100 Boobs, Penises & Vulvas. Your Next Episode Podcast interview with Laura Dodsworth

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

Follow her on Twitter & Instagram

Pelvic floors, peeing our pants & penis weights

We’re so very out of touch with our pelvic floors. Until researching for our podcast episode with Sarah Wolujewicz, Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist at The Havelock Clinic, I didn’t even know that men had a pelvic floor! 

Yes, us women might be a bit more aware of ours but it’s a part of even our bodies that we tend to ignore until there’s a problem. Quite frankly this is shocking considering how important they are in terms of stability and also sexual function. 

Your pelvic floor is the collection of muscles, tendons, ligaments and fibrous tissues, running from your public bone to your coccyx, that supports pelvic organs helping you to enjoy sex, stopping you from wetting yourself and from bowel issues. A good visual is imagining it as a hammock.

Sarah agreed that we don’t talk about it enough and this coyness about anything to do with our pelvic floors, bladders, bowels, vulvas and penises was echoed in the podcast interviews with Jane Lewis, author of Me and My Menopausal Vagina (S1 E7) and Laura Dodsworth (S2 E1) author of the Bare Reality series. Her book Womanhood was the subject of the Channel 4 documentary ‘100 Vaginas’. What I’ve learnt from all three of these women is that the lack of discussion is leading to serious consequences. I’ve written about my learning from interviewing Laura Dodsworth previously.

So,‘serious consequences’ – men first. If you Google images of male/female pelvic floors you’ll see they’re quite similar. But men are even less inclined to think about them until there’s a health impact.

Erectile Dysfunction is difficulty gaining or maintaining an erection. It’s not something that men shout from the rooftops about but it’s a very commonly searched term on the internet. There could be a host of medical reasons for it and it could be psychological but it can also be the first sign of cardio vascular disease. An erection relies on good, healthy blood vessels that increase the blood flow into the penis so, of course, it actually makes perfect sense that a struggle to get or maintain one could actually be flagging up something really serious, but blokes will ignore it, keep it to themselves, make excuses because, heaven forbid that you admit to anyone that you’ve got a problem with your manhood, right? Well, ‘man-up’ and go see your GP for god’s sake.

Women are a bit different in that wetting ourselves is absolutely considered top-grade comedy fodder in our female circles. How hilarious are the stories of actually pissing our pants when we’ve jumped on the trampoline with the kids, run for a train, sneezed, or coughed? But, for god’s sake, don’t laugh too hard, unless you’ve got a spare pair of knickers in your bag. 

However, consider for a moment the message this is sending – the laughing, the adverts for a whole range of items to deal with those ‘Oops moments’ all telling us that this is ‘normal’ and a part of ageing that we just need to accept when actually roughly 80% of those issues could be helped by seeing a Women’s Health Physiotherapist.

If a woman starts wearing these items to manage symptoms in her 50s, say, she could be wearing them for 20-30 years. Without a doubt she’ll have issues such as soreness and infection which isn’t so comical.

Consider also that one of the biggest reasons for people moving into nursing homes is around bladder/bowel incontinence. Still laughing?

I haven’t even touched on vaginal atrophy, a condition so misunderstood and in some cases so severe that women have taken their lives rather than continue suffering. Please listen to the podcast with Jane Lewis (S1 E7) for information and support on dealing with this.

I asked Sarah in this episode about pelvic floor trainers and penis weights (yes, we giggled at the idea of resistance training for penises). Research on such gadgets is limited and they could be damaging if not used correctly. So, can I suggest that rather than forking out for something endorsed by a celebrity who’s being paid to influence you, instead you look to the NICE Guidelines that recommend supervised pelvic floor training? Your time and money will be better spent on a consultation with a Pelvic Health Physiotherpist.

Sarah Wolujewicz assured me that ‘it’s never too late’ and that something she hears often is patients wishing they’d got help sooner.

Listen to the episode to learn about simple, evidence-based steps you can take yourself and also to gain a bit more understanding so that you can make informed choices about your pelvic floor health.

