Prude To Nude: How I Learned To Love My Vagina By Letting An Artist Sculpt It Into Art

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Prude To Nude: How I Learned To Love My Vagina By Letting An Artist Sculpt It Into Art

Editor's Note: This article was originally posted in September 2009 and was updated with the latest information.

The other night as I sat down to enjoy a tasty pizza dinner, I flipped on the television just in time to see a close-up shot of a woman's labia being "trimmed" by a surgeon.

"Look!" I shrieked at my fiancé, David, as I involuntarily crossed my legs. "Look what they're showing! How can they show that on regular TV?!?" David glanced up from his pepperoni, barely raising an eyebrow.

"It's educational," He shrugged.

Yes, you could say that the Broadcasting Commission in Ireland is a bit more relaxed than our ol' FCC

Since I moved to Dublin last August, I am constantly throwing a hand to my mouth a la Goody Proctor, shocked by what they can get away with. Janet Jackson could not only flash her nipple here, she could shave it and cover it in shamrocks, so long as it was educational.

But back to the vagina trimmig. The program was called "The Perfect Vagina," and while it did put me off my Hawaiian pizza, it was a fascinating look at the latest cosmetic surgery craze — labiaplasty. Apparently women are no longer satisfied with merely having boobs like a porn star, they now want the whole package, and are paying doctors to "sculpt" their vaginas into what they believe is a more aesthetically-pleasing look. 

In the UK alone, the number of labiaplasties has doubled in the past five years, and — never one to miss a trend — the surgery is quickly gaining popularity in the US. With a look of not-so-thinly veiled horror, the TV journalist explained that women as young as 14 are approaching doctors about the surgery.

I was feeling rather ill as I watched gruesome footage of a 21-year-old convalescing post-op, and so was grateful when the program shifted to a more inspirational note, and began a segment on Jamie McCartney.   

McCartney is a British artist who is currently working on a sculpture he is calling "Design a Vagina." Using only volunteers, he is making casts of 200 women's vaginas, and displaying them together in 40 block panels. He wants to show people that where vaginas are concerned, "the variety of shapes is endlessly fascinating, empowering and comforting."

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And indeed they were. As I stared at the sculptures he was displaying for the cameras, I was astonished. I honestly did not know there was such a smorgasbord of vulva out there. And I've seen my share of porn. But I guess the porn industry really does adhere to a rather strict labia code, because I'd never seen such variety.

Maybe it was just seeing so many vaginas all lined up side by side that really highlighted how different they all are. I found myself squinting at the screen, wondering which one most resembled my own. And that was when I realized, with a blush of shame, that I had absolutely no idea. And I am 33 years old.

I mean, yes, yes … I've done the ol' crouching with a mirror fandango. I have a vague idea of what I look like. But the truth is — and I am more than a little embarrassed to admit this — but I'm a bit … shall we say … bashful about my own lady parts. And I consider myself to be a pretty open, sex-positive person.

Maybe even a bit more so than many other people I know. And yet, for most of life, I've treated my vagina like I would my credit score — I only look when I absolutely have to. As a result, I obviously don't even know myself well enough to pick myself out of a line-up. Men, on the other hand, could probably do a pen and ink drawing of their penises while blindfolded and clutching the pen in their teeth.

The only reason I'm not more embarrassed about being so vagina-shy, is because I have plenty of female friends who are the same way. And these aren't creationist child brides with 12-inch braids swinging down their backs. These are strong, independent, open-minded women, who suddenly go all Victorian when the topic of vaginal examination comes up.

We could be chatting about all sorts of things related to vaginas — vibrators, tampons, etc. But mention the girly garden itself, and out come the painted fans and smelling salts. (Granted, these women are straight, as my lesbian friends are obviously on much friendlier terms with the vagina.)

Despite Sex in the City, Toys in Babeland, and Eve Ensler's best efforts, well there is still a bizarre culture of secrecy, and — judging from the labiaplasty craze — shame, when it comes to the vagina. As I watched those nervous women on TV meet with doctors, it was so easy for me to tsk tsk their foolishness. And yet, I obviously had some vagina issues of my own.

Which is when I got to thinking, David and I had been wanting to take a trip to London. Why not pop over, see Big Ben, pose with a charming red phone booth or two, then hop a train to Brighton and participate in "Design a Vagina?" 

