Laura Dodsworth is the author of 3 books of body-part portraits with accompanying interviews with their ‘owners’ (for want of a better word): Bare Reality: 100 Women, their breasts, their stories, Manhood and Womanhood which was made into a Channel 4 documentary – ‘100 Vaginas’.
Each of these shares compelling, potent stories. Stories that we might not otherwise hear. The photos aren’t re-touched and they are anonymous which feels very important – I doubt that such honesty about feelings would have been expressed otherwise.
Laura breaks down physical and emotional taboos via the photos, normalising rather than sexualising, and via the stories shared. The photos are “signposts that take you through the themes of power, shame and sexuality – all the social and emotional taboos” says Laura
In Your Next Episode, she talks about the profound learning and understanding that came about for her from her Bare Reality projects.
I was struck by a feeling of admiration when I first heard her speak last year and again when we interviewed her for the podcast – Laura’s in her prime and she knows it. She’s warm, funny, sexy, clever and empowered and I thought fleetingly ‘that’s how I’d like to be when I grow up’ but then I remembered she’s a bit younger than me! Surely, it’s not too late though? I’m a work in progress and Laura herself admits she’s not the ‘finished product’.
As a child of the unstyled, ungroomed, hairy 70s I’ve barely given my vulva a cursory glance throughout my 50 years. This isn’t because I feel I ‘shouldn’t’ or through any feelings of shame or embarrassment but simply because no-one’s ever complained about it (in fact it’s been complimented on!), I’ve had straightforward, untraumatic births, so didn’t fee the need to investigate afterwards and it seems to fulfil it’s purpose without ever giving me cause for concern. When I read Womanhood though and knew I was interviewing Laura I decided I’d better do my homework and have a look and I have to say…what a palaver! Long story short – if, like me, your eyesight’s not great and you’re not as flexible as you used to be just take a vulva-selfie on your phone, which you can then examine comfortably, enlarging as necessary, in good light and with your specs on. Just remember to delete it when you’re done. (yes, I’m aware that my vulva’s now floating around ‘the cloud’ but I’m fairly confident it won’t come back to haunt me).
I have to admit, on viewing mine I was fairly underwhelmed & certainly unbothered by anything I saw, but then I haven’t been bombarded with porn as young people are these days. Laura’s sharing of the spectrum of normality is much needed because what she discovered is that many young women think that their vulvas are abnormal because of porn, where they mainly see particular types. “They’ll be quite pink, as opposed to darker colours. Hairless, quite sort of ‘neat’, lots of them have had labiaplasty…. they thought they weren’t normal because that’s what they’d seen” explains Laura.
According to The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, Labiaplasty is now the fastest-growing cosmetic operation in the world, with a five-fold increase in demand over the past two decades.
In 2018 Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that a third of women avoided smear tests because they were embarrassed of the way their vulvas looked. With cervical cancer one of the most common cancers in young women, ingrained shame around our bodies isn’t something we can just shrug off, I feel.
Laura talked about a theme of deeply ingrained anxieties and widespread body insecurity in both men and women. Men worry about not being ‘enough’…”tall enough, big enough, hung enough, rich enough and occupying enough space in the world” and women about being ‘too much’ … even in supermarkets there are whole aisles telling us we’re ‘too much’ with loads of products available for us to trim ourselves back.
As Laura explains in the podcast “photographing 100 women’s vulvas was never on the career plan… or penises!” as a result she’s been called a ‘Cockaholic’ (which she says will go on her tombstone) and had more than her fair share of unsolicited advances and dick-pics.
We should all be thankful that Laura DID go down this career path. As a parent of a teen and of young people in their early 20s this is stuff I need to understand and you do too. Don’t shy away from these conversations. Don’t think that your child won’t be exposed to images and ideas about their bodies, sex, emotions and their place in the world that are unrealistic or even damaging. They absolutely will.
Julia Mortimore directed a short film as part of Brook’s Different Is Normal Campaign. Brook is a charity at the forefront of providing wellbeing and sexual health support for young people. Six women share the relationship they have with their vulva before painting their own. It’s a beautiful, empowering film celebrating vulvas in all their diversity and suitable for young teens and upward in my opinion and really reassuring. A good place to start a conversation.
Listen to Laura’s interview (No. 19) on Your Next Episode
Watch her Ted Talk