Some time ago – and for a second time soon, I trust – I visited the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart.
Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I raved about it: to each other, and to anyone who would listen. It was an utterly mesmerising and fascinating experience, combining everything from Egyptian mummies and Roman coins to the most modern video and physical installations and everything in between.
It was confronting, funny, exciting, brilliantly staged, and above all, free. Frankly, it’s worth the cost of a flight to Hobart and back without question, regardless of all the other wonderful things to do in that most charming of small cities.
I believe it will come to be considered one of the most remarkable art spaces in the world, made more remarkable by the fact that the entire effort is the private gift of one somewhat eccentric self-made millionaire called David Walsh, God bless his cotton socks.
Anyhow, one of the most unusual and commented upon works in the gallery is a version of “The Great Wall of Vagina” by British artist Jamie McCartney.
This plaster cast wall consists of panels made up of, in total, some 400 vaginas, in plain, unadorned white, starkly displayed all along one wall in the heart of the museum. As the artist explained, the artwork was created from “over the course of 5 years, the vaginas (well the vulva area in fact) of hundreds of volunteers. It is an exploration of women’s relationships with their genitals.”
Now, Dear Reader, should you be inclined to be cynical and remark that a giant series of plaster casts of vaginas is (a) not art (b) sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake (c) a con, or (d) puerile and disgusting, well, frankly, I would dispute you.
“What is art?”, is, of course, an endless and usually ultimately sterile discussion anyway, but I will say that not only is the work striking and somehow – surprisingly – weirdly beautiful, and not in the least erotic, (well, to my eyes, anyway), but it also clearly engenders the debate on women’s usually-hidden parts that the artist was aiming for.
What I think is more interesting is whether women actually need to consider their “relationship with their genitals”. And based on recent studies, I really rather think they do.
After all, it’s always been easy for men to consider their genitalia and their “normality” or otherwise.
Classical art is chock-full of gravitationally-enhanced examples of the penis and its attendant testicles. Not for nothing do women gaze at Michaelangelo’s David with relatively unabashed admiration.
But as we can see in this charming little vignette of family life, women’s genitalia has long been considered something to be somewhat prudishly kept from public view. The female pudenda is either lost behind some casually draped snatch of material or, even worse, simply ignored, replaced with a suitably sterile smooth surface sans any worrysome dangly bits. It appears that vaginas are somehow, dirtily, ashamedly … well, just plain rude.
Well, this is what I think. For a start, this is a distinction I have simply never understood, this difference in the public acceptability between the male body and the female.
A man can walk around topless for days and no one will comment (unless their top looks like mine, in which case they will probably get asked to put it away) but if a woman lets so much as a glimpse of nipple hit the light then all hell breaks loose. (Janet Jackson, anyone?) Newspaper columnists fulminate darkly about whether or not women should be allowed to breast feed in public. And the exterior of the female sex organ is apparently a step too far for nearly everyone.
Clearly we have a long way to go before womens’ naughty bits are ranked at the same level as mens’. This is obviously because women are inherently the deceiving, wanton, lustful sex, luring poor helpless out-of-control men from their allotted paths of bonking-free righteousness. It’s a feminist issue, of course, and it’s a nonsense, but for today’s purposes I digress, so I will move on.
The real reason women need to know what vaginas look like – and lots of vaginas, preferably – is because psychologists tell us that in fact many women have only a passing idea of what their own genitalia looks like.
This is as opposed to men, of course, who from the age of about two, as any parent of a male child can confirm, start obsessively studying their schlong, regardless, usually, of where they are and who might watching. Little girls, famously and alternatively, are taught from an early age to keep their knees together, and in some Roman Catholic convents in my youth, even forbidden to wear shiny or patent leather shoes, lest they unexpectedly catch sight of a reflection of their own vagina and become … well, I dunno what, exactly. Raging harlots destined to end up marked with a red “A for adulteress” on their shirt or perhaps preggers by sixteen to a village lad or somesuch. That wicked vagina, Lord knows what it could lead you into …
That’s why one of the very first exercises conducted in many psycho-sexual therapies for women having difficulties relaxing and enjoying their own bodies is to encourage them to get a hand mirror and have a good look at their nether regions, becoming familiar with their folds, wrinkles, innies and outies, clitoris and surrounding tissue et al. Many women apparently find it a liberating and fulfilling experience, and good on them. Many of the volunteer models for McCartney’s work also found themselves feeling “empowered” by the experience, whether they were an 18 year old or a 79 year old, and everyone in between.
