ALL VULVAS ARE unique, but in media—whether it’s porn or even a biology textbook—we’re often shown one image of the “perfect” vulva, which many also believe to be “normal.” As a result, a surprising number of people are undergoing a cosmetic surgical procedure called labiaplasty to reshape or reduce the size of their labia minora for aesthetic purposes. There has been a steady increase in demand for labiaplasty over the past decade—in 2019 alone, more than 150,000 people worldwide underwent the procedure.
Queer, nonbinary illustrator Hilde Atalanta was shocked when they first learned about this issue while studying clinical psychology in 2015. They then began to look up diverse images of vulvas online, but they couldn’t find realistic pictures—only those related to questions about how to “fix” vulvas. “I soon realized there wasn’t much imagery online that shows the diversity of vulvas,” the Amsterdam-based artist says. To provide a more accurate visual representation of vulvas for people to see and learn from, Atalanta created The Vulva Gallery (@the.vulva.gallery), an educational platform and online gallery that vividly highlights the diversity of vulvas through illustrated portraits and personal stories.
Since 2016, Atalanta has painted over 2,000 vulva portraits in all shapes, sizes, and colors to ignite important conversations around body positivity and send a clear message: all vulvas are beautiful. And in 2019, they self-published A Celebration of Vulva Diversity—a book with more than 650 colorful portraits of vulvas, personal stories, cool facts, and anatomical images—that can be used in schools and medical practices to improve sexual health education. The book can also be used by parents to start a conversation around a topic that is still considered taboo. “It’s very important to talk with kids about body diversity [and] about how we can all look different,” Atalanta says. “I hope we continue normalizing conversations about this topic.”
Ultimately, Atalanta hopes people feel represented and celebrated in their art. “Over the past five years, I've received several emails from people who canceled their [labiaplasty] surgeries who said, ‘Oh my God, I’m normal. I didn’t realize that,’” says Atalanta. “Their stories are very powerful and sometimes very painful to read—stories about pleasure but also about #MeToo. Learning more about these experiences from around the world has made me very aware of the lack of sexual health education that is inclusive and diverse. And it motivated me to continue with this project, to expand it, and to really fight for equal learning opportunities. I’m honored to be part of this project and to create and share those stories.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
Safire R. Sostre is a freelance journalist with experience in print and digital media. She writes reported profiles and covers news and culture, usually through the lenses of identity and wellness. Their main goal as a writer is to amplify the stories of marginalized voices.