Many people with vulvas pay them little regard - and I wager would struggle to pick out their own out in a photographic line-up! If yours could speak, what would it say to you? (Have a penis? These lessons apply to you too, so keep reading!)
As a striptease artist I looked at my vulva in a mirror around 60 times a week. That’s approaching 3,000 times a year!
I looked before every stage show, as did most dancers. It was a ritual. A quick peek with a hand mirror, checking for stray bits of loo roll, dangling tampon strings, discharge, bits of fluff from outfits… At home I’d check a couple of times a week on how my shaving looked, keep an eye out for spots, and generally admire this part of my body, which I was as familiar with as my face.
I was familiar with other dancers’ vulvas too. Not that we stared at each other’s, but we saw each other on stage and in the dressing room – the latter usually being overcrowded places with harsh lighting crammed with performers with zero body shyness. We became familiar with overall shape, colour, and any distinguishing characteristic such as piercings. So I knew the infinite variety of this body part, and that our audiences accepted us all – whether we had outer labia so long we could tie them in a knot (true story! And this dancer emphasised them even more with piercings), or the tiniest little pink petals.
Research has shown that being comfortable with one’s vulva is a key indicator of whether a woman will be satisfied with her sex life (read about this and tons of other fascinating stats and science in Emily Nagoski’s book ‘Come As You Are’). It makes sense – if we aren’t comfortable with the look, feel or smell of our genitals how can we be confident letting another person go near them, or allowing ourselves to get out of our heads and into that body part?
What’s your relationship with yours like? Do you ever grab a mirror and have a look? When I stopped dancing, I stopped looking… I only realised this a few years later. Now I try to look once a month or so, just to stay acquainted! If you haven’t looked for a while, I’d recommend doing so as your first step. But what’s next, to get to know yourself even better?
There is a coaching exercise where the coach has the client sit opposite an empty chair and imagine that someone or something they have things to say to – another person, or an aspect of themselves for example – is in that chair. In a coaching session the exercise has several stages and can get very intense. We can use it in simplified form however as a means of enquiry about ourselves.
Choose a time you are feeling relaxed, unhurried, curious and have privacy. (Please read the Self-Care Alert at the bottom of this article and only conduct the exercise if you feel sure this kind of self-enquiry is suitable for you to do alone).
You are going to imagine your vulva (if you're reading this and you have a penis, try the exercise with that instead) has its own life and consciousness, and is sat in a chair opposite you. Or at the other end of your sofa. You need to actually have that empty chair or sofa there, because you are going to swap to that seat halfway through the exercise. If you like you can place something on the chair to represent your genitals.
Take a few deep calming breaths, then think what you’d like to say to that vulva (or penis). What do you want to thank it for? Know about it? Apologise for? What are you curious about? Then actually say these things, out loud, to it. Note them down on paper or in a journal.
When you are finished, take a few calming breaths. Then, you’re going to stand up and swap places. Sit in the place of your genitals. Take a few breaths there, imagining you are looking at yourself sat opposite. Then you’re going to see what your vulva (or penis) wants to say back to you. Try not to overthink this… Just see what emerges in your mind.
Say whatever comes up, out loud. What do ‘you’ need? Speaking as your genitals, what are you thankful for? What are you upset about? What suggestions or requests do you have? When you are done, again note these down.
Then return to your original seat, imagining you are returning to the rest of your body.
Have a look over your notes. What has come up for you? Any surprises? What have you learnt?
How can you take these learnings into your self-care regime and into your sex life? Is there anything you need to share with a partner?
Choose and write down three action points to commit to as a result of this exercise.
We don’t all need to have the familiarity and comfort level of strippers with our vulvas, but increasing our familiarity with our intimate parts has benefits for health and overall mindset as well as our sex lives. We get to know what’s normal for us and what’s not, are not shy to seek medical opinion if necessary, and feel integrated and whole.
Most of us are also unlikely to see the wide range of vulvas day-in day-out that I saw as a dancer, but I strongly encourage seeking out Instagram art pages such as @pleasure_portraits (beautiful watercolours of penises as well as vulvas) and @vulvadesign, and vulva casting pages such as @vivalavulvacasting. These will help you realise that diversity and beauty abound.
Self-Care Alert: Coaching exercises are suitable for people who are able to take active, positive steps towards their desired future. If you feel held back by unresolved trauma from your past, then counselling/therapy with a trained psychotherapist may be a more suitable option for you. If you are working with a counsellor/therapist, check with them that the exercise in this column is suitable for you before giving it a try.