(ESSAY) Looking: Observations On My Vagina
In this essay, Tawnya Selene Renelle gets creative with lockdown isolation and makes a study of her vagina, with help from John Berger, Elizabeth Hall and a well-placed mirror. What follows is a candid reflection on the arts of self-observation, pornography and a form of seeing that comes before words.
‘Suppose I were to say I wanted to chart this pleasure, grab hold of its hemline, and follow it slack-jawed, not to better understand it, but to linger, a little longer, within it.’[i]
I have been thinking about my vagina lately, thinking about it a lot. Though I am not sure that this is the right way to start an essay.
Is this even an essay?
Like much of my thinking, this pondering on my vagina pussy cunt vagina is influenced by what I am reading and watching. In this particular instance my thinking is also shaped by what I am doing, namely engaging in some social distance sex, ie sexting.
All of this combined has left me with a genuine interest in my vagina. Enough so that I thought, perhaps foolishly, that you too might be interested in these thoughts or better yet, that you yourself might be having some thoughts of your own.
For close to a year I have been watching the price for I Have Devoted Myself To The Clitoris (2016) by Elizabeth Hall. Published in The United States, it is a difficult book to find in Scotland and so has sat in my Amazon Wish List waiting. When the price finally dropped, I ordered it with the utmost anticipation.
When it arrived in its non-descript brown package, I sat with the book on my couch, marvelling at the colour similarities.
I devoured it in an afternoon, in much the same way I have spent an afternoon devouring a vagina in times past.
How did I actually know so little about my clit?
This wonderfully bulbous top of my vagina that had given me (if all the orgasms were added together) what must be days if not months or even years’ worth of pleasure.
‘My research process was to be a wild romp, every day a delightfully dirty discovery.’[ii]
The first thing I did when I finished reading the book was to work it into a lesson plan for an experimental writing workshop I was hosting about the body.
The second thing I did was masturbate.
‘If there is any sort of epiphany, “convalescent euphoria,” that accompanies such pain, it does not stem from the ache itself, but rather, my release from it. What no drug, practice “mind over matter” technique can accomplish: I let my finger linger over and around my clit, and with the first flush, feel the happy little ants dancing in the tip top notch of my cunt, down my legs, onto my feet. No matter that the pain will return in mere minutes. To have felt such freedom, any release at all.’[iii]
The third thing I did was look. I pulled my full-length mirror from its perch in the entry way into my bedroom. I am not sure why I did not just look in the hallway; there is something shameful about looking. A shame I did not even know I had made me feel my bedroom was the only proper location for observation and investigation.
‘We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach—though not necessarily within arm’s reach.’[iv]
With the mirror returned to the hallway, my looking complete, I sat on the edge of my bed thinking about my vagina.
‘The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself, first and foremost, a sight.’[v]
I began thinking about the 70s and 80s and what I had seen portrayed in films, women on a mission of empowerment gathered together in living rooms. In each of their hands small mirrors: mirrors typically used, I assume, for the application of make-up and close investigation of body parts that weren’t “right” like eyebrows. Mirrors given to women for vanity.
‘Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in the early 1970s, was one of the first post-Freudian women’s health guides of its kind. It not only depicted the clitoris in great detail but also a woman looking at her own clitoris. The woman stands over a mirror. Legs spread, slightly bent, she looks.’[vi]
Their looking communal.
My own looking had been individual, though in part now communal through writing and telling you about it.
I also thought about a lover I once had who complimented my vagina. They told me it was the most beautiful vagina they had ever seen. I was struck then and still am by the idea that a vagina could be beautiful and then the alternative ugly. It is something I had not ever thought of. I had never assessed the aesthetic qualities of my vagina.
Was it something I now needed to worry about?
‘In interviews women seeking Labiaplasty most commonly cited a desire for a more aesthetic vulva—on that was “compact,” “flat,” “tucked in.” No one part out of place.’[vii]
I didn’t know that other women were clearly concerned about aesthetic qualities and perhaps looked at their vaginas and deemed them “ugly.” There is so little I actually know about vaginas in the world.