By the time our educational viewing ended for the evening, I was forming a plan. It was time to put my money where my vagina is.

The next day I get to work googling the artist. I find his webpage, and send a nervous email: "Do you still need models?" I am half-hoping he will respond with "Nope. I have all the vaginas I need, thanks." No such luck.

He writes back that afternoon, with a friendly note saying that he does indeed need a few more models. His tone is so mellow and affable. I was expecting something more formal, but he sounds like we are arranging a drop-off for an old futon.

Convincing my fiancé of my plan is astoundingly easy. I was prepared for a smallish argument over the idea of letting a stranger pour plaster into my vagina. And yet when I pose the plan to him, he barely flinches.

"You're sure you're okay with it?" I grill him. "Because I want to be absolutely sure you're comfortable with it." I am half-hoping he is terribly uncomfortable with it, of course.

"Well it's your body. If you're comfortable with it, then I guess I am." He shrugs.

Oh dear. How dreadfully supportive and diplomatic. He must really really want to see the London Eye.

And so we book our so-cheap-the-plane-must-be-powered-on-prayer-Ryan Air tickets, find a hotel, and we are all set.

As the time draws near, I run my grand plan by some girlfriends. The reactions range from laughter, to confusion, to mild disgust.

"Oh no no no, Jo! You don't want to do that! No, no, no." My friend Kristin shakes her head at me over video chat. "You don't want plaster down there! What's it even made of? Is it even safe?"

"Well the guy said it's made from the same stuff dentists use to make bite plates," I meekly reply.

"Ugh!" the pixilated Kristin appears to fight her gag reflex.

A couple of days before we head off, I book a full bikini wax, as McCartney said this would yield the best results. I hunt down Brazilia, a salon in Dublin that promises "luxury waxing." I make an appointment for "The Hollywood."

I arrive at Brazilia rather nervous. A few weeks ago I'd gotten an eyebrow wax at a different salon, and my eyes swelled shut like I'd caught a pint glass to the face. I'm concerned that I'm somehow allergic to Irish waxing methods, and I have a vision of arriving for my vagina sculpture with genitals like a blowfish. But Trish, my friendly Irish waxer, shoos away my concerns. "Nah, the wax was just too hot. You'll be grand."

I hoist my legs into the air, while Trish chats away. And because I am an American idiot, her accent somehow makes the procedure more homey. Like any minute she will pause to pull some soda bread from a nearby oven.

I casually steer the conversation towards labiaplasty, wondering if she is familiar?

"Ah sure. We have girls come in who've had it done. Young girls too. Like in their early twenties. It's too bad really…" she sighs.

I ask her if, in her many years of waxing, if she's ever seen a vagina that she thought needed to go under the knife.

"No, no, no! They're all different. But to be honest, in this job, after awhile you don't even see vagina anymore. All you see is hair."


Trish finishes up, and after she leaves, I shyly give myself a once-over in the mirror. My vagina now resembles a sad old man's wistful smile.      

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The morning we head to the airport I am feeling the usual nerves of travel: Do I have my passport?  Is my face wash in a baggie? As well as the not-so-usual nerves that come with having your genitals made into an art piece.

I lean over to David and confess my anxiety. And as is befitting a man who grew up in Northern Ireland in the '80s, he is rather unimpressed with my fear.

"What's there to be nervous about?" He scoffs. "He's just going to put goop on your undercarriage then take it off."

When morning comes, I open my eyes to the dim light of our hotel room, and my head feels achy. God, I think. I am so not in the mood to get my vagina molded today. I long to pull the sheets back over my head, but instead I force myself under the bathroom's single dribble of water that is masquerading as a shower. Shortly after, we are out the door, racing through face-freezing cold to Victoria station. Apparently some arctic blast of air has just swirled into town, which makes our jaunt to the beach resort of Brighton a splendid seasonal choice.

We find our train, and soon we are hurtling out of the city past frozen farmland and ice-laced trees. David and I sit and quietly entertaining ourselves with various scenarios of vagina sculpting mishaps.

"What if he shows me my sculpture and I scream in terror?" I suggest.

"What if he shows it to you, and you have a penis?"  David whispers back.

