Laura Dodsworth has spent the last year taking pictures of women's vulvas. It's not a conventional day job, but it's one she fully committed to, resulting in her upcoming book, Womanhood, and a Channel 4 documentary, 100 Vaginas.
The project is part of a wider series called The Bare Reality, which has seen Laura photograph 100 penises and 100 pairs of breasts in a bid to help people tell their story about their body in their own way. Womanhood in particular is bold, unapologetic, honest and deeply moving. To find out what the experience was like, R29 spoke to Laura about why she sees the project as the ultimate "subjectification of women".
The 100 vulvas featured in the project have been through a broad range of experiences, from cancer to sexual trauma, FGM, abortion, miscarriage and gender reassignment. The mixed feelings of joy and pain the various vulvas have brought is what unites the women who took part. "[The project] is multifaceted, as us women are. So often we are shown as singular, but we are multidimensional and have both light and dark, highs and lows. The [documentary] demonstrates that in a real way," says Laura.
Womanhood was never a project Laura had planned to do, as she "perhaps didn’t feel ready to face up to [her] own story". But after reading a series of news articles on FGM in the UK, girls as young as nine wanting a labiaplasty, and knowing that the rate of women going for smear tests is at a 21-year-low, Laura says that a voice "rose up inside me and I knew I had to do it". She needed to be a warrior for women.
Laura is fascinated at just how much of a woman's life is focused around their vulva and vagina. From having their first period to sexual pleasure, love, painful past experiences, giving birth, menopause... "We can talk about our life cycle as women through our vulva," Laura explains. "It is a medium for opening up so many important conversations."
Laura herself features as one of the 100 in the book and her perception of her own body was hugely changed by the experience: "I had an idea my episiotomy scar was huge, that someone would be able to see, feel it, but [actually I found out that] it is barely visible. I was holding on to the memory and not the physical reality. I now see how pretty and beautiful my vulva is and that is extremely powerful."
Many of the women Laura shot couldn’t describe what their vulva or vagina looked like, as they had never looked at themselves. "Here is a part of the body that gives us enormous pleasure and fundamental experiences in life. [But I found] there was a basic lack of understanding and avoidance of the area." As Laura discovered as the project went on, becoming familiar with and learning to understand your body can be very powerful. "When I found out how large the clitoris is and where it went, it made so much sense! Once I understood that path of pleasure in my own body, I could feel it more vividly."
After hearing 100 different stories, Laura (probably unsurprisingly) found motherhood and birth to be a hugely definitive moment in all of the women’s lives who had experienced it; she describes it as a "primal, imprinting experience". Nearly everyone talked of tolerating mediocre sex and of having 'performed' for men in the past, faking orgasms. On a more positive note, Laura found that a good sexual partner – one who took the time to learn about their body – could completely change a woman's feelings towards their vulva.
The experience of having their vulva photographed was cathartic to all involved. Laura calls it a a karmic fast-forward. "Shame is used to hold women down. If you tap into the big stuff, like we tapped into anger and sexuality, you get rid of that shame and we left feeling powerful."
"There was an enormous amount of trust, vulnerability and knowledge shared in those interviews," she says about filming the documentary. "I cried along with several women. Every single woman on the crew cried when one lady told us her story of FGM, it was incredibly moving." One story in particular resonated deeply with Laura, as it closely reflected her own experience of miscarriage: "I remember going to the toilet and my world fell out of me. I remember looking in the toilet and it looked like chopped liver, just as she said. I thought, My baby’s in the toilet; I am going to have to flush it. That experience was so deep and primal, her story really hit me."
"If I had watched this when I was 16 I think my whole life might have been a bit different, I think it would have had that much impact, it has been absolutely pivotal to me. Knowing how much it helped me, I just wish I could bring that to every woman earlier."