A back room in a Laguna Beach art gallery will be lined on May 1 with stark, black-and-white pictures of vaginas and their stories — some disturbing, some funny but most celebratory.
The new exhibit, "101 Vaginas," is based on the book by photographer Philip Werner of Australia, who spent about two years creating the project, which will run for only one week in the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art, 611 S. Coast Hwy.
"People feel so uncomfortable with their own bodies, and in this case, with their vaginas," said Werner, who will attend the opening. After Laguna Beach, the exhibit goes to Canada and New York, among other places.
"Obviously not everybody feels this way," he said. "There are some people who are very happy with their bodies and feel very comfortable with themselves."
But many women do not.
A common thread throughout the short narratives, written anonymously by the women, was shame about how they look. Many women said it took them years to reconcile what they saw in popular culture or were told with what was real about their bodies. An ideal about what is beautiful — or even "normal" — has persisted.
"It's a big issue generally, the whole body image thing, of people not being happy with the bodies that they have," Werner said. "If you think about how we raise our children, it's 'cross your legs,' 'don't touch yourself,' 'cover up.' All this kind of stuff starts at a very young age, and they might seem like very innocuous comments, and they're well-intentioned, but the message is there's something not OK between the legs.
"It's like you're not supposed to touch it. You're not supposed to show it. It's got to be hidden away."
Despite feminist progress over the last 40 years, the stories in this book make it clear that women struggle with self-esteem.
Not only that, some women wanted to take scissors to their vaginas to make them look "normal," sitting for hours in front of a mirror trying to gain the courage to perform their own crude labiaplasty.
"My immediate gut reaction when I saw Philip's work was wow, we have to do this," said gallery director Christiana Lewis. "We have to do this because we have to save young women from hurting themselves. Look at the media, look at women's magazines, look at the sex industry. It's out of control."
Gallery owner Mike Roy said at first he was a little nervous about the exhibit, wondering if it was too strong. But after he reviewed everything, he quickly knew it supported the gallery's vision.
"As a contemporary art gallery in Laguna Beach, we are in a position to demonstrate something important," he said. "We need to push the envelope of what's acceptable. The human body is art. We need to be forward-looking enough to offer something like this. It's designed to honor women and womanhood. It's a message to empower women with their own sexuality and power … and honor their differences."
Werner took the photos in exactly the same position on each woman, exposing up to just below the belly button and down to the mid thighs. Some women wrote just one sentence, others several paragraphs.
In the end, they mostly told stories of enlightenment, resolution and happiness.
"A lot of women have moved from discomfort to comfort, from shame to joy," Werner said. "So many of these women have moved a great deal."
At least one city, Sydney, censored the photos, but Werner said Australians missed an educational opportunity, including the chance to teach young adults important life lessons. More information is available on his website, http://www.101vagina.com.
Werner said he often gets local educators to attend and support the exhibit. An offer has been made to the Laguna Beach School District, but he says he has not received a reply.
Werner is also donating a portion of the book proceeds to a charity that helps prevent sex trafficking.
"I would probably call the images neutral," said Werner, who is also creating a "101 Penis" and "101 Breasts" series. "They are not meant to arouse. They just are what they are. And because all the images are exactly the same, what you really see are the differences. What really comes out is the individuality of every woman in the images.
"The text really gives the book its depth. If it was just a gallery or exhibition of photos, you'd just be in and out in 10 minutes. But the stories really capture people and really speak to people and really move people. People are really touched when they come into the exhibition."
Lewis said she plans on putting the images in the back of the gallery, behind discreet curtains, and include a sign warning people of the content.
Perhaps it is wise to be politically correct, but one wonders if we have learned nothing from the feminist movement.
It's been all these years and we're still skittish over nudity in galleries — more than we are graphic violence on TV.
We still hide it in back rooms, self-censoring because someone might be offended.
Is this kind of puritanical instinct the root cause of the shame?
The fact is women still cut themselves to look like myths out of magazines.
How proud and perfect are we now?
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.