Atrophy portraits – a conversation with Hilde Atalanta about relationships between women and their vulva

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Text, interview and production by Michelle Zerkler
Photo by Gildo Cassimo

Probably only a gynecologist gets to see more vulvas than Hilde. Scrolling through “The Vulva Gallery”, you’ll see shapes and colors you could not even find in books as a curious young teen. Until now – Hilde Atalanta provides major awareness when it comes to gender diversity and inclusion. By sharing stories of “vulva-owning individuals” (as they prefer to say), their trauma, joy, as well as educational facts, “The Vulva Gallery” and their “You’re Welcome Club” became a digital home for growing empathy and solidarity. 

Hilde, you receive a lot of messages that you also share on your account. What are they mostly about?

A common theme is the insecurities that young individuals develop because of peers or insensitive lovers, talking about „ugly“ and „weird“ bodies, compared to the body types they see in mainstream porn. Many individuals start believing that there is just one admirable body type, like the „cute, tight, tiny vulvas“ which are primarily shown in sex movies. 

Even if you see vulvas with long inner labia, they are often portrayed as something „dirty“, or something older women have, or girls who had lots of sex – or it’s being fetishized. Whereas, long inner labia have nothing to do with age or sexual activity at all, as it’s all genetics. This deceptive image of body types can result in deep rooted insecurities and a negative genital self-image. 

What shocked you most up till now?

There were two things that really struck surprised me. The first one is that during the past years, several individuals wrote me that they experienced having a gynecologist or doctor commenting on the shape and size of their labia during a physical examination. This shocked me, as I expected that sexual health professionals would be more understanding and respectful. Having seen many vulvas, knowing about diversity in vulvar anatomy and also understanding the vulnerable position their patients were in at such a moment – this points out how much we need good sexual health education, also aimed at teaching about body diversity to develop empathy. 

What is putting women in this vulnerable position?

In many countries, the quality of sexual health education is poor. Genital anatomy is something that kids don’t learn about, and even in textbooks there is little to no room for showing and explaining about diversity. Many young individuals don’t even know that half of all vulvas have inner labia that are longer than the outer labia. From a young age on, women learn to hide their genitals. It’s something you don’t speak about, because we learn that it’s shameful. Nudity is immediately sexualized, instead of being normalized. When you enter puberty, and your body starts to change, it might be so helpful to talk about these changes and insecurities and feel the solidarity of family members or people you can trust.

The doors of many homes might be closed to conversations about sex and diversity, but the internets’ doors are open 24/7. To what extent does the internet influence us?

What we see online or in magazines is not representative of the natural diversity of vulvas. Still it has a big influence on all of us, especially young people who see them. 

In the stories that are shared with me, I learned that for many girls this often led to not wanting to be naked in front of anyone else and the wish for surgery in order to just “be normal”. It seems appealing, offering a quick fix to their problem. Therefore I believe diversity should be a very important part of sexual health education. There is a very broad range of what normal looks like and they should be encouraged to understand and embrace this diversity from a young age instead of rejecting or fetishizing specific body types.

If you find it difficult to love your vulva, you can start by acknowledging its existence and value what it does for you – like giving you pleasure.

Hilde Atalanta

What role do men play in this movement?

I think men should play an important role in this as well. In my gallery, the stories that are shared are mostly portraits by individuals with a vulva. Sometimes with a story by a trans man, but I certainly think that the support of people without a vulva is important as well. It doesn’t matter what gender identity, the movement should be aimed at everyone. This way, by including everyone, an actual conversation and mutual understanding can grow.

Can you give personal advice you’d tell young people who struggle with insecurities?

Knowing and understanding your own body is the first step to start appreciating it more. Unlearn the myths we’ve been told. If you find it difficult to love your vulva, you can start by acknowledging its existence and value what it does for you – like giving you pleasure. If you feel insecure about the appearance of your vulva, you can follow lots of body diversity accounts and projects as well as reading personal stories portrayed in „The Vulva Gallery“. See that you are not alone. 

You can also learn about your own anatomy. What are the parts of your vulva? How do they function? Many don’t even know that the clitoris is a whole organ, much bigger than just the tip that sticks out of the clitoral hood. If criticizing your vulva happens often, notice when self-criticism comes up and take a mental step aside from those negative words and ask yourself: would I talk to a friend this way? Try to find a positive word that describes your vulva, like “soft” or “round” or “quirky” or any other word you like. 

Since the beginning of this year, parents of intersex children are no longer allowed to have gender reassignment surgery performed on their offspring when it’s not necessary health wise. Do you generally feel like there has been a greater awareness around diversity in our society compared to when you started “The Vulva Gallery”? 

When I started “The Vulva Gallery” in 2016, there were nearly no diversity projects going on besides the “Great Wall of Vagina“ by Jamie McCartney. Much has changed since then! A new wave of feminism started. The #metoo movement and body positivity movement changed the way we think about our bodies and how other people relate to it. Awareness about topics like consent, sexual health, gender identity, self-determination and expansion of our vocabulary like using the word “vulva” instant of “vagina”, have brought big changes in our communities. Diversity has gotten a key role and thanks to activists who dared to speak up, organizations are now slowly starting to adapt and change their policies. I’m happy to see that our actions are reaching organization and the politics as well, resulting in more protection of intersex children. 

Let’s talk about the “You’re Welcome Club” which is about community and solidarity. Where do you think solidarity is needed most in our society when it comes to gender or body diversity? 

I think it is needed everywhere. Of course marginalized groups are the first that comes up in regards to needing protection, support and representation. Over the years, the mainstream media have been portraying a certain image of “ideal“ or “perfect“. Seeing oneself represented in popular media can give an individual the reassurance that they are normal, that they belong, that they are part of our society. 

“You’re Welcome Club” is an illustrated project in which I’m celebrating diversity by showing individuals with different kinds of backgrounds, sexualities, gender identities and body shapes. I’m aiming to make a series of illustrations in which people recognize themselves. I’m putting emphasis on individuals that aren’t often portrayed. I want people to feel welcome, included, and to know that they belong in our society just like you and me. 

This article is part of the GASH theme series „Values on the rise: Empathy and solidarity as the basis of unity“.