During the isolation, loneliness, and solitary world of lockdown I have mostly been returning to familiar favourites, old shows that bring me a sense of comfort. Shows that make me feel closer to my friends and family: The Office, Parks and Recreation, The Gilmore Girls, and Schitt’s Creek, all of which I have watched at least once in their entirety.
Then I saw a friend post on Instagram about a show called Adult Material on Channel 4. I saved it but did not investigate it further at first. I trusted the friend who had posted it, a friend who often posts about the rights of sex workers and sex positive material. So even though I had my suspicions about Channel 4 I thought it was likely to be decent. When I finally investigated and saw that it was both written and directed by a woman, I excitedly hit play.
I do not really want to write a synopsis here; I think to do so would diminish the story. So, the first thing I will say is if you are interested at all in pornography and its negative effects on society with a feminist handling of the topic then do check it out.
While watching the show I did not feel the same urge to look at my vagina that I had during my reading, but I thought about my vagina a lot.
Sentences I actually thought:
· My vagina and its relationship to pornography. Particularly the red hair of my vagina, unshaven, and how my vagina is rarely reflected in pornography.
· How my own proclivity, when watching pornography (which is a rarity), is for equally hairy vaginas.
· How I remembered a night with a one-night stand and how I had understood first-hand the ways pornography was negatively impacting men. The certain expectations and ways of engaging in sex that I knew in my gut came from his watching pornography.
· How I had watched pornography with a partner while having sex once and how I could barely look at the laptop screen.
· Lastly, how several times my vagina has been filmed, how my vagina has made pornography. About how I enjoyed it having been documented in this way, but sometimes I am nervous about the people who did the filming and where the footage might be.
‘Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.’[viii]
Which brings me here to the most intense of looking I have been doing, an almost unavoidable looking at my vagina. Like (I can only assume) many single people feeling the effects of lockdown and the lack of touch and physical connection, I have had to get creative. I am lucky in that I have someone I call my ‘pandemic boyfriend’ but because we live in different places, we only see each other once a month. I should say we see each other once a month if we are lucky.
Sexting is not new to me, I am adept at the art of describing sexual desire, kink, and pleasure. I have engaged in it with long-term partners and people who can only be described as strangers via Tinder.
What is different now is that I have really been thinking about my vagina, or thinking about it more than I have before. What is also different is I have now stood above a mirror closely looking at my vagina. Sexting with my “pandemic boyfriend” has changed what I am comfortable sending. As someone I have had sex with many times, as someone I was once in a relationship with, as someone I used to live with, I feel freer with my vagina in our communications.
‘When I gaze deep inside a pussy, that’s all I see: a pussy, That is enough.’[ix]
It means when he and I were sexting the other night I felt comfortable enough to send him the raw footage of close and intimate videos of my vagina. What struck me most was having to watch my own videos before I sent them. Watching them not to determine if my vagina was ‘hot’ enough to send, but just to look.
‘We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.’[x]
The technologic mirror.
The woman in a living room in 1976.
Sexting opened up a world of observation of myself.
After we had finished, I found myself really watching the videos again and again before I deleted them off my phone. Studying all the fine details of my vagina. When I did my initial looking, I had not thought to take a photograph. Something about a photograph as documentation felt counter to the observing I wanted to do. The in the moment looking I had craved after finishing I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris.
The videos of sexting allowed me to look further.
‘I never lost my sense of wonder. I am never bored by a body.’[xi]
‘I was not born knowing that my body was worth honoring. I had to stumble upon in slowly, stupidly. In a book.’[xii]
‘But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with our words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’[xiii]
The author recommends an upcoming workshop with Dr Emma Filtness and The Naked Stand Up, Glory Pearl: ‘See You Next Tuesday Society: Vulva Visual Poetry Workshop’. Register for tickets here.
Text: Tawnya Selene Renelle
Photo 2 by Tawnya Selene Renelle Published: 17/11/20
[i] I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall, page 1 [ii] I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall, page 3 [iii] I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall, pages 13-14 [iv] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, page 8 [v] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, page 51 [vi] I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall, page 3 [vii] I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall, page 54 [viii] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, page 9 [ix] I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall, page 15 [x] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, page 9 [xi] I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall, page 43 [xii] I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Elizabeth Hall, page 49 [xiii] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, page 7