How do you love yours?

It’s been 2 months since my inaugural post about vajazzling and now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time once again to talk about vaginas.

I don’t usually buy women’s magazines, but I had a long train journey yesterday and needed plenty to read. After finishing the paper on the first leg (with cheering headlines like “Climate changes double chance of civil wars”) I didn’t think I would get any more depressed, so while waiting for my connection I took the plunge and headed to the “women’s glossies” section. I chose Company, mainly because I’d spoken to one of their writers at London’s Slutwalk, and only a little bit because of the picture of Emma Watson on the cover. Believe me, I’m well aware of the creepiness of crushing on someone who’s been in the public eye since the age of 12, but she just got so foxy when she cut her hair off! I digress…

Company, in general, horrified me less than other women’s magazines I have perused, and the piece on the Slutwalk was surprisingly good. Imagine my excitement, though, when I got to page 99 and saw the words “LOVE YOUR VAJ” scrawled across the page. It’s a new Company Campaign! There’s a Facebook group! A Twitter feed! A free, limited edition “love your vag” badge! How marvellous to see a mainstream women’s magazine encouraging ladies to love their vaginas.

I get excited. Will the campaign extol the joys of masturbation, celebrate cunnilingus, admire the diverse beauty of a range of vulva; examine systemic causes of female-body-hatred, promote better sex ed in schools, critique the “designer vagina” phenomena? I read on.


Me: Okay!

Company: It’s time to show a little love down there, and no we’re not talking about vajazzling.

Me: Excellent. Tell me more!

Company: Bin those excuses and join Company‘s big ‘Get Tested’ smear campaign.

Me: … Oh.

Yes, on closer inspection it’s about cervical smears. Now, I don’t in principal have a problem with the magazine endeavouring to raise awareness about cervical cancer. I do have serious reservations about the pinkwashing of campaigns about cancers affecting women, whereby awareness-raising seems duty-bound to be sexy/cute/sexy-cute, which many people have written intelligently about (here and here for example). While this feature, with its pink hearts and photos of kittens (they’re pussies! Geddit?), conforms to this problematic landscape, I’d like to focus on Company’s limited vision for vaj-loving, and the accompanying full-page promotion for Femfresh.

That’s right: the oh-so-promising “Love Your Vaj” headline introduces three pages about cervical smears and “intimate wash”. How ironic that both gynaecological exams and products to “clean us up” are decried in The Vagina Monologues classic, “My Angry Vagina“, in which the speaker lists the various “nasty ideas” that serve to “undermine” her “gentle, loving” pussy.

If Company had to pair its cervical cancer article with a “promotion” (that’s a full-page advert-feature hybrid), I can think of several other products they could have worked with. Lube? Mooncup? Sex toys? Those are some things my vaj loves. But Femfresh, apparently, will give me more confidence – the ad mentions this no fewer than 4 times, citing mascara (for giving “that flutter to the hot guy on your train”), heels (for longer legs) and sexy undies as other top confidence boosters. And thus, in the blink of an eye, loving your vaj is reduced to buying stuff that will make you attractive to men.

Opposite the ad, highlighted stats in large font reveal that 8% of readers were too “scared they’d smell down there” to get a smear test. That is incredibly sad. But if a survey showed that women were afraid of getting mammograms in case the doctor thought their breasts were too small, would Company publish a breast cancer awareness feature opposite an ad for boob jobs? To position Femfresh as a solution to the problem of women’s discomfort with their genitalia is laughable when its central marketing message can essentially be boiled down to: “your vaj smells.”

Suppose FHM or Nuts magazine launched a campaign to raise awareness about prostate cancer entitled “Love Your Willy”. Can you imagine such a feature making no reference, no mention, no tongue-in-cheek allusion, to wanking? Yet female masturbation is still astonishingly taboo. Its total absence across these three pages is striking, particularly given that the sexual nature of the vagina is very much present. The intro to the Femfresh promotion asks “when did you (not him) last really show it some love?” Grammatical incorrectness and heteronormativity aside (hard to say which grates on me more), what I found truly jaw-dropping about this set-up is the implication that the solo equivalent to getting sexual attention from a partner is washing. I’m pretty sure that’s not what most of us get up to when we have some quality time loving our vajs  – though it may be the official line when bathroom doors are locked for hours at a time.

I’d like to believe that all has been done with the very best of intentions on the part of Company. But suggesting that a campaign is about women loving their vaginas when it in fact has a very specific, health focus, and diluting the impact of that specific focus with some ill-advised product promotion, actually risks undermining women. To love one’s vagina is not an easy or uncomplicated thing in the midst of patriarchy and capitalism (not to mention racism, ablism, heteronormativity, classism and cissexism). Each woman is unique, but, for many, individual journeys to become more vaj-loving will involve critiquing medical discourse, and rejecting consumerist doctrines.

