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Vaginas in Mythology, Art, and History

Much as breasts have become a market commodity, vaginas have suffered a similar fate. Girls, women, boys, and men, are given little to no empowering imagery, mythology or language within American culture, regarding vaginas and female genitals. The most common thing kids and adults hear about female genitals is they supposedly stink like rotten tuna fish, or leave trails like slugs. Additionally, those jokes about tuna and slugs are bantered about lightly by males and females alike. Women are taught their genitals are gross in American culture, yet we also know they are an economic commodity, which is confusing.
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Vaginas in Mythology, Art, and History
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

Much as breasts have become a market commodity, vaginas have suffered a similar fate. Girls, women, boys, and men, are given little to no empowering imagery, mythology or language within American culture, regarding vaginas and female genitals. The most common thing kids and adults hear about female genitals is they supposedly stink like rotten tuna fish, or leave trails like slugs. Additionally, those jokes about tuna and slugs are bantered about lightly by males and females alike. Women are taught their genitals are gross in American culture, yet we also know they are an economic commodity, which is confusing.

This all smells of control issues to me. American culture tells women they need to buy monthly “sanitary protection� from their menstrual fluids. Common nicknames for menstruation and women’s genitals are anything but flattering. Yet in many other cultures, there are depictions of women’s genitals in powerful legends and pervasive art. Since women give birth, their genitals were the focal point of mystic awe and religious wonder for many generations and cultures on earth throughout history. It has been speculated that original religions were matrifocal for this reason, and that patriarchal religions such as Christianity, purposely supplanted female godheads with male ones for political power purposes. Certainly it makes more sense for women to give birth in mythology than things like Zeus’ head.

Vulva goddesses exist in history, such as Baubo. Her name means belly, as in belly laughter. She is a fun goddess, known for her bawdy sexual, even obscene, joking. Her head is her torso, and her chin is her genital mound, thus she is a bearded woman. In legend, Baubo lifted her skirt, making “wise cracks,� until Demeter began laughing and then was roaring with laughter, and her own Power, again. It can be hard to imagine empowering sexual jokes since most of the sexual jokes in our culture, unfortunately, are debasing, especially to women. But Baubo is an image to help overcome ruts we have found ourselves in, perhaps.

Sheela-Na-Gig is another vulva goddess. Sheela-Na-Gig is sort of the exact opposite of a Playboy centerfold. Her image truly frightens people. I had an earring of her and people did not like it, and commented on it all the time. Sheela-Na-Gigs are images of vulvas being pulled wide open, like portals, by women with crazy, intense grins on their faces. Sheela-Na-Gig images have been found in Europe carved into many churches and castles. It is not clear whether the goddesses were put there in defiance of the churches by pagan builders, or to offer sanctification of the churches. Most of the Sheela-Na-Gigs were removed by Puritans, but some still exist in Europe. After I became aware of Sheela-Na-Gig, I began to see her everywhere; in jewelry, on note cards, on rubber stamps, in statues, on prayer flags, on t-shirts and underwear. “The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Woman's Sexual Energy,� by Winifred Milius Lubell, is the best book I have ever read linking women’s vulvas to empowering mythology and history. She shows the devolution of women’s genital imagery from powerful and sacred, such as in her examples of Baubo and Sheela-Na-Gig, to a new imagery of sharp-toothed monster vaginas that eat men, in the patriarchy.

In the mid-1970’s, Judy Chicago created a huge controversy with her art exhibit, “The Dinner Party.� “The Dinner Party� consisted of 39 place settings for famous female “guests.� There were elaborate embroidered linen runners, and china painted plates, each with a theme related to one of the 39 woman guests, but depicting a vulva as the center of that theme. The plates were three dimensional, with labias rising up out of the plates themselves. The exhibit’s triangular table sat atop 999 porcelain tiles with the names of important women in history on them. The women guests ranged from mythic women characters to real women. The plates commemorated figures such as Kali, Hatshepsut, Sappho, Saint Bridget, Sojourner Truth, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Sanger, Virginia Woolf, and Georgia O’Keefe. I found it odd that in a culture with such a wide use of porn, that this exhibit of women’s genitals, made into art, by a woman, was such a huge outrage to many.

