Onze Portretten (“Our Portraits”) is a project by writer/photographer Romy van der Burgh@romyvanderburgh and director/producer Floortje van der Plas @floortjevdplas which contains ten photographs of plaster vulva sculptures.
The plaster print shows the unique shape and personal characteristics of the vulva and is presented to you by the owner. The accompanying stories speak about the relationship between the vulva and the owner and how this relationship has been and still is influenced. They are stories of honesty and pride. Stories that show the battle between ownership, freedom, shame and pleasure.
“I recently visited a fantasy festival with my boyfriend. One of the rituals that day was a big bonfire, made of a collection of objects that visitors had brought that would be set on fire. We had to put a note in every item with a wish. My item was a Matryoshka doll. There was a note in the doll with the wish that my pain would disappear. Sometimes there were two, but often I stayed home from work for three days. Those days I was sweating on the couch, the stomach cramps were often unbearable. I was told “you have a heavy menstrual period and you just have to deal with it”. The next years I tumbled from one research into another. I always knew that I had no desire to have children and so, at the age of 35 I decided to have myself sterilized. This did not go smoothly. Doctors like to leave the possibility for you to change your mind, although I had always been certain of the fact that I didn’t want children. Even after the sterilization, the pain wasn’t gone. One day I came in for an ultrasound, they thought I had an appendicitis inflammation, this is when adenomyosis (the internal form of endometriosis, the womb lining on the wall of the womb) was discovered by accident.
September 26 (last) is the operation, then my uterus is removed. I can hardly suppress a smile when I think about that day, I can’t wait, away with that thing. I feel nothing else than “that thing” which hurts, I am not attached to my uterus. It has nothing to do with femininity for me. When the doll at the festival caught fire and I felt relief. Having my uterus removed will free me from the pain and blood loss that I have carried with me for so long. Matryoshka was my farewell.”
note: the uterus had not been removed during the plaster print.
“I was fourteen when the Second World War came to an end, a strange time to grow up in. During the war I was malnourished and spent much time on farms where I was sent to recuperate. I had my first period when I was eighteen. The first time we talked about sex was during my wedding night. Before we had always slept separately. Until then sex didn’t play a part in my life. During our wedding night we just played around because we had no idea what to do. My husband broke his wrist just before our wedding night, so we actually just had a lot of fun. At the age of fifty I had my breasts removed and implanted with silicones. Later, doctors removed my uterus, and decided to also remove my appendix and ovaries. I remember waking up after surgery and feeling very empty. I never felt less like a woman, even though I didn’t carry a uterus anymore. I think my husband played a big role in that. It didn’t matter to him, he appreciated a good conversation and a spiritual connection, much more than the physical aspects. After my husband died – I was in my early seventies – I had a new relationship for a while. Only then did I realise that having a relationship that is merely physical feels very empty. It didn’t last long. For me pleasure in sex is heavily connected to a spiritual connection. A deeper connection that binds the physical.”
“I prefer not to look at my vagina. Not because it’s ugly, but because my vagina doesn’t fit me. It doesn’t comply to how I feel. I don’t see myself as a man or a woman, both identities feel uncomfortable to me. In appearance, I prefer to act like a man, but when I think of the stereotypical qualities that go with “man,” I think of “aggression,” and I’d rather not identify with that. My gender does not exist in this world. There is no category for me. What my preffered pronoun is? I find that difficult, certainly in Dutch, but in english it is “they” or “them”, that seems to fit, no man and no woman. When strangers address me as man, they respond to me in a different way, for example, they give me a ‘box’ (fist pump). As a woman I am treated very differently, people are more careful with me, I find that, again, very uncomfortable. Since about four months I have found a way of accepting my own gender. That is also because I have people around me who recognize and support me in this, we can talk about it. I talk a lot about it with my mother, my father doesn’t know. Although I don’t discuss it with my father, I think he feels it. He doesn’t call me by my “girl’s name,” he always calls me “Robbie.” I know that I have physical elements that belong to ‘being a woman’, such as my breasts, or that I am more emotional before my period, but I don’t feel anything more about being a physical woman, I might have preferred a male body but I would not want an operation for it. I like my own way of defining gender. Tonight I have a date, my Tinder- bio already says that I am gender queer, so when I meet her tonight I don’t need to focus on that, it’s just there. Only when I go to the bathroom is there that question again; do I go to the ladies or the men’s room?”
