needs to change. Many of the messages I receive end with words similar to these: “because of The Vulva Gallery, I learned so much about anatomy, and I learned that my body is normal. I can now start accepting myself”. This tells me that initiatives like The Vulva Gallery are very helpful and needed, and it really motivates me to continue with my work.

What do you hope to achieve with your work?
I aim to raise awareness around body diversity, to inspire and empower individuals by sharing personal stories, and to provide information on anatomy and sexual health. I’m currently making a book of The Vulva Gallery, that embodies everything The Vulva Gallery has touched upon over the last 2 years. A book that can be used in medical practices and in health classes, that can be looked at in waiting rooms, or can be given as an empowering gift. The book is also for parents wanting to open up conversation with their children and teach them about body diversity, and for all who want to hear a voice that is different to what we hear in the popular media. I’ll be publishing the book myself. I’ve been running a Kickstarter campaign with which I’m funding the book, which ended successfully on December 1st. The book is estimated to be launched in April 2019.