by Johanna Gohmann
Casting your undercarriage.
One cozy night at home, while enjoying a pizza dinner, I flipped on the television just in time to see a close-up shot of a woman’s labia being “trimmed” by a surgeon.
“Look!” I shrieked at my fiance, involuntarily crossing my legs. “How can they show that on regular TV?!”
David glanced up from his pepperoni, barely raising an eyebrow. “It’s educational,” he shrugged.
Yes, you could say that the Broadcasting Commission in Ireland is a bit more relaxed than our ol’ FCC in the United States. Since I moved to Dublin last August, I am constantly throwing a hand to my mouth A la Goody Proctor, shocked by what the Irish can get away with. Janet Jackson could not only flash her nipple here, she could shave it and cover it in creamed corn, so long as it was educational.
But back to the vagina trimming: The program was called “The Perfect Vagina,” and while it put me off my Hawaiian pizza, it was a fascinating look at the latest cosmetic surgery craze labiaplasty. No longer satisfied with merely having the boobs of a porn star, women now want the whole package. They are paying doctors to “sculpt” their vaginas into what they believe is a more aesthetically pleasing look. In the U.K. alone, the number of labiaplasties has doubled in the past five years, and never one to miss a trend the surgery is quickly gaining popularity in the U.S. Girls as young as fourteen are approaching doctors for consultations.
I was grateful when the program shifted to a more inspirational note: a segment on Jamie McCartney, a British artist working on a sculpture he calls “Design a Vagina.” Using only volunteers, he is making casts of 200 women’s vaginas and displaying them together in forty block panels. He wants to show people that where vaginas are concerned, “the variety of shapes is endlessly fascinating, empowering, and comforting.”
Indeed they were. As I stared at his sculpture work, I was astonished. I had no idea there was such a smorgasbord of vulva out there and I’ve seen my share of porn. Apparently the porn industry really does adhere to a strict labia code, because I’d never seen such variety. I squinted at the screen, wondering which one most closely resembled my own. And that was when I realized, with a blush of shame, that I had absolutely no idea. And I am thirty-three years old.
Sure, I’ve done the ol’ crouching with a mirror fandango. I have a vague idea of what I look like. But the truth i sand I am more than a little embarrassed to admit this I’m a bit…shall we say…bashful about my lady parts. I consider myself to be a pretty open, sex-positive person, and yet, for most of life, I’ve treated my vagina like I would my credit score I only look when I absolutely have to. As a result, I don’t even know myself well enough to pick myself out of a lineup. Men, on the other hand, could probably do a pen and ink drawing of their penises while blindfolded and clutching the pen in their teeth.
The only reason I’m not more embarrassed about being so vagina-shy is because I have plenty of female friends who are the same way. And these aren’t creationist child brides with twelve-inch braids swinging down their backs. These are strong, independent, open-minded women who suddenly go Victorian when the topic of vaginal examination comes up. We could be chatting about all sorts of things related to vaginas vibrators, tampons, you name it but mention the girly garden itself, and out come the painted fans and smelling salts. (Granted, these women are straight. My lesbian friends are on much friendlier terms with the vagina.)
I could sit and tsk tsk those women having surgery all I wanted. But I wasn’t exactly Eve Ensler when it came to vaginal confidence. Which is when I got to thinking… David and I had been wanting to take a trip to London… Why not pop over, see Big Ben, pose with a charming red phone booth or two, then hop a train to Brighton and participate in “Design a Vagina”?
The next day I Googled the artist. I found his web page and sent a nervous email. Did he still need models? I was half hoping he’d respond with, “Nope. I have all the vaginas I need, thanks.” No such luck. He wrote back that afternoon, with a friendly note saying that he did indeed need a few more models. His tone was so mellow and affable. I was expecting something more formal, but he sounded like we were arranging a drop-off for an old futon. We debated times and settled on the second weekend in January.
Convincing my fiancé was astoundingly easy. I was prepared for a smallish row over the idea of letting a stranger pour plaster into my vagina. David has a bit of a jealous streak, and has more than once gone into a huff over the length of my skirt. He also is a software engineer from Northern Ireland, and the nerd factor combined with old timey Irish-ness can at times be a bit A Beautiful Mind meets Cinderella Man. He is a Russell Crowe box set, basically.
And yet when I posed the plan to him, he barely flinched.
“You’re sure you’re O.K. with it?” I grilled him. “Because I want to be absolutely sure you’re comfortable with it.” I was half-hoping he’d be terribly uncomfortable with it, of course.
“Well it’s your body. If you’re comfortable with it, then I guess I am.” He shrugged.
Oh dear. How dreadfully supportive and diplomatic. He must really really have wanted to see the London Eye.