“Fucking, I’d really like to do that once. I would even dare to say that it is one of my greatest wishes, to experience penetration. The idea seems so intimate to me, I think it would add something to my relationship. But unfortunately I can’t fuck. Nothing enters my vagina. No penis, no finger, no tampon. I can remember a tampon advertisement from the time I first had my period, it was said that inserting a tampon was just like using lipstick, first it is a bit tricky and painful but then you do it without thinking about it. I have never experienced that. It was terribly painful the first time and it has always remained that way. What I ‘have’ is called Vaginism, where the pelvic floor muscles around the vagina contract so violently that sex is very painful or impossible. Sex is impossible for me, it hurts too much and pain is not erotic. We solve it differently, we can do many other things besides penetration to express our love. I really like that I am sexual, that I can flirt, for example, that also gives me a sense of satisfaction. All tips are of course welcome but by now I have already tried a lot, from breathing exercises and tantra massages to pelvic examinations, various gynaecologists, sexologist and I also went to a psychiatrist in the heat of battle. Recently, I had an ultrasound made to see that the large muscles in my vagina work well but the smaller ones work less, there is a constant tension here. This information has given me an enormous amount of peace which comes from the feeling that it is not within my power there is cause. But even though my mind is more peaceful, every time my body get’s excited it still thinks ‘but this time the penetration will work!’”
“This time I want to give birth at home. Experience the whole thing of giving birth to a child through the birth canal. This time it is going my way. I will find my own position to give birth to, with my family at home, I feel empowered in my own environment. I have already set everything in motion, I have found fantastic midwives who want to guide me and I have found a great doctor who will give birth to the baby if it comes to that, at the hospital. That was important for me, even if it is not at home, to end up with someone who shares my vision. My son was born seven years ago with a Caesarean section. I feel very sad about that. As if something has been taken from me. I have long grieved this experience. I had to give the birth and that made me angry because I trusted my body and nobody else did this. My body was not seen on its own but as a statistic, and according to the figures I did not fall within the time norm. During my last pregnancy I felt my son close to me but I didn’t know my own body well enough. This time I decided to take a different approach and started reading about birth and with that I also learned to feel better. I knew my body in daily practice, I know my body when I have my period, I know my body when I have sex, but I did not feel my cervix or my placenta. During this pregnancy I feel everything that the baby is turning, in which part of the womb the baby is lying and even feel where the placenta is. I am also preparing my vagina for birth, I ask my husband to massage her, look at it and sex also feels different because the vagina is more sensitive. The vagina also looks different when you are pregnant, it swells like a kind of ripe fruit. I love the pregnant vagina. I am preparing her for what is to come, we have come closer together through this pregnancy.”
“About a year and a half ago I saw the television show “Ugly Ducklings” on a Dutch commercial channel. In this show, people who are dissatisfied with their appearance take the step towards plastic surgery. Watching this program finally pushed me to do something about my labia, of which I had always felt ashamed of. I decided to get my labia reduced. Before the surgery, I thought about my labia every day. They were visible in my bikini (I would stuff them back in), I felt them when I was riding my bike and I didn’t feel comfortable when someone would go down on me. Nobody had said anything bad about it, the judgment came from within and from the comparison with other women. Why didn’t I have my labia reduced earlier? That’s how I look back on it. In a private clinic I could get rid of my problem for around 2300 euros, in just 45 minutes. It was of course not reimbursed by my health insurance, but for me it was worth it. The woman who helped me said: “You’ve got a lot of volume, we can do something about that”. They were very nice. My friends said “accept yourself the way you are, because that’s who you are”. For me, it’s different. Of course I can accept it, but I would rather do something about it. When I look in the mirror now, I see only myself, with a little more self confidence and a little less ‘volume’.”