But even that isn’t the best reason to go look at 400 vaginas in plaster cast. Surely the best reason is that the bloody beauty industry, which obviously isn’t making enough money out of making women feel insecure and in need of spending more money, is convincing more and more women to go under the surgeon’s knife to hack away at their inner labia (lips) so that they look “neater”. Or even, at the patient’s request, and without any medical reason for doing so, to remove their inner vaginal lips entirely.
This is the brave new world of labiaplasty. And it’s all the rage.
As Australian blog Mamamia commented: “And it’s why a ‘Barbie’ is no longer just the name of the beloved childhood doll whose hair you cut and whose bizarre shaped feet you squeezed into painful looking plastic shoes. If only.
‘The Barbie’ is so nicknamed because the procedure involves removing the inner lips of the vulva entirely so that only the outer lips are visible. In other words, it makes the genitalia of real life women look like Barbie’s.”
This horrifyingly unnecessary (and like any surgical procedure, risky) activity is a great way for surgeons to make a quick buck. Increasingly, young women pop into a clinic or hospital for a quick nip and tuck while on holiday in countries where the procedure is cheaper, such as Thailand. And labiaplasty is on the rise even though the invasive and irreversible procedure is only rarely carried out for medical reasons.
Mamamia again: “The real reason labiaplasty is going gangbusters is that women and girls have become more concerned about the asthetic appeal of their baby making parts. This has been prompted, at least in part, by the fact that our society’s view of what ‘normal’ even looks like has been vastly distorted by what photoshopped vaginas look like in porn.”
This all leaves many women feeling insecure about what their vaginas look like. In some reports, the women seeking surgery are as young as 12 years old, supported by their mothers. Words fail me.
Commonly cited insecurities amongst women of all ages seeking labiaplasty include being worried that their vulva is uneven or unsymmetrical, or thinking the inner labia is ‘too long’.
Kristen O’Regan, a writer for art and politics magazine Guernica, went undercover to find out more about the surgery.
Kristen made an appointment with a plastic surgeon and told her that she was interested in labiaplasty. Kirsten was told, “Oh yes, you’re not alone.”
Dr. Red Alinsod, who invented the ‘Barbie’ surgery explains the reasoning behind it, to Kristen.
This results in a “clamshell” aesthetic: a smooth genital area, the outer labia appearing “sealed” together with no labia minora protrusion. Dr Alinsod tells me he invented the Barbie in 2005. “I had been doing more conservative labiaplasties before then,” he says. “But I kept getting patients who wanted almost all of it off. They would come in and say, I want a ‘Barbie.’ So I developed a procedure that would give them this comfortable, athletic, petite look, safely.”
And how many people are getting surgeries like these?
The American College of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons recorded 2,140 vaginal rejuvenation surgeries in 2010. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons estimates that 5,200 procedures are performed annually.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the vaginal rejuvenation industry was worth around $6.8million in 2009. This number is now undoubtedly much higher and does not take into account any procedures performed by gynecologists.
This is despite the fact that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have issued statements advising against vaginal cosmetic procedures, because the safety of the surgery is questionable. And in Australia requests for labiaplasty – which is available on Medicare – have more than doubled over the past 10 years.
So as blog Mamamia asks, (and good on them for pursuing this issue consistently over a number of articles), “we’ve got patients who don’t really need to be patients and doctors agreeing to operate anyway. Why would that be?”
The answer of course is the great God money – and the fact that women are worrying completely unnecessarily about the shape of their vaginas.
That’s why Jamie McCartney’s work is valuable, (just one of the ten panels is shown here), why it deserves to be seen, and discussed, as widely as possible. And why MONA deserves praise for making room for it.
Because women need to know, whatever shape their vagina is, whatever its component parts look like, whether the lips stick in or out or simply hang about in the breeze, it is 99.99999% certain that their vagina is entirely normal.
And they really don’t need to worry.
There is not a man alive who could care less. Trust me.
You might also care to read: http://www.mamamia.com.au/social/let-it-all-hang-outie/