The book “Femalia� by Joani Blank is a revolutionary vulva book. The entire book is simply close up pictures of women’s vulvas, in a non-porn, feminist setting. The book is amazing because it shows how very diverse women’s genitals are, how no two look alike and how very wide the spectrum of differences are in color, shape, size, etc. The book shows women’s genitals without a slick commercial spin on them. You only see the almond shaped area of the genitals. No poses, no positions. It really is an eye opener to see women’s genitals in such a different light. It makes you realize new possibilities of imagery for women’s genitals. Another groundbreaker around imagery for women’s genitals is the House O’Chicks (www.houseochicks.com) Vulva Puppets. Long a favorite of mine, these large vulva puppets have a space for your hand in the back, with a g-spot, and have a clitoris in the front. The vulvas come in wild patterns and materials, such as tiger prints, velvets, etc. and they are stuffed with potpourri to smell like a bouquet of flowers. These handmade puppets have been very useful in my work helping women heal from negative genital body imagery. They lighten up this heavy area.

In Anne Cameron’s book, “A Child Of Her People,� a white girl is being raised by American Indians, after they found her dying in a covered wagon accident where her family had died. White missionaries come on the scene and “rescue� the white girl, placing her in a hospital with Catholic nuns. This is how Anne describes A Child Of Her People’s first menstruation. “When her first blood moon was on her, she told Marie-Berthe and asked where the seclusion and meditation hut was for these women. Marie-Berthe laughed and told her there was none, that the women stayed in their rooms, or pretended nothing at all was happening. “They are shamed by it,� she said. “But it is the most holy of times!� Child Of Her People blurted. “They do not think so, “Marie-Berthe shrugged. “I was told that before Eve tempted Adam and they both sinned, there was no blood moon time for Eve. After the Sin, their God cursed her, and every month the woman bleeds, to remind her of her sin.�

“Do you believe that?� Child Of Her People asked carefully. “Do I look a fool?� Marie-Berthe asked, and then they were both laughing happily, but Child Of Her People knew that she would keep her secret to herself, let them think she was still a little girl. Moss was easily collected, there was no need to ask anybody for cloths or any of the other gear Marie-Berthe told her the white women used.�

Before the “sanitary protection� industry was created, women used absorbent materials such as moss, sponges, and cloth for their menstrual flows, for thousands of years. Most likely, your granny used cloth pads, not corporate disposable “protection.� The way the “sanitary protection� industry speaks about menstruation, they make it seem like menstruation is something women should dread, abhor, fear and hide. And they act like Big Brother is here to sell you “protection� from your own body fluids. By acting like menstrual fluids are toxic, women are degraded and belittled. Several religions have heavy dogmas around menstruating women, such as sexual taboos, food preparation taboos, etc. In American culture, we teach girls and women that their genitals should not be aggrandized or symbolized in any manner outside of the control of the porn or sanitary protection industry!

Other cultures have vulva goddesses. American Christian culture offers a virgin who has an immaculate conception, which is basically birth with the sex removed! Contemporary American artists, such as Judy Chicago and Georgia O’Keefe, have tried to liberate the stiff male control of vulvas in America, and have been met with intense protest and controversy. The success of The Vagina Monologues is a good sign, yet, it too, is considered far more controversial than Playboy. Women and men, boys and girls, need better imagery around women’s genitals than America provides. Women’s genitals should not be reduced to merely porn or Tampax commercials. We can do better. Let’s raise a generation without the slug and tuna fish jokes, with respect for women’s monthly cycles, rather than shrouding them in disgust, filth, shame, and controlling religious dogma. Let’s give American society more positive women’s genital imagery, in myths, art, jewelry, books, and more, for a more healthy future for all.

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To counteract all the negative imagery of women and their genitals out there, I have started an online vulva museum, archiving respectful imagery honoring, rather than debasing, women and their genitals. It is on my website at resist.ca/~kirstena/pagevulvamuseum1.html
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