And so, we booked our so-cheap-the-plane-must-be-powered-on-prayer Ryan Air tickets, found a hotel, and were set. We would officially be kicking off the new year with “Design a Vagina.”
A couple of days before we left, I booked a full bikini wax, as the artist said this would yield the best results. I hunted down Brazilia, a salon in Dublin that promised “luxury waxing,” and made an appointment for “The Hollywood.”
The morning of my wax I decided to do a little pre-wax pruning. I flipped on the shower radio and, instead of the usual U2 tribute, some station was inexplicably playing “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. I stood naked with my scissors, thinking of what a fitting nod this was to my London adventure. Although I didn’t know if Poppins would approve.
I arrived at Brazilia rather nervous. A few weeks earlier I’d gotten an eyebrow wax at a different salon, and my eyes had swelled shut like I’d gotten a pint glass to the face. I was concerned that I was somehow allergic to Irish waxing methods, and envisioned arriving for my vagina sculpture with genitals like a blowfish. But Trish, my friendly Irish waxer, shooed away my concerns. “Nah, the wax was just too hot. You’ll be grand.”
With my legs hoisted into the air, she set to work with the precision of a sheep shearer. I casually steered the conversation toward labiaplasty. Was she by any chance familiar with the procedure?
“Ah sure. We have girls come in who’ve had it done. Young girls too. Like in their early twenties. It’s too bad really…” she sighed.
I asked if, in her many years of waxing, she’d ever seen a vagina that needed to go under the knife.
“No, no, no! They’re all different. But to be honest, in this job, after a while you don’t even see vaginas anymore. All you see is hair.”
Trish finished up, and after she left, I shyly gave myself a once-over in the mirror. My vagina now resembled a sad old man’s wistful smile.
The morning we headed to the airport, I was feeling the usual nerves of travel Do I have my passport? Is my face wash in a baggie? as well as the not-so-usual nerves that come with having your genitals made into an art piece. Once the wheels left the tarmac, my head was buzzing with paranoia. What are you doing? Your vagina on display? Are you insane? What if this guy is a totally gross pervert? Or what if your vagina has a reaction with the molding material, and you end up in an emergency room in England? My mind refused to conjure the image of David making that phone call to my mother.
I leaned over to David and confessed my anxiety. As befits a man who grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, he was unimpressed. “What’s there to be nervous about?” he scoffed. “He’s just going to put goop on your undercarriage, then take it off.”
We arrived in London without incident, although we were greeted by the sight of a man in customs with about sixty boxes of condoms in his open suitcase.
“Don’t know what he’s thinking. The Irish accent will only get you so far with the ladies in London,” David observed.
The English accent, however, had us in stitches. I hadn’t been to London since I was nineteen, and David had never been. Everyone sounded very Dick Van Dyke-ish to us, and we suppressed laughter every time someone called out, “‘ello love!”
We located our hotel and, after a night of fitful sleep, I turned to David. “What if he shows me my sculpture and I scream in terror?”
“What if he shows it to you, and you have a penis?” David whispered back.
We arrived in Brighton a little before noon and summoned a taxi. The grandfatherly driver whisked us past the pastel-hued tattoo parlors and tourist shops, then dropped us off on the oceanfront. The Brighton Pier loomed before us in a haze of ghostly fog, and I could barely make out the amusement park at the end. Opposite the pier was a string of little studios and art galleries, each located under a decorative archway. The place had a rather hippy, Venice Beach vibe, save for the people sealed into down parkas.
We located Brighton Bodyworks and gazed into the window. A cheerful sign advertised BODY CASTING, and on a ledge beneath the sign sat a rather ghoulish row of sculpted baby fists.
I turned to David, my eyes wide, but he pushed me inside. The gallery was small, and we were surrounded by neon-colored abstract paintings. We gazed around and spied another sign with the words, BODYCASTING UPSTAIRS. We walked up a creaky spiral staircase and were greeted at the top by the sight of Jamie McCartney busily encasing something in bubble wrap. His head was shaved, and he was wearing jeans and a stylish hoodie.
“Hi. I’m Jo?” I croaked.
“Ah yes! You’re here for the sculpting! Great!” He came over and gave me a friendly handshake.
“And this is my fiancé, David,” I gestured.
“Ah, yeah, nice to meet you.” He turned to David and gave him a smile. “So you’re going to let her do this? You’re crazy!” he laughed.
David and I exchanged tight grins.
“No, no, just joking. Here, take a seat and fill out the waiver, and I’ll be right with you.”
His sunny female assistant piped in, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
We declined, and I silently wondered if the English have yet to find an occasion where a cup of tea need not be offered.
