You walk into the art gallery. As your eyes scan the room, your gaze is drawn to a single wall. Hung on that wall are 10 equally-sized panels. You move closer to see the detail. To your surprise, each panel is covered with….
That’s right. British artist Jamie McCartney has created The Great Wall of Vagina. The piece is a “9 metre long polyptych” (arrangement of 4+ panels) consisting of “found hundred plaster casts of vulvas” (About). A more appropriate name for the piece would be “The Great Wall of Vulva,” but that’s just not as in-your-face, is it? (In case you didn’t know, “vulva” is the appropriate term for the external female genitalia; “vagina” refers to the internal passage that leads from the vulva to the uterus.)
McCartney’s goal in creating this incredible piece was to educate “people about what normal women really look like” (About). He “hopes this sculpture will help to combat the exponential rise…of cosmetic labial surgeries” (About). McCartney points out that “for many women their genital appearance is a source of anxiety…” (About). The sculpture includes a variety of vulvas: those of young and elderly, pre- and post-natal, pre- and post-labiaplasty, unaltered, transgendered men, transgendered women. Looking at the photos, it is quite amazing to see the many variations of the vulva.
Let’s take a moment to explore the anatomy of the vulva.
As you can see in the diagram, the vulva has many parts. The focus of McCartney’s work is the labia (of which the vulva has two sets–the labia minora and the labia majora). Labia (or the “lips“) come in many shapes and sizes. This is the point of The Great Wall of Vagina, right?
Because we often keep our genitalia hidden, we do not often have the opportunity to see all of these differences and, according to Claire Moran (University of Queensland), “There are misconceptions around normal genital appearance” (Mail Online). Unfortunately, the most common source of genital imagery (at least for women) is pornography. How often does pornography provide an accurate representation of the real world? Oh, that’s right, RARELY. So, as women, we look at porn star vulvas (which have been waxed, airbrushed, and sometimes surgically-altered) and compare them to our own. We start to feel self-conscious. We start to wonder if our “bits and pieces” are attractive or not. We start to feel ugly.
Those that see their vulvas in a negative light may decide to undergo labiaplasty which, as McCartney points out, has recently been growing in popularity. The demand for so-called “designer vaginas” has actually increased “five-fold” since 2001 (Mail Online). This cosmetic procedure is designed to “reduce the size or change the shape” of the labia minora (Labiaplasty Surgery in NYC). The two most commonly cited reasons for undergoing this surgery are:
- to address dissatisfaction and/or embarrassment regarding the appearance of the vulva; or
- to relieve physical discomfort related to enlarged labia, which can be aggravated by “exercise, sexual activity, or (Labiaplasty Surgery in NYC).
Medical reasons aside, how do we address this growing problem (my opinion) of misrepresentation and misconception of the “normal” female genitalia? How do we help female-bodied people feel confident and sexy without resorting to cosmetic surgery? McCartney is certainly on the right track, but how many people will realistically see his exhibit? What about those who don’t? Perhaps our sexual education curricula need to be updated with more open and honest representations of human anatomy, beyond basic diagrams. What do you think?