We arrive in Brighton a little before noon, and quickly summon a taxi. The grandfatherly driver whisks us past the pastel-hued tattoo parlors and tourist shops, and drops us off on the oceanfront. The place has a rather hippy, Venice-beachy vibe, save for the people sealed into down parkas.

We locate Brighton Bodyworks, and gaze into the window. A cheerful sign advertises "Body casting," and on a ledge beneath the sign sits a rather ghoulish row of sculpted baby fists.

Oh dear.

I turn to David, my eyes wide, but he pushes me inside. The gallery is small, and we are surrounded by neon-colored abstract paintings. We gaze around, and spy another sign with the words "Bodycasting Upstairs." We wind our way up a creaky spiral staircase, and are greeted at the top by the sight of McCartney busily encasing something in bubble wrap. I am relieved to see that he looks normal. His head is shaved, and he's wearing jeans and a stylish hoodie.

"Hi. I'm Jo?" I croak.
"Ah yes! You're here for the sculpting! Great!" He comes over to give my hand a friendly shake. 

"And this is my fiancé, David." I gesture.

"Ah, yeah, nice to meet you." He turns to David and gives him a smile. "So you're going to let her do this? You're crazy!" he laughs.

David and I exchange tight grins.

"No, no, just joking. Here, take a seat and fill out the waiver, and I'll be right with you."

"Would you like a cup of tea?" His sunny female assistant pipes in.

We decline, and I silently wonder if the English have yet to find an occasion where a cup of tea need not be offered.

Jamie gets back to bubblewrapping, and David and I sit on two white cushioned cubes on the floor. On the wall behind us hang full body casts of naked torsos, both male and female. A ginger cat is meowing around the room, trying to wind it's away around David's legs. And over in the corner there appears to be a table made of actual goat legs. I struggle to focus on the waiver in my hand. My eyes immediately dart to a paragraph absolving McCartney of any responsibility should I experience an adverse physical reaction to the molding material. I gulp. Then I spy the line that says "sexual arousal may occur."

"So! Any questions?" McCartney returns to us.

I mention the allergic reaction, and he reminds me that it's the same stuff that dentists use, and says he has yet to have anyone have a problem. However, he has to put that in the waiver for legal reasons. The same thing goes for the sexual arousal par.

"This will likely be the most un-erotic experience of your life. As you'll soon see…" He gestures cryptically into the adjacent room, and I spy wires and a white tent constructed from a tarp. It looks like he is caring for an ailing ET.

"…but because of the area I'll be working on, " he continues. "I have to put that sexual arousal line in there.  Really, the whole process only lasts about three minutes."

But um … I have to ask … does he ever get aroused? Not that I think the sight of my amazing vagina is going to drive him into a manic fit of ecstasy, but just out of curiosity, is it difficult, as a straight man, to stay professional?

He sighs, and rubs a hand over the shiny dome of his head. "I've done so many of these, it's really just a part of the body to me at this point. It could be a nose."   

Judging by the slightly weary look in his eyes, I believe him.

I then voice my last concern: anonymity. For I am cool with my vagina being one of 200, but I would be a bit uncomfortable with a flashing neon arrow singling out "Johanna's Bits." McCartney assures me there will be no such arrow, and points out that anonymity is important to the power of the piece. It isn't about whose is whose, after all.

And according to the waiver, mine might not even make the cut. There is no guarantee he will use my sculpture in the finished piece. Apparently, my vulva might not be riveting enough.


I take the pen and sign my vagina away.

Jamie sits down to chat, and after a few minutes I begin to relax. He isn't creepy at all. In fact, he is quite entertaining, and I begin to feel like I'm chatting with a fun new acquaintance at a house party. At a very oddly decorated house.

He tells us about the people he's sculpted so far. Young women, women post-pregnancy, a post-op transgender woman, a 65 year-old woman. He would like to break the 65-year-old barrier, but so far, he can't get anyone older to volunteer. He would also love to sculpt a woman who has undergone female circumcision, as he's really gunning to get as much variety as possible. He has already sculpted a woman pre-labiaplasty, and she's going to come in for another sculpture after the surgery.

"I asked her after the cast was made, I said, 'Are you sure you still want to go through with the surgery?' And she said, 'Oh yeah, definitely.'" McCartney shakes his head. He blames a lot of the cosmetic surgery craze on porn. "Women are more exposed to porn now. It's like in the '70s, when men would see porn and everyone had a twelve-inch penis, and they would think that's the norm. Now women see porn and are critical of themselves."