Useful resources: 

POGP website (Pelvic, Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapy) – excellent leaflets and able to help with finding a local physio: https://pogp.csp.org.uk/

Squeezy App (pelvic floor exercises app and ‘Find a physio’ directory – NHS and Private): https://www.squeezyapp.com/

Dry January with Sober Dave

I’m an extremely diligent researcher for the podcast, so when Dave Wilson aka Sober Dave (on Instagram) agreed to be a guest on Your Next Episode to tie in with the ‘hump week’ of Dry January, I decided that I would immerse myself into sobriety and take up the challenge. If I hadn’t met Dave 3 days into January I don’t think I would’ve bothered sticking it out.

At 55 Dave decided to ‘go sober’ in January 2019. He knew he had a problem with alcohol that was affecting his health and his marriage. He created an Instagram account and quickly found himself part of an incredible online community. Dave has documented his sober journey throughout 2019 in the most open and honest way. He’s adored by his followers because of this and for his generosity with his time and support for others. 

A report published by The Royal Society for Public Health found that although there are many concerning negative effects of Instagram on users’ mental health, two very positive areas are community building and emotional support.

I’ve never been inclined to do Dry January because I know I’m not addicted to alcohol and I really, really enjoy getting a bit pissed in certain situations. Plus I’m honestly a very amiable drunk – I sing, I dance on tables, I’m lively, I love every body. You’ll never find me falling-out with people and I don’t get to a point where I can’t walk or talk. I’m no bother at all and a welcome addition to any party.

What I noticed last year though was that my alcohol consumption was creeping up a bit. Officially I didn’t drink during the week. However, often on a Thursday (sometimes on a Tuesday or Wednesday too), Paul would text me ‘wine tonight?’ on his way home. He was pushing on an open door. ‘Hooray!’ I’d think and convince myself that because it hadn’t been my idea, that made it ok… not my fault if I had 3 large glasses of wine on a school night – my husband was pretty much forcing me to. 

Weekends meant that we could drink limitless alcohol just because it was The Weekend. So, Friday night would come around and often there’d be a last minute arrangement to meet up with friends for ‘a drink’ which of course meant several drinks…as many as you like, because it’s FRIDAY! Ditto Saturday night. 

Then Sunday…Sunday! What a day! Sunday lunches! Which means starting around midday with a Bloody Mary or four, wine with lunch, wine after lunch for many hours, but always in bed by 9pm because tomorrow is Monday and Monday will be a doddle because we’re getting a good night’s sleep. Except, what probably amounted to 18 hours of drinking heavily, in a 48-hour period, meant that we were exhausted. 

We never, ever drank on a Monday, hardly ever on a Tuesday, tried really hard not to on a Wednesday and then it was ‘Thirsty Thursday’ once more… almost the weekend anyway – might as well ease ourselves into it again.

So, yes, my alcohol consumption had crept up and was way over the recommended limit..

According to research cited by Alcohol Change 24% of adults in England & Scotland regularly drink over low-risk guidelines (yep, that’s me) And 27% of UK drinkers binge drink on their heaviest drinking days (I’ll put my hand up to that too).

I’m writing this on day 28 of sobriety and it’s honestly been an easy month. I haven’t missed alcohol at all and I feel much better in every way. I’ve been to a comedy night with friends and I’ve accomplished my first sober Burn’s Night. 

I always knew these events would be easy though. What will be hard (probably impossible) will be those evenings where there’s no other focus other than drinking. This weekend is my best friend’s 50thBirthday, we’re going out for a meal early evening, that will be fine but then it’s party time – a large gathering of friends from afar drinking, dancing and being over-excited to be together. It‘s on Saturday the 1stof Feb though, so I’m good to go!

However, I’m furious to find that I’m feeling a bit nervous about drinking again. I’m not nervous about being drunk but I’m anxious about the next day when I know I’ll feel crappy and I’ll be unable to achieve much more than lying on the sofa watching Netflix and I’m dreading the awful ‘Hangxiety’ that follows a heavy night of imbibing. I’ve really reveled this month in not having those days at all.

