‘Please learn how to use me properly,” pleads one woman, next to her portrait. She’s one subject in Philip Werner’s controversial new book 101 Vagina, a series of clinical black-and-white photographs that reveals what the organ really looks like woman to woman, beyond Jenna Jameson.
Werner, an Australian mechanical engineer, came up with the idea after reading Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues (also, he was raised by a feminist). Seeking an antidote to cultural representations “of what normal is and where beauty lies,” Werner had 101 women pose for him, their bodies as diverse as individual faces.
It’s a particularly relevant project amid the rise of labiaplasty (“designer vagina”) surgery: the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery found labiaplasty procedures had skyrocketed by 44 per cent in 2013 from the year prior. The surge has been largely attributed to the popularity of online porn, which favours a certain look. Specifically, women are seeking to reduce their labia minoras.
“It’s unfortunate that people believe themselves not to be normal or right. It’s the perceptions perpetuated in our culture that aren’t normal,” Werner said in an interview.
The book has been touted as sex ed, and perhaps rightly so: If all a woman has seen is her own amid a tidal wave of ubiquitous porn, she likely has little idea of the diversity of the organ.
Each of the 101 posing women has also written a blurb; themes include first sexual encounter, promiscuity, celibacy, pregnancy and aging. Then there are the particulars: C-sections, tampons, thigh gaps and Brazilian waxing. Although there’s a hefty dose of “yoni” and “goddess” talk, many women also write about being ashamed thanks to horrid, damaging remarks from exes.
Several women describe how they considered going under the knife themselves, agonizing over protruding or “uneven” labias. But there are happy stories too, of self-love and good husbands.
Werner is touring the book at galleries and predictably, the exhibit has already been censored: in Sydney, Australia, a passerby called police, forcing the gallery to cover over its windows.
More often Werner gets gratitude. “There was an 80-year-old woman who came in. After going through the exhibition she said, ‘Now I feel normal.’”
101 Vagina runs June 14 to 22 at Toronto’s Creative Blueprint Gallery.