Finding My Pussy Power

Pussy.

Even as a child I associated shame and negativity with the word. For most of my privileged life, I relegated those who used the word to the ignorant, and irrelevant. My liberal, feminist mother taught me to refer to my vagina as my Yoni (the Sanskrit word), and while I have used many other names for mine, pussy has never made the shortlist.

But then 2016 hit—like a nightmare—and suddenly my country was being led by not one, but dozens, of the type of men who regularly, and publicly, drop the word Pussy…both to talk about their gross sexual escapades, and to refer to any man who challenges the status quo, Uber-masculinity of the day.

Overnight, the word Pussy was everywhere.

News stations quoted our sitting President by dressing the word up in a tiny-weeny word bikini: P**sy...as if any of us were fooled. Emboldened by the Chief Pussy Grabber himself, politicians and commentators slipped the word into conversation like a salacious landmine. Eventually, Pussy became a unifying word for women protesting the grotesque sexism that prevailed. I too donned my Pussy Hat, mad as hell that my right to exist as an equal citizen, to control what happens to my own body, was back on the chopping block. And I taught my daughter that “while, yes, we are cute marching in our kitty hats, Pussy is a word that some men use to shame our bodies and tear other men down.” I cried that she should have to understand that at age six. I reclaimed Pussy as a power word, came to terms with it, owned it, wore it on my head...and, until recently, I thought I’d moved past any remaining discomfort around my own.

But then a friend, and master ceramicist, started a feminist art project in response to Trumpism. She and her co-creator called their endeavor Vagina China, and began with the belief that demystifying the vulva starts by looking at it. Well, not just looking at it, but inviting it to dinner. They founded The Women’s Art League to refer en masse to the hundreds of people who anonymously offered their vulva’s likeness to the project, an additional identity for each participant to adopt and claim some ownership of the bold statement.

When they invited me to participate in a “casting ceremony,” I was surprised by my initial hesitation. While I thought their endeavor was important and radical, it felt inappropriate for my turning-forty, mother-of-two, tired-ass Yoni. And then I saw some statistics about Labiaplasty (which is a word spell check doesn’t yet recognize), and how it’s become the fastest growing plastic surgery procedure in many western countries…mainly amongst eighteen to twenty-five year olds! Profiting off our internalized sexism, the most popular form of Labiaplasty in Southern California today is called “the Barbie,” allowing girls to appear totally lipless in their yoga pants. How many years before my own daughter amasses enough body shame to believe she needs her labia removed to be considered desirable? I was dumbfounded.

I thought of these young African activists working to end Female Genital Mutilation. How the root of that issue is also those in power controlling female identified bodies, anatomy and sexuality; how they’ve struggled for decades to alleviate the intense shame girls carry from it, whether they’ve been cut or not. And now Western women—tens of thousands per year— electing to lop off their labia, rejecting their natural bodies, attempting to imitate plastic dolls. What’s the difference if the chains that bind us are real or mental? How do we create a world in which girls honor their Yonis at all stages of growth? What message does it send my daughter if I don’t even have the courage to honor my vagina in a mass art project resisting today’s resurgence of overt political misogyny?

When I heard Pussy Riot had donated their song, “Straight Outta Vagina” to a new video about Vagina China, their revolutionary spirit infected me. So I put on my big girl panties (literally), invited some of my bravest friends, and celebrated my fortieth birthday by casting my vulva into the art abyss.

Here’s What I Learned:

1. Casting one’s hairy vulva (with medical grade plaster) is messy business. You’re gonna get your hands dirty and feel a little exposed. Given the statistics about how many of us are survivors of sexual abuse, it can also be a triggering activity. Talk to a professional beforehand and/or bring a support system if needed.

2. While our vulvas are as varied as our earlobes and elbows, there is still a standard that is impossible not to compare and judge by. That standard is based on young, prepartum, white, female vulvas, and hardly represents “women” as a whole. Keep this in mind when seeing your own vulva on a plate.

3. Much of First and Second Wave Feminism, as well as Feminist Art from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, was centered around the experience of white, Cisgender females, and that was a large part of our failure to achieve real gender equality. If we label all “women” as having vaginas, and all people with vaginas as being “women,” then we exclude the experience of all who don’t fit neatly into the dominant paradigms of gender, sexuality and identity...and that’s a lot of people. Similarly, if we normalize the bodies of Caucasian women above all others, our push for equality is bound to fail against the Goliath of Patriarchy. In the tidal wave of modern feminism, we’re gonna need to see all our pussies on the table.

4. The actual process of casting one’s own vulva involves some acrobatics and strong knees, which excludes those with physical disabilities, including the elderly (we talked about effective ways to remedy this).

“La Matadora,” Vagina China, 2017.
“La Matadora,” Vagina China, 2017.

But for all my critiques about how to make Vagina China more inclusive by today’s intersectional feminist standards (all of which the organizer’s took in gratefully), there was one profound moment during the ceremony that put everything into perspective:

As we went around the circle awkwardly introducing ourselves and why we chose to participate in Vagina China—most of which had to do with getting older and final shedding inherited shame around our vaginas—a young woman revealed that she suffers from a rare form of cancer that had recently been diagnosed fatal. She shared that she had four children and in the short time she had left, she wanted to do everything that scared her, to confront as many shadows as possible, and leave pieces of herself behind. I realized that there is something exquisite about knowing that your unique vulva didn't die unseen, but lives on in a political statement of self-love and “hell-no!” The bravery in her story was the greatest gift of the night, and there was not a dry eye in the room as we all contemplated our mortality, and the individual imprints we leave behind.

Vagina China just released the first of thirteen planned collections (based on famous China patterns in history), for RedLine’s 4th annual juried exhibition: “By Any Means Necessary.” Fittingly, they began with “Antiquities,” a throwback to ancient Greece, the birthplace of Democracy and sexual plurality. The collection is riveting and thought provoking, and right there on large serving platters are Yonis… imperfectly perfect pussies…one of ours…all of ours…taking their rightful place at the table, in the center of everything.

From the “Antiquities” collections. Vagina China, 2017.
From the “Antiquities” collections. Vagina China, 2017.
Large serving platter. “Antiquities” collection. Vagina China, 2017.
Large serving platter. “Antiquities” collection. Vagina China, 2017.

I finally saw how Vagina China sends the perfect “F*ck You” to Trump and his ilk. It says, “Our Pussies were here, refusing your narrative of shame and control; refusing to let you reduce our precious parts to ammunition and trophies; refusing to teach our children your version of our story.” With the limited time we all have left on this crumbling planet, we’re each going have to buckle down, have each other’s backs, and cultivate our own unique Pussy Power to wield.

Empowered,

Kiri Westby

Changemaker/Rulebreaker/Storyteller

www.kiriwestby.com

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