After three years studying at art school I became well accustomed to seeing strange things. I had watched my fellow peers fashion six foot tall penises out of paper mache, attended an exhibition in which a group of students recited Shakespeare whilst simultaneously deep-throating bananas, and looked on in awe as my studio buddy covered his torso in ink and wielded his body around to paint a remarkably accurate self portrait. Seriously - he even managed to draw his own eyelashes using a nipple!
This was a place where if you pooped in a jar, covered it in glitter, and presented it to your tutor as a sculpture, you weren't laughed out of the room (something I considered when stressed during my degree show install). Art school felt like a bizarre microcosm, far from reality, verging on chaos, and full of contradictions. A place worth writing about.
So, when my friend, Nina, propositioned me one rainy Glasgow night, I agreed instantly.
“All you would need to do is get it waxed, then I’ll take the picture.” She said casually.
“Sure, why not?” I replied, having just downed a large G&T.
“Great and obviously I’ll pay for it all.” She said, gesturing to my crotch.
“Even better.” I mumbled, a piece of cucumber wedged in my mouth.
I suppose that’s partly why I did it. I guess in that space and time it seemed ordinary, rational, quotidian even. There was no hesitation, no “let me sleep on it”, or “I’ll get back to you”, it would just be another part of the story.
My task was simple. Nina was holding an exhibition, with the show centred around the theme of pubic hair. The work would consist of various photographs of people's vaginas, their pubes waxed into different symbols of her choosing.
When questioned on her motives for the topic she gave me three answers: capitalism, feminism and the fact that the only venue available to hire in her price range was named, The Old Hairdressers. “I couldn’t resist the pun!” She chuckled.
Thinking about it now I suppose I was the perfect candidate: A skint, pun loving, feminist, with a bush that hadn’t been trimmed since Britney’s, Hit Me, Baby, One More Time, was number one. This was an issue I understood - the expectation to shave, defluff, wax and tame had been apparent before I’d even hit puberty.
I still remember being taunted at school by a gang of Lynx coated lads, who due to my noticeably hairy arms, decided to nickname me Chewbacca (Chewy if they were in a good mood). Apart from both having famously short tempers, I felt this comparison was unjust, humiliating, and blatantly sexist.
Legs, armpits, genitals, face, and now arms too? That’s a whole lot of Veet, and an even larger amount of time. Valuable time that could be spent doing something enjoyable, like reading, writing, watching Killing Eve, googling Phoebe Waller Bridge, setting an image of her as your desktop screensaver, and then explaining to your boyfriend why it’s no longer a photo of you and him on your romantic getaway to Greece (because she’s way sexier and knows Olivia Coleman...soz).
But, more importantly, it assists in feeding the notion that as a woman you’re not good enough. It encourages patriarchal ideologies and reinforces the commodification of our bodies. We live under a system of globalised capitalism implicit in the dissemination of gender inequality, with our political establishment dedicated to keeping people divided. Not only by gender, but also sexuality, race, religion and class. The overbearing sexualisation of our bodies manifests itself in many ways...our nether regions just one of them.
So, like lots of women, the last thing I wanted to spend my cash on was vagina topiary - no, I had bigger fish to fry! Like, getting a degree, making sure I ate my five a day (when I found out spaghetti hoops counted, I nearly wet myself with joy), catching up on The Wire, and attempting to have more than one sexual encounter a year with somebody I met swiping right, I think I realised it was time to throw in my ‘tinder towel’ when I messaged a guy who's profile picture was an image of him playing the saxophone, with the one liner: ‘nice horn’.
“Balls to them all!” I said as Nina and I walked to the beauticians.
“Yeah, you’d probably get more pleasure out of a dildo anyway. Guaranteed orgasms or your money back!” She replied, comfortingly.
As we approached Nina explained that in an effort to increase the sense of dominance over our bodies, she wasn’t telling any of the participators what symbol their pubic hair would be donning.
I won’t go into detail but the best way I can describe it is like some kind of torturous yoga class. Lots of compromising positions, leading to a connection between mind and body, in that both for a split second think your vagina’s going to drop off.
“Holy shit! My vagina’s a capitalist!” I shouted as I looked down.
“Yeah, sorry about that,'' Nina gingerly peered around the curtain to take a look.
“Just think of it as a political statement on how our globalised culture is becoming increasingly homogenised.”
I looked up.
“Don’t try and pretend I’m Rosa Luxemburg, I look like the entrance to a JD!”
The symbol Nina had chosen was one instantly recognizable. Simple enough to create with wax, complicated enough in ideology. A Nike tick.
The week quickly passed by, and after a very professional photo shoot in our studio toilets (complete with a brown crayola for added shading), the night of the exhibition arrived.
Nina messaged to say everything was set up. ‘It’s ur big VAJEAL!!’ I read as I boarded the train to town.
Already having downed a bottle of wine, I decided to put my nerves aside and embrace the fact that my vagina was going public, besides it was a political statement...I was John AND Yoko!
As I strode off the train I felt a sudden sense of power and excitement. I reached the venue with the wild enthusiasm of a middle-aged man named Terry, who was about to live out his dream alter ego on Stars in Their Eyes. “Tonight Matthew I'm going to be...my own vagina!”
It was time for my labia to take the limelight, I flung open the door and looked up. There it was, right in the middle of the room, gloss finish, immaculate detail, framed beautifully.
I grabbed a wine from the table next to me and sauntered over to the print. As I stood observing the details of the image, I lingered on the strange sensation I felt as I looked at my own anatomy. The intricacy of such a body part, what it meant and why. How curious it was that this piece of flesh between my legs had played a leading role in my existence. It shaped my encounters, my behaviour, my opinions, my accomplishments, and my limits. But I was the leading lady, this was my production! It would not be commodified, criticised or controlled - this vagina belonged to me!
I gazed triumphantly at my newly reclaimed vulva, then cocked my head to the side and squinted, “I never knew that mole was there...'' I mumbled.
Ella Mottram graduated from Glasgow School of Art’s Sculpture and Environmental Art Department in 2018 and has been focusing on developing her writing practice since. Her work takes inspiration from personal experiences and events, aiming to explore social, political and cultural issues through a humorous lens.