Jamie got back to bubble wrapping, and David and I sat on two white cushioned cubes on the floor. On the wall behind us hung full body casts of naked torsos, both male and female. A ginger cat was meowing around the room, trying to wind its away around David’s legs. Over in the corner there appeared to be a table made of actual goat legs. I struggled to focus on the waiver in my hand. My eyes immediately darted to a paragraph absolving Jamie of any responsibility should I experience an adverse physical reaction to the molding material. I gulped. Then I spied the line that said, “Sexual arousal may occur.”
I stabbed the page with my finger and looked at David, fearful of a full-on Cinderella Man meltdown. Amazingly, he was the picture of calm.
Jamie returned. “So! Any questions?”
I mentioned the allergic reaction, and he explained that the molding material is the same stuff that dentists use to make casts. None of his models had experienced any problems, but he had to include that in the waiver for legal reasons. The same thing went for the sexual arousal part.
“This will likely be the most un-erotic experience of your life. As you’ll soon see…” He gestured cryptically into the adjacent room, and I spied wires and a white tent constructed from a tarp. It looked like he was caring for an ailing ET.
“But because of the area I’ll be working on,” he continued, “I have to put that sexual arousal line in there. Really, the whole process only lasts about three minutes.”
But um…I had to ask…did he ever get aroused? Not that I thought the sight of my vagina was going to drive him into a manic fit of ecstasy, but just out of curiosity…was it difficult, as a straight man, to stay professional?
He sighed and rubbed a hand over the shiny dome of his head. “I’ve done so many of these, it’s really just a part of the body to me at this point. It could be a nose.”
Judging by the slightly weary look in his eyes, I believed him.
I then voiced my last concern anonymity. I was cool with my vagina being one of 200, but would be a little uncomfortable with a flashing neon arrow singling out “Johanna’s Bits.” Jamie assured me there would be no such arrow, and pointed out that anonymity was important to the power of the piece. It wasn’t about whose was whose, after all.
And according to the waiver, mine might not even make the cut. There was no guarantee he would use my sculpture in the finished piece. Apparently, my vulva might not be riveting enough.
I took the pen and signed my vagina away.
Jamie sat down to chat, and after a few minutes I began to relax. He wasn’t creepy at all. In fact, he was quite entertaining, and I began to feel like I was chatting with a fun new acquaintance at a house party at a very oddly decorated house.
He told us about some of the people he’d sculpted so far: young women, post-pregnancy women, a post-op male to female transsexual, a sixty-five-year-old woman. He wanted to break the sixty-five-year-old barrier, but so far, he hadn’t convinced anyone older to volunteer. He also was hoping to sculpt a woman who had undergone female circumcision, as he was really gunning to get as much variety as possible. He had already sculpted a woman pre-labiaplasty, and she was going to return for another sculpture after the surgery.
“I asked her after the cast was made, ‘Are you sure you still want to go through with the surgery?’ And she said, ‘Oh yeah, definitely.’” Jamie shook his head. He blamed a lot of the cosmetic surgery craze on porn. “Women are more exposed to porn now. It’s like in the ’70s, when men would see porn and everyone had a twelve-inch penis, and they would think that’s the norm. Now women see porn, and are critical of themselves.”
Out of curiosity, I asked him how much it would cost to have a separate sculpture made to take home with me. You know, since I was a volunteer and all. He quoted me a heavily discounted rate: Fifty pounds. We agreed that he’d make two casts. One for him and one for me.
“Of course,” he said, “it won’t be ready today. But I can put it in the mail.”
I liked this idea very much, as I would be spared any potential awkwardness at Gatwick security.
And then the moment was upon us. David and I stood and followed Jamie into the room with the dying ET tent. We were now actually outside, standing on a huge veranda overlooking the ocean. It was brisk, to say the least. Sculptures were scattered around the room there were a naked man and woman on the floor, and a voluptuous pair of breasts jutted from a wall. We eased our way around the bodies, and my heart began to rumba. Jamie ushered us into the tent. Inside was a single heat lamp and a workman’s table. Lining one wall were rows of metal shelves filled with various body parts: halves of faces, more baby fists, a smattering of vaginas. It was all very Frankenstein’s workshop. David tried to bumble his way into a corner and hit his head on a jutting penis.
“Oh yeah. I turned that one into a magnet,” Jamie apologized.
He said he’d give us a moment to “get ready” and then left to fetch the molding materials.
Now or never. I yanked off my jeans, leaving on my socks and turtleneck sweater, and hopped up onto the table. I looked at David. He stood shivering in a corner of noses and labia, and I immediately got the giggles. I seemed to be experiencing a sort of pre-piercing/pre-tattoo adrenaline rush. Not that I had ever gotten either.