“The first time I saw my vagina, I was practicing with a girlfriend to insert little tampons into our vaginas. It was before we ever had our period but we squatted above the mirror to see how it all worked. The moment it felt nice or exciting I would quit, it felt uncomfortable. Now I think it was an orgasm. I used to think it was crazy to masturbate with a pillow, until l I discovered that a lot of women cum like that, Pillow humping is the name of the category on porn websites. I used to do that too, for example, if you were standing by the teacher’s desk and you leaned against the edge of the table just a little too long, because it felt nice. When I masturbate I will try to cum twice, the first time always feels slightly different than the second, the second time seems to feel deeper. I have found the ultimate spot with my vibrator, just slightly to the right of my clitoris, it works perfectly. The first time I came during sex felt like a huge relief, I cried afterwards, it was such an intimate moment with my boyfriend that it aroused a lot of emotion after cumming. I faked my orgasms a lot after that relationship. I pretend that my vagina is contracting and they always buy it. Nowadays when I have the tendency to fake it, for example if I think it will take too long before I cum, I resend it and try to communicate better. If I have to describe the feeling of an orgasm, I think of skiing down the mountain, going down harder and faster, and then the ramp comes up and you are launched. The moment after launching is floating, I think that’s the high point, the orgasm before you touch the ground again.”
“In Sri Lanka the first time you get your period you become “Big Girl”. My father is from Sri Lanka and he wanted to pass this tradition along to me. A calculation is made based on a combination of where you are at the time of your first period and the exact position of the stars. The calculation determines the exact number of hours you have to stay indoors, during this time you are not allowed to see men. In my case, it was just over four days that I was not allowed to go to school – this was annoying because it was my first year of high school – and was not allowed to see men. Those days I was in my room and only my mother and sister were allowed to visit me. My mother had to wash me with certain herbs and then I had to call my family with the news of my first period and invite them to my Big Girl Party. A sari was sent from Sri Lanka with an Express package, containing a dress that I had to wear at my party. This Sri Lankan tradition coincided with a Dutch, the Sinterklaas party. December 5th was still within my “you can’t see men” days so we celebrated the party with a curtain as a dividing line. On one side of it I sat in the kitchen with my mother and sister and on the other side of the curtain my father and brother were in the living room. I was the eldest and had to participate in this tradition, although I think the idea of an “ode to the woman” is very beautiful, it felt obligatory, having to participate in a tradition. My sister was given a lot more choice if she wanted to celebrate this, that freedom wasn’t there during my first period.”
“I am the eldest, mother and great-grandmother. For me, aging is a parallel of life. The aging of your body is an acceptance of change. It changes slowly. Nowadays beauty is seen as a strive for perfection while I think beauty is a body that has lived. When you get older you do not lose the urge to have sex, the urge diminishes slightly, but this is something you always long for. The conversation with a youth generation gives me a sense of solidarity, when we talk the”generation gaps” seems to vanish completely.
I am the middle one, mother and daughter. My mother never talked to me about sex. I also never discussed this with my daughter any way, and I actually think that’s a shame. I am catching up with the dialogue now, I have come to appreciate my body more than before and I am talking about sex more with my girlfriends then when I grew up. It feels like catching up because I missed sharing it in the past. It is something that the generations connected to each other, just like my role as the middle one.
I am the youngest, the daughter and the granddaughter. For me, things like contraception are a common topic on the diner table with friends. We often talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the pill, copper- or hormone spiral or whether or not to use condoms. I did not know that my grandmother never used contraception, my mother had condoms and I then had a hormone spiral. It is special to see how these things have remained the same and yet have changed enormously.”