He hopes the piece will really emphasize how truly different women are, and that there should be no race for Fairest Vagina of Them All.

And because of the medium he's using — each vagina is sculpted in a pure, Precious Moments-esque white plaster — he thinks it will be comfortable for people to really stare at the sculpture as you would any other art piece. "It never would have worked with photos. It would have felt totally pornographic," he says.

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I ask about the torsos and vaginas strewn about the room, and he explains that the body sculpting work is sort of his bread and butter. Anyone can come into the studio and have a cast made. Of anything. It's how he funds his main art projects. In some cases he even casts things in latex. Although the latex casts are likely used for purposes other than mere display…

"God I had the worst day yesterday…" He sighs. "I had to make this horrible dildo. It was massive…"

"Was that your Facebook status?" David quips.

McCartney chuckles. Just out of curiosity, I ask him how much it would be to have a separate vagina sculpture made to take home with me. You know, since I'm a volunteer and all. He quotes me a heavily discounted rate and — never one to miss a deal — the choice seems obvious. We agree that he'll make two casts. One for him and one for me.

"Of course," he says, "it won't be ready today. But I can put it in the mail." 

I like this idea very much, as I will now be spared any potential awkwardness at Gatwick security.

And then the moment is upon us. David and I stand, and follow McCartney into the room with the dying ET tent. Sculptures are scattered around the room — there's a naked man and woman on the floor, and a voluptuous pair of breasts jut from a wall. We ease our way around the bodies, and my heart begins to do a little rumba as McCartney ushers us into the tent.

Inside there is a single heat lamp and a workman's table. Lining one wall are rows of metal shelves filled with various body parts: halves of faces, more baby fists, a smattering of vaginas. It is all very Frankenstein's workshop. David tries to bumble his way into a corner, and hits his head on a jutting penis.

"Oh yeah. I turned that one into a magnet." McCartney apologizes.

He tells us he'll give us a moment to "get ready" and then he leaves to go fetch the molding materials.

Now or never. I yank off my jeans, leaving on my socks and turtleneck sweater, and hop up onto the table. I look at David. He stands shivering in a corner of noses and labia, and I immediately get the giggles.

McCartney bursts back into the tent. He is carrying a couple of buckets, and he accidentally slops water all over the floor, causing David to bump into the heat lamp. Their Larry and Moe routine isn't doing much for my nerves, and my heartbeat switches to flamenco. McCartney gets to work mixing the materials, chatting away as he does so.  He explains that it's a two-part process. First he makes a cast out of the algaenate, the dental stuff. And then, using that as a mold, he makes the actual sculpture.

The algaenate mixture turns out to be a bright blue, and as he walks over to the foot of the table, I lie back, close my eyes, and I … assume the position.

I spread 'em.

And despite the strangeness of it all—despite the fact that a man in rubber gloves is applying cold blue goop to my vagina while my fiancé looks on, despite the fact that it is freezing cold, and outside the tent I can hear children playing on the boardwalk, and somewhere in the distance — a chainsaw … well my nerves seem to cease, and I suddenly feel strangely … comfortable.

I mean I'm not ready to kick back with some chamomile and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but I also don't really feel that scandalous. It really isn't much different than going to the gynecologist or getting a bikini wax. True, Jamie has no medical or cosmetology license, but he is an artiste. And there have certainly been people who were none of the above whom I have allowed to see me in all my glory. And while the cold goop isn't what I'd describe as pleasurable, it's a walk in the park when compared to hot wax or a speculum.

Once McCartney has the goop on, he has to give it a moment to set, so I just have to lie still. The tent falls quiet. Ho Hum. How about those Mets?

Suddenly, the ginger cat slinks her way into the tent. The cat eyes our activities warily, and then makes a hasty move to jump onto my stomach.

"NO NO NO!" We all cry at once, and David and McCartney both lunge for her. McCartney manages to grab her, and shoos her out of the room. Whew. Relief. I try to block out images of starring in one of those wacky AP headlines. Did you see the thing about the woman who got the live cat stuck to her vagina???

