By Yessica Klein
This story starts—somewhat obviously, perhaps—in Berlin, Germany.
It starts in Berlin because I live here, and so does my friend Oliver.
Oliver is an amazing multidisciplinary artist working mostly with instant analogue cameras, including one of the last remaining 20×24 Polaroid cameras in the world. He was recently awarded the 2019 New Talent Award by ProfiFoto (one of the most important photography publications in Germany) and Canon.
So when he asked me if I wanted to take part in his latest project—close-up images of cis- and transgender genitalia taken on his legendary Polaroid camera—I felt like I had to say yes.
Well, no. Unfortunately that’s not 100% true. Instead, I freaked out.
My immediate reaction was a loud and instant “fuck no”. First, because we are very good friends and is that really something that friends do? Wouldn’t it change our friendship forever? Two, I was sure he had many other options for vulvas belonging to people who wouldn’t be so shy (especially in Berlin). And three, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see it up close under a ring flash.
It’s scary, right? I’m not exactly a prude: I mean, I have sex. I send the occasional nude picture, but it’s always something that makes me feel like I need to be apologetic, even if they’re never explicit or full-on pornographic (I’m more the sexy librarian type, not a Playboy bunny).
Which is not to say, of course, that there’s anything wrong with sending explicit nudes to whoever you want if you’re comfortable with it and, of course, trust the recipient. No judgement here, it’s just not my thing.
It turned out not many people were cool with having a giant picture of their vulva taken after all. Being really close to his deadline, Oliver asked again if he could shoot me for his project, and eventually I said “maybe”. Also, I had asked him to help me move house, and he did, so I felt a bit of unspoken pressure there.
I wanted to talk to my partner first—not to ask permission, of course, but letting your friend capture your vulva in analogue film is probably something that should be discussed if a couple is looking for an honest and healthy relationship.
“I certainly wouldn’t try to stop you, if you wanted to. Honestly, you have my blessing, I think it’s a cool thing to do and if you want to do it, you should,” my partner said. He’s lovely.
Meanwhile, when I brought up the subject with my ex-partner, his response was “I’d have never allowed you to do that..” No surprise that we broke up.
But anyway, I said yes. Not because I wanted my vulva to be art or anything like that—I said yes because isn’t this the type of thing one should do when moving to Berlin? Get a giant picture taken of your genitals like it’s no big deal, and casually talk about it like taking the dog for a walk? I said yes because it scared me, and I don’t like living with fear. In fact, after Oliver asked for the third time, it felt as if I was having my integrity questioned: why are you not doing the things that scare you?
Slightly terrified, I made sure everyone was very aware how freaked out I was, how insecure I felt.
“You’re becoming so European,” my sister said. “I love the idea of it. Sexuality without being sexual!”
Oliver had shown me the other portraits. They were all porn star vulvas, all waxed and smooth like the ideal female genitals should be—according to the only reference I had been exposed to, which was porn. I’d seen my friends naked too, but not like a ‘can you open your legs so I can have a good look at your vulva? a close-up?’ kind of naked.
As far as I know, women don’t really do that. In a locker room situation, there’s not much you can see—unlike with men. A man’s genitalia is just there, hanging out for everyone to see. The same with breasts: you can easily be aware of all of the shapes, sizes, and colours they come in. Breasts are everywhere anyway, we’re exposed to them constantly.
Vulvas? Not so much.
I did see one project about a female photographer who was documenting vulvas, precisely to educate other women about all the shapes, sizes and colours they come in, and maybe a few pieces from Sarah Lucas, Yoko Ono, or Petra Collins where you can see an exposed vulva or some pubic hair, but that was it.
I am by no means a stranger to my own vulva. I don’t know how to say this without being TMI, but like, I know how it works. I know what it looks like because I was given teenage sexuality books that would tell you to look at with a hand mirror. And I’ve had strangers looking at it in a non-sexual way—gynaecologists, nurses, waxers.
Which brings me to another insecurity: I’d stopped waxing it completely.
A quick reminder about my upbringing: I grew up in Brazil. Being there, I’ve always felt like waxing your vulva—at least, a bikini wax—was the norm. It was something you just had to do, like brushing your teeth or washing your hair. Most of my friends were talking about their newly adopted grooming habits by the time we were 15 or 16, and my reaction was you have to do what?! Growing up in a somewhat hippie and unconsciously feminist household, I was told the only things I ‘had’ to shave were my armpits and that was it. But that’s a whole different story.
I’m not a hairy person and I’ve always hated waxing or shaving it. I don’t like the feeling of having a hairless baby vulva, though I have friends who do love it and I would never tell them to do otherwise. Your body, your rules, right?
Easier said than done. As a woman, you grow up believing that your body should look a certain way, and you rarely question those expectations. Wearing a bra, shaving your armpits or removing some (or all) pubic hair are a few good examples.
So here, in the most vulgar way possible: I have a bush.
Not a mighty bush, not a wild and tangled tropical jungle. It’s tidy, I trim it—especially in the summer—but it is there. And I had to ask Oliver if he was okay with having a slightly hairy vulva as part of his project.
I repeat: I had to ask one of my best friends if he was okay with photographing a vulva with a bit more personality.
In fact, I asked something worse: do I need to shave?
“No,” he said. “Come as you are! I have only shaved ones, so please.”
“I’m a bit scared,” I told him. “What if my vulva is ugly?”
He just laughed. “No vulvas are ugly,” he said and I believed him.
So the day arrived to have a close-up picture of my vulva taken on analogue instant film by an ancient large-format camera.