Dave is warm and non-judgemental. He sees Dry January as an opportunity for us to not necessarily stop drinking completely (unless we want/need to), but to rethink our relationship with alcohol and to drink in a more mindful way going forward. This stuck in my head because at the time it confused me. Rethinking my ‘relationship’ with alcohol? Drinking ‘mindfully’? What on earth was he on about? 

Dave’s theory has proved to be spot on. I’m now baffled as to why I felt the need to down a bottle of wine on a Friday night. In future, if I’m not going out, I won’t bother, ditto Saturday. The thought of drinking midweek now horrifies me.

Dave’s suggestion is backed up by research conducted by the University of Sussex that found that Dry January helps people to drink more healthily all year round. It shows us that we don’t need alcohol to have fun or relax meaning that for the rest of the year we’re able to make better decisions about our drinking. The research showed that Dry January participants are still drinking less 6 months later.

Dry January has given me insight into what my habits are around booze and the understanding that those habits had become exhausting. Not just exhausting because I wasn’t getting enough good-quality sleep but also the head space that thinking about drinking takes up is huge for me, I’ve realised – deliberating whether or not to have a drink, feeling guilty about it if I do, worrying about my health, feeling guilty that I’m letting others down if I don’t drink when they are. Plus, the time and organization it takes to book taxis, the planning around drinking that night and also coping the next day. Dry January has freed up so much mental space by just not having all that to worry about this month, it’s all gone.

So, I really believe that I’ll be more mindful going forward about the decision to have that first drink, to have a boozy night instead of a sober one, but I wonder if I’ll be more mindful in the moment, once the decision’s been made to drink. Will I be mindful then? Will I swap my double vodkas for single measures? Will I remember to slow down a bit? Or, will I approach an evening of drinking in my usual fashion… like an overexcited child at a birthday party tea table?

I’ll let you know.

Menopause… ‘women’s business’, right?

Really, men? Yes, so it would seem, I’m afraid – loads of men I know think that the menopause isn’t their issue. These are men whose female partners are in their mid-40s! These are men who, when their partners were pregnant, trotted along to antenatal classes, got informed and were amazing birth partners when their children were born, and yet, the whole menopause thing isn’t on their radar! 

It wasn’t so long ago that birth and babies were considered ‘womens’ business’ too. When I was born (ok, quite a long time ago, actually) my dad wasn’t there and didn’t change a nappy or really have much involvement with me at all for the first 9 months or so. Today’s parents understand the vital role played by the partners of pregnant women in the birth room and also postnatally and it seems laughable that it was ever any other way.

I mean, it’s taken decades to get to that point but nowadays with wonderful Instagram, Facebook etc. important messages and information and ideas are shared so much more widely and so easily. So, surely it won’t take as long for blokes to get clued up about the menopause – a process that every single woman will go through. That’s right… EVERY. SINGLE. WOMAN. 

So, men… if you have a woman in your life this affects YOU. That woman might be your mum, your sister, your partner, friend, work colleague, whatever… if that woman is one of the 50% reporting that the menopause has impacted negatively on their sex life, one of the 50% saying the same about their home life, one of the 36% who said their menopause symptoms impact their social life or one of the 45% reporting a negative impact on their work… Menopause affects you too. How can it not? In fact, 38% of partners report feeling helpless and 28% report increased arguments due to their own lack of understanding of ‘what she’s going through’.

Now, relax. You don’t need medical-degree knowledge on the menopause, you don’t need to read tons of books or sit down with your work colleagues and ask them how their vulvas are doing either… there’s nothing to feel scared, embarrassed or bogged-down about. You just need to be aware of some real basics (basics that lots of women aren’t aware of, to be honest) and, if it’s appropriate, be prepared to ask questions and listen.