While the vagina is presented as something to cleanse, have inspected and package up nicely in “those naughty little knickers”, I think I’ll forego the Love Your Vaj badge. I already have an amazing one that says “Why Wait? Masturbate!” Which reminds me…

Mighty Real

It’s not what you inherit. It’s what you do with your inheritance.

So says Tracey Emin in There’s a Lot of Money in Chairs, a 1994 piece which tells the story of her life through patches and lettering appliqued onto a chair the artist was given by her grandmother.  The sense of authorship, agency and possibility captured by these words runs through Love Is What You Want, the major Emin exhibition currently at the Hayward Gallery in London.

Before visiting the exhibition this weekend, I knew very little about Emin: I was familiar with her Turner-Prize-listed 1998 piece My Bed,  the go-to example for those who argue that “modern art is rubbish”, and her equally derided tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. Aware that she has, like many female artists, been much criticised for self-obsession (a quality that I’m sure we can all agree is never present in works by men), I went in with an open mind. On display were works from every period of Emin’s career, showcasing the range of media in which she has worked: richly detailed blankets, large-scale installations, collections of “memorabilia”, film, neon signs, drawings and paintings.

Many of the individual pieces on show left me unmoved, but the accumulative effect of the works in  Love Is What You Want was moving, thought-provoking and exciting. Throughout, Emin draws on her personal history, and the exhibition reverberates with her storytelling. Narratives, rather than images, have stayed with me. The stories that she tells are powerful not because they are unique. Abuse, abortion, denigration, sex, masturbation, love: every day, women experience these things. Emin’s work, though, seems to shine a torch into forgotten corners, exposing taboos by breaking them.

Is Emin self-obsessed? Perhaps. I wonder if that’s not part of the job description of a professional artist. The nature of the artist’s relationship with herself was certainly a recurring theme in the work, but this didn’t alienate me. In fact, it was the allusions to the potential for healing and redemption inherent in one’s relationship with oneself that most touched me.

Several of her works touch on the abuse she experienced as a child and teenager. A patch on one of the colourful, intricate blankets reads “there was sex without consent. By that I mean I was never asked. It just means my little legs were open. Pushed apart. Or just open and limp.” I’ve seen Emin criticised for “playing the victim”, but what I saw in her work was a determined refusal of that role. In the film Why I Didn’t Become a Dancer, Emin narrates, over a montage of images of her home town of Margate, an incident from when she was fifteen. Competing in a local dance competition in 1978, her mid-performance reveries of escaping to London to become a dancer are interrupted by a chant from the crowd: boys and men she had slept with, calling her a “slag, slag, slag.” In response to this archetypal moment of misogynist hypocrisy, Emin speaks directly to those who were out to shame her: “Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard: this one’s for you”. The video then cuts to extended footage of the artist, dancing around an empty room to the 1978 disco anthem “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” She appears totally at ease, unselfconscious, having fun; she looks like somebody you’d want to dance with. This felt to me like the best imaginable response to the memory invoked in the film: on one level, it is a “fuck you; look at me now” to the men who abused her, but, at a deeper level, Emin’s joyful dancing seems not to be about, or for, anyone other than herself.

Emin won’t be boxed in to a victim role, but neither will she deny what happened to her, hush it up or tidy it away. It’s part of her inheritence. I wonder if it is Emin’s candid retelling of experiences of victimisation that make so many people uncomfortable, or if it is the ways in which those narratives rub shoulders in her work with other tales, of assertive sexual agency, of female power hard-won and fiercely guarded. There was “sex without consent”, and there was sex as “an adventure, a learning”. Emin is clear and unequivocal: “I was the innocent”. This declaration (from Why I Didn’t Become a Dancer) refers not only to her experiences of sexual assault, but to her “adventures” in sex: she was an innocent when adult men “pushed apart” her legs, she was an innocent when she learned about the sexual pleasure available via her body; she was an innocent “the first time someone asked [her] to grab their balls” and she discovered “the power” their desire gave her. This is a view of adolescent female sexuality that many will find unpalatable. Emin’s work disrupts Madonna vs. Whore, rejects Victim vs. Slag and, in so doing, highlights how pervasive those tired tropes still are.

A patch on a blanket relating to her teens reads “I loved to touch myself – unashamed. Dreaming – Dreaming – Dreaming”. This sense of self-pleasure – joyful, unapologetic, romantic – is equally present in Emin’s small-scale masturbation paintings. Self-portraits, both the form and content invoke self-reflection, self-reliance and autonomy. Emin describes these works as both “pretty and hard-core,” and they struck me as more sexual and less apologetic than equivalent pieces by Emin’s cited-influence Egon Schiele. Revealing at once strength and vulnerability, I found these pieces courageous.