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"Okay, here we go." McCartney says. And I am shocked that it is over so quickly. It really did only take about three minutes. He begins to peel the cast away, and the sensation is akin to taking off a pair of bikini bottoms after swimming.

"There you go." He holds my Smurf blue vagina up for me to see.

Well! There I am! And I am for some reason rather surprised. What was I expecting? Fins? It just looks so, well…small. And it's more symmetrical than I'd imagined. It's beyond strange, but also incredibly cool to see it in this three-dimensional way. It feels like I am finally meeting a beloved pen pal that I've known intimately for years. And now at last, here we are, face to face…

McCartney puts the cast over on a counter to dry, and then — no rest for the weary — he immediately sets to work making the second one, which will be mine to keep. This one is made even faster, and without feline interruption. He places it on the counter next to the first.

"Alright, then. I'll let you get dressed. Take your time…" and he heads back inside.

I haul myself off the table, and am very happy so slip back into the warmth of my jeans. I pull on my sneakers, and join David by the counter. He is peering down at my twin blue vaginas lying side by side. I can only imagine what is running through his head. No doubt, he is wishing he had long ago settled down in the Irish countryside, with a shy Siobhan or a blushing Nuala.

He looks up at me, eyebrows raised. "You can't give me a hard time about anything for at least a month." He smiles.

We meet McCartney back in the studio, where he thanks us, and tells us to be sure to Facebook him. I ask him to keep us posted on the piece, and he assures me he will. He says would like to officially unveil the completed work this summer. His hope is to hang it in a public space, where more people will be able to see it.

On the train back to London, David sprawls across from me, quietly killing aliens on his iPod Touch. I am still feeling a slight adrenaline buzz, and am on high alert for any unusual, rash-like sensations that might be going on below. However, all appears to be well.

McCartney's parting words hang with me … about displaying "Design a Vagina" in a public space. I can already see a troupe of blazer-clad school kids passing through a library, pointing at my vagina and making lewd remarks. Well, that will likely happen. No way around it. Kids will be kids. And some adults will be kids, for that matter.

But it occurs to me, that those same people who laugh and point, well, they will also be seeing, perhaps for the first time, how unbelievably varied, and — let's face it — amazing the female body is.

They will be faced with the glaring reality that we don't in fact all look like the stars of Assmasters 4. And that will be a very good thing. If the sculpture keeps even one girl from going under the knife, well then my six minutes under the goop was beyond worth it.

So did my little venture cure me of being so vagina-shy? I ponder this, and decide that yeah, it kind of did. As bizarre as it was, the experience really was rather…well, empowering. For women who have never felt inhibited or shy about their bodies in the way that I have, I must sound a little strange and silly, if not flat-out stupid. But I kind of feel like for years I had my hands over my eyes, peeking between my fingers at myself.

And I have finally forced my hands away and opened my eyes wide. Now that I have, well, I almost feel like I owe my vagina an apology for being so rude for so many years. My body is amazing and beautiful. And so is the body of the woman sitting behind me. And the woman pushing the coffee trolley down the aisle. I am suddenly filled with a surge of love for womankind, and I want to stand and shout for every woman on the train to go and get their vagina molded at once!

But I do not. I decide to spare David at least that embarrassment.

Instead, I sit back and think, "What on earth am I going to do with my vagina when it arrives?" I try to picture it sitting on the mantle in the living room, next to our cell phone chargers and loose change.

"Maybe we could will the sculpture down like an heirloom?" I jokingly call across to David.

He stares at me with a look of absolute horror. "Are you mad?!? Can you imagine being given your great-grandmother's vagina? Gawd!!" he shudders.

I assure him I am only kidding. No, the sculpture will definitely be a private piece of art. Likely, I will wrap it up in a pretty scarf, and tuck it into the deepest recesses of my closet.

It will serve as a very unique memento of this place and time. A reminder of my body at age 33…of my wonderful fiancé's infinite patience…of the first time I was given a full introduction to a place that has always held such mystery… (My vagina, not Brighton.)

If I ever want to, I can take it down off the shelf, unwrap it from its little shroud, and give it a friendly pat.

"'Ello love!"

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Johanna Gohmann has written essays, articles, and reviews for Bust, Red, Elle, Publisher's Weekly,, and The Irish Independent. Her essay for Bust entitled "The Vagina Dialogues" was selected for The Best Sex Writing of 2010.