Was I excited? Very. Was I nervous? A lot. For some reason, I treated it almost as if it were a date: a long shower, perfume, make-up, clothes that made me feel confident, neutral underwear (not really a date thing, but if one is to be undressed in front of a male best friend, I assume sexy underwear is to be avoided).
I finally got to his studio (late) and Oliver explained to me how everything would work: lay down here, your butt should be there, legs here. He measured the light, focus left, right, and centre, opened the camera shutter, closed it.
“So far, no one’s told me I’m creepy,” he said, looking straight into my eyes with a professionalism I had overlooked—suddenly, he wasn’t my-best-friend-Oliver, he was Oliver Blohm, the multidisciplinary artist, finishing his project for the 2019 Profil Photo and Canon Award.
The whole shoot was over in five minutes. Part one was done, and it was slightly nerve-wracking—have you ever had a ring flash two inches away from your vulva? That shit is fucking warm—but okay, that was the worst bit.
Now we had to wait for the picture to develop, peel the negative away from the positive and unravel… it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it. What if it’s ugly? What if it looks weird?
Funnily enough, I’m never nervous about taking my clothes off when it comes to having sex with someone, never really wonder if this or that guy (or girl) will make any judgements about my vulva. It’s like: fuck it baby, you’re lucky enough to get it. I can’t change the shape, size, or girth of your penis, so you shut up about my vulva and grooming choices. Easy as that. Zero fucks given, zero worries.
This, however, was art. Art is supposed to be beautiful—maybe not always in an obvious way, or at least that’s something I know Oliver’s concerned about when it comes to his work. But it would be out there in a magazine, maybe in an exhibition, for people to see and judge. My vulva. 20×24 inches. Close up. Subject to everyone’s opinion, sexuality without sex, the aesthetics of genitals.
Every viewer was suddenly an art critic. A genital critic. A personal attacker.
I thought I would be okay with it. I had that much faith and confidence in my slightly hairy vulva that wasn’t exactly like all the others. I thought I would own it and not give a flying fuck. But as soon as he detached the negative from the positive, revealing the close up for the first time, my stomach sank. I couldn’t even look at it without making noises like ‘yuck’, ‘ugh’ or ‘ew’.
It was ugly.
It was weird.
And I fucking hated it so much, my stomach so low inside my body, I thought I would cry.
I hid behind humour, as usual, made jokes about it, controlled the trembling tremor on my voice. I’m glad it’s done, let’s close this up, let’s go, let’s not talk about it ever again. Where are we getting dinner?
Listen, I’ve been the weird girl my entire life. Growing up in Brazil, I was taller than most, the girls made fun of me for not having a big bum, we didn’t have a TV. I was ugly: braces, glasses, a horrible haircut, baby fat. Between the ages of 16 and 20, I learned to own it. By the time I reached university I was proud of my grandad trainers, the worn-down Smiths t-shirt, my lack of filter and my social awkwardness, my unusual body shape and home-cut bangs that were always wonky and too short. I had become unapologetically myself and I loved my weirdness unapologetically too—to the point that it seemed to fade as if I had intentionally created it.
It wasn’t until I was 30, in a cold photography studio in Tiergarten, wearing a sweatshirt, black cotton underwear and navy-blue socks with holes in them, contemplating a close-up picture of my own vulva, that I once again felt my weirdness as a negative wave. My inadequacy to fulfil a certain standard, a certain feminine expectation, gave me a sudden feeling of failure.
I had been the weird girl my entire life, and now I had a weird vulva to add as the cherry on the cake. Why had none of my sexual partners ever told me?
I messaged my current partner straight away, and he disagreed. I didn’t believe him, so I messaged my ex-partner about it, who was obviously super uncomfortable and completed his repulsion to my questioning with “no vulva is really beautiful, anyway.”
Oliver sent me the edited version and I hated looking at it. I went to the pharmacy, angry at myself, ready to get some waxing strips and torture my beloved so it could look a little more like the rest of them. And then, like a weird sign from the feminist universe, they were sold out.
And I started to feel better about it.
Meeting Oliver for drinks a few weeks after the shoot, I told him that I sometimes still felt upset about it, like I had an ugly vulva that people would make fun of at the magazine or the exhibition.
“No, of course not! Yours is my second favourite,” he said with the clichéd dry honesty that Germans are known for.
“It’s one of the best. It’s like a flower,” he told me, and that new perspective instantly changed everything.
Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to crawl up the fireplace or under the floorboards of the bar, because this was not a conversation I wanted to have, ever. Hey Oliver, can we talk about my vulva so I can feel more secure about it? Nope, not at all. But his new perspective—it looks like a flower—lifted the weight of weirdness off my shoulders like it was something obvious that I should have known all along. I thanked him for supporting me. And I also thanked him, ironically this time, for the much welcomed patriarchal approval of my vulva.
He rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t the only one who approves of it. I had a few friends coming over to check the pictures and they liked it too. Aesthetically!” he explained upon noticing my disapproving frown.
I wish I didn’t feel that I had to apologise for letting a man’s opinion help me stop obsessing about something like this. I wish I could have come up with that strength myself, erased all of my feelings of inadequacy on my own. Although I nearly did it, it took some male approval—not even sexual, purely aesthetic—to enable me to let go of the subject for good and integrate my weird-looking and possibly ugly vulva as part of my beloved and unapologetic self.
Maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong angle and it’s not so much about male approval, but rather about supporting friendships and good art instead. Good artists make you question preconceived ideas, they challenge the norm, bring inclusivity, offer a fresh perspective on daily life.
They make you accept your weird and possibly ugly looking vulva.
Because it looks like a flower, I say. I am also a poet, and that makes perfect sense to me.