Jamie burst back into the tent. He was carrying a couple of buckets, and he accidentally slopped water all over the floor, causing David to bump into the heat lamp. Their Larry and Moe routine wasn’t doing much for my nerves, and my heartbeat switched to flamenco. Jamie got to work mixing the materials, chatting away. He explained that it was a two-part process. First he’d make a cast out of the algaenatethe dental stuff. And then, using that as a mold, he’d make the actual sculpture.
The algaenate mixture turned out to be bright blue, and as he walked over to the foot of the table, I lay back, closed my eyes, and assumed the position: I spread ‘em.
And despite the strangeness of it all despite the fact that a man in rubber gloves was applying cold blue goop to my vagina while my fiancé looked on, despite the fact that it was freezing cold, and outside the tent I could hear children playing on the boardwalk, and somewhere in the distance, there was a chain saw my case of nerves seemed to ease, and I suddenly felt strangely…comfortable. I mean, I wasn’t ready to kick back with some chamomile and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but I also didn’t feel that scandalous. It really wasn’t much different from going to the gynecologist or getting a bikini wax. True, Jamie had no medical or cosmetology license, but he was an artiste. And there had certainly been people who were none of the above whom I had allowed to see my glory. And while the cold goop wasn’t what I’d describe as pleasurable, it was a walk in the park when compared to hot wax or a speculum.
Once Jamie slathered the goop on, he had to let it set, so I had to lie still. The tent fell quiet. Ho Hum. How about those Mets?
Suddenly, the ginger cat slinked into the tent. She eyed our activities warily, then made a hasty move to jump onto my stomach.
“NO NO NO!” we all cried at once, and David and Jamie both lunged for her. Jamie managed to grab her and shooed her out of the room. Whew. Relief. I tried to block out images of starring in one of those wacky AP headlines. Did you see the one about the woman who got a live cat stuck to her vagina?
“O.K., here we go,” Jamie said. And I was shocked that it was over so quickly. It really did only take about three minutes. He began to peel the cast away. The sensation was akin to taking off a pair of bikini bottoms after a belly flop.
“There you go.” He held my Smurf-blue vagina up for me to see.
Well! There I was. I was for some reason rather surprised. What was I expecting? Fins? It just looked so, well…small. And it was more symmetrical than I’d imagined. It was beyond strange, but also incredibly cool to see it in this three-dimensional way. It felt like I was finally meeting a beloved pen pal that I’d known intimately for years. And now at last, here we were, face to face.
Jamie put the cast on a counter to dry, and immediately set to work making the second one, which would be mine to keep. This one was made even faster, and without feline interruption. He placed it on the counter next to the first.
“All right, then. I’ll let you get dressed. Take your time.” He headed back inside.
I hauled myself off the table and was very happy to slip back into the warmth of my jeans. I pulled on my sneakers and joined David by the counter. He was peering down at my twin blue vaginas lying side by side. I could only imagine what was running through his head. No doubt, he was wishing he had long ago settled down in the Irish countryside, with a shy Siobhan or a blushing Nuala.
He looked up at me, eyebrows raised. “You can’t give me a hard time about anything for at least a month.” He smiled.
On the train back to London, David sprawled across from me, quietly killing aliens on his iPod Touch. I was still feeling a slight adrenaline rush, and my brain was buzzing as I tried to process what had just happened. Was it worth it? Yes. Absolutely yes. If that sculpture kept even one woman from going under the knife, then my six minutes under the goop was beyond worth it. I was suddenly overcome with gratitude. By God, I owed my vagina an apology. My body was amazing and beautiful. And so was the body of the woman sitting behind me. And the woman pushing the coffee trolley down the aisle. I wanted to stand and shout for every woman on the train to go and get their vaginas molded at once!
I turned to David. “Maybe we could will my sculpture down like an heirloom?”
He stared at me in horror. “Are you mad? Can you imagine being given your great-grandmother’s vagina?” he shuddered.
I assured him I was only kidding. No, the sculpture would be a private art piece. I’d wrap it up in a pretty scarf and tuck it into the deepest recesses of my closet. It would serve as a unique memento of that place and time. A reminder of my body at age thirty-three, of my wonderful fiancé’s infinite patience, of the time I was given a full introduction to a place that had always held such mystery.
If I ever wanted to, I could take it down off the shelf, unwrap it from its little shroud, and give it a friendly pat.
Johanna Gohmann has written essays and reviews for Bust, Elle, Red, The Irish Independent, Babble.com, Publisher’s Weekly, and others. A native of Indiana, she lived for nine years in New York City, and currently resides in Dublin, Ireland. You can learn more at www.JohannaGohmann.com. Gohmann won the Women’s Travel Bronze for “Design a Vagina” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.