In a room entitled Trauma, drawings depicting a nightmarish imagining of abortion hang alongside a glass case displaying the beginnings of an intricate piece of crochet, still on the needle and attached to a ball of yarn. The title offers a context for the object: The First Time I Was Pregnant I Started to Crochet the Baby a Shawl. In the accompanying text Emin explains that “this strange thing […] represents the futile, fucked energy of misguided guilt.” Again, there is complexity here. The piece conveys love, tenderness, and loss, but even while acknowledging these emotions associated with a terminated pregnancy, Emin rejects absolutely the shame so often connected to abortion. The “misguided guilt” that she decries almost leaps of the page, a potent poison threatening one’s relationship with oneself. Elsewhere, she writes: “To have the power to forgive is the greatest power of all – and because of this, I forgive myself.”

I forgive myself. These three words echoed around the exhibition: a retaliation to the names – “bitch”, “dirty girl”, “psycho slut” – carefully stitched onto blankets; a pardon for the unfinished shawl; an invitation to the disco dancer. Love is What You Want is brimful of stories. The story that stays with me is one of survival through self-exploration, self-compassion and self-forgiveness.


Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want is at the Hayward Gallery until August 29th. I would love to know what you thought!



Slim Pickings

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by the hypocrisy of the Daily Mail, but does that mean I can’t be enraged by it?

The paper lapped up news this week that children as young as five are receiving NHS treatment for eating disorders. A neat companion piece, if you will, to their recent “fat children should be taken into careseries, this story allowed for sensationalism, moral outrage and a healthy dose of blame-apportioning: the bread-and-butter (no pun intended) of the Daily Mail.

While conceding towards the end of the piece that eating disorders “can be triggered by stressful events,” the Mail’s coverage focuses largely on how children “can become obsessed with body image”. This latter view of eating disorders is common, but it is reductive and unconvincing, as Hadley Freeman explains in a clear and compelling piece in the Guardian. My, albeit far from expert, understanding of eating disorders is that they are outward manifestations of – or coping mechanisms for surviving – deep internal troubles, such as low self-worth and feelings of powerlessness. It seems to me that a society that values and denigrates women and girls primarily on the grounds of appearance, in which the prized female aesthetic is one of malnourished fragility, is likely to have a negative impact on girls’ sense of worth and experience of self-efficacy. In such a landscape, regulating one’s intake of food presents itself as a readily available means of experiencing a sense of control. It is undoubtedly far more complex than girls looking at photos of celebrities and wishing they were skinny, and requires a nuanced analysis that is lacking from much media discussion of the topic – and which I won’t pretend to offer here.
For now, what I would like us to do is just step into the Daily Mail’s world. Don’t worry: I promise we won’t be there long, and I’ll hold your hand if you like.
In this world, “youngsters – particularly girls – are increasingly obsessed with being thin”. Why? Because they “idolise ultra-slim models and celebrities.” Obsessed with being thin, you say? Idolising ultra-slim celebrities? Why, surely that’s the Daily Mail you’re describing! Let’s just cast our eyes over some of the “stories” rubbing shoulders with this piece on the DM website:
–  the “newly slim” Natalie Cassidy “looks great”(the same paper reported that she lost weight due to stress after being assaulted by the father of her child, but hey, whatever works!)
“Curvy Kim Kardashian’s lithe sister Kendall Jenner”  – that would be the 15 year old Kendall Jenner – “unlike her curvy sibling, […] hasn’t got an inch to pinch”. I wonder which one is the Mail’s favourite sister?
– Kerry Katona has apparently “dropped the ball” with her weight-control regime and “vows to lose weight after she swells from an 8 to a 12”. While her earlier dieting displayed “hard work and determination”,  the description of her “comfort [eating] her way through junk food meals” and “gorging on booze and curries” clearly implies a disgusting lack of self-control.
– “Gerri Halliwell displays her ‘mummy tummy’ jogging in cropped top”; God forbid that one should exercise in cool, comfortable clothing. Apparently it’s clear that Gerri “chose [the] wrong outfit” because “the skin around her abdominals appeared to be slightly loose as she jogged”. Slightly loose? She had a small human living inside her!

If you were to buy in to the theory that eating disorders are caused by the media, you’d have to put the Daily Mail right at top of the list of offenders. The article is accompanied by a photo of Cheryl Cole, the first lady of the tabloids, with a caption that suggests her “slight frame” could “encourage an unhealthy body image in young girls.” Blaming individual female celebrities for young women’s self-esteem problems is a nice try, but how about looking in your own back yard, at the DM’s relentless torrent of value-laden commentary on each pound gained and lost by women in the limelight?