So, the basics I’m talking about here are the really common symptoms of the menopause. Now, it may be that the significant woman in your life doesn’t know about these either – I didn’t a year ago. At 48 I knew 3 facts about the menopause: periods stop, hot flushes and night sweats start. That’s it. So, for a few months I was gradually self-diagnosing myself with dementia, depression, bi-polar and various cancers because I had 17 of the following 35 symptoms with zero idea that they were anything to do with the menopause/perimenopause: 

Dry skin, weight gain, hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disruption, insomnia, exhaustion, mood swings, palpitation, chest pain, breathlessness, tinnitus, depression, anxiety, water retention, intolerance to alcohol/caffeine, hair loss or thinning, vaginal dryness, bladder weakness, incontinence, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, lack of libido, change of body shape, breast enlargement, dry eyes, dry mouth, itchy skin, hearing loss, memory loss, poor concentration, foggy thinking, aching joints, stiffness, gum disease.

If you’re reading those and  having a lighbulb moment because you recognise them either in someone you know or yourself, then it’s probably time to start having conversations and getting informed. Because doing so will only have benefits for you and those around you, whether your male or female. 

Here are some great places to start:

The Menopause Doctor

Menopause Support

Probably Perimenopausal

I’m 49. Up until about a year ago Menopause was something I hadn’t given more than a moment’s thought to. I’ve got some friends who are a few years older than me, but, to be perfectly honest, if menopause symptoms were mentioned during our boozy ‘girls’ nights I’d pretty much glaze over and be keen to move the subject on, because, ya know, BORING!

… and not just boring, but a bit scary and depressing too. I mean, why would I want to think about a stage in my life where I would surely be just a sweating, emotional wreck that everyone would hate? Ready for the scrap heap. A husk of a woman.

It’s not a fun, sexy topic at first glance, that’s for sure. Also, it’s taboo. Of course it is… it’s a female issue and we all know that generally topics around the female anatomy, periods, female sexual enjoyment etc. have always been deemed a bit too sordid for discussion or even acknowledgement…that’s a whole other blog post topic for another day, but I will come back to it!

The result is, at the grand old age of 48 I knew nothing and had self-diagnosed myself with an impressive list of terrifying conditions… Alzheimer’s, dementia, Bipolar, anxiety, depression, various cancers and also being an intolerant bitch. I’d noticed that I was tired, my body ached a lot, I was forgetful, had a kind of brain-fog going on, I was more anxious, sometimes had sleepless nights, I had days where I felt in a very dark place emotionally and days where I felt invincible. What I didn’t have, as far as I was concerned, were Menopause symptoms – because we all know what they are, right? There are only 3: hot flushes, night sweats & your periods stop. Simples.

So, I was following Dr Louise Newson (@menopause_doctor) on Instagram, I don’t know why I was following her because, as we’ve established at that point Menopause wasn’t on my radar, although it must’ve been a bit, I guess! She recommended The Good Menopause Guide by Liz Earle so I bought it. In the second chapter there’s a list of symptoms associated with the perimenopause. I read it and the penny dropped. There are 35 listed and I found myself nodding my way through them. I then started grabbing the book everytime I was with a female friend around my age and reading the list out to them and witnessing lightbulb moments every time! I know of loads of women who are on antidepressants and it occurs to me that maybe their doctors just aren’t terribly clued up about the menopause…

One of the foundations of any antenatal education workshops/courses I’ve run over the last 10 years, is informed decision making. When it comes to your body, your baby, your health and that of your family it’s vital to get informed. You don’t need to have medical degree knowledge (that’s what doctors are there for) but in order to have respectful conversations with and also to know how to get information from caregivers you need to take responsibility and get a bit informed. I did that myself when I was pregnant with my first child, I’ve done it throughout my parenting journey, I’ve done it as regards my own health and I’ve done it as I hurtle towards the menopause.

I’m probably perimenopausal. I don’t need a doctor to confirm that for me, I’ve got informed, I’ve read books, I’ve listened to expert speakers, I’ve interviewed experts too. What stands out most of all is that women and men need to get their heads out of the sand and start conversations in the same that they did eventually about 40 years ago around childbirth and parenting – when I was born, my dad was nowhere to be seen and didn’t pick me up until I was about a year old because all that was ‘women’s work’. That’s laughable now! I’m totally confident that my experience of the menopause will be so much better than for women even just a couple of years ago, because we ARE gradually getting informed and TALKING about it.

Let’s keep talking! Get in touch, I’d love to hear your experiences x