Venturing into the world of vulva art on Etsy can feel a little frightening at first. I confess I felt myself slipping precariously into cynicism as I scrolled through page after page of pastel coloured genitalia, with their spattered cartoon flowers and fruit, and appended corny puns. Sit with this discomfort, though, and one realises it is not the fun posters which are the problem.
Vulva art is presenting an alternate perspective to the objectifying frameworks of pornography which have wormed their way into the collective subconscious. They may be cheesy at times — a pattern of vulvas embedded in pink strawberries might give such an impression — but there is something hopeful in the fact that female genitals don’t always have to be aggressively oversexualised, and can exist resolutely and proudly within a funky wall hanging. ‘Vive la Vulve’ indeed.
Interestingly, there are some examples of vulvas being painted in prehistoric art, such as The Wall of One Thousand Vulvas in Queensland, Australia. Unfortunately this is not the narrative most of us are familiar with, as the pornography industry has been aimed towards cishet men for years and continues to do so. Within the film industry, too, women are four times more likely to be portrayed as completely naked than men, despite women constituting not even 15 per cent of all film directors in 2022. These statistics solidify what is already clear: many forms of visual media have a tendency to objectify the female body, especially the vulva.
In spite of this, female artists have made their own spaces in which they can thrivet — and many have worked to reclaim the vulva. Hannah Wilke’s portrayals of the vulva made out of gum from the 1970s were brought back into the public consciousness in a 2019 exhibition. More recently, Laura Dodsworth was interviewed by the BBC from 2015 to 2019 about her photography of 100 women’s vulvas, exploring the diversity between them that often goes undiscussed. Alternative portrayals of the vulva from pornography made by female artists have existed for a while, even if they have only occupied corners of the artistic sphere.
The emerging Etsy trend shows the extension of this into more channels of art. It is doubly exciting, though because of the market which necessarily underlies the artwork. Not only is a feminine perspective being shared, but it is actively being consumed, perceived, and displayed. Admittedly, Etsy potentially is still only representative of a particular middle class demographic, but progress is progress nonetheless.
Etsy certainly offers a variety of more affordable options — you barely have to spend £2 to afford an A3 wall print, and digital prints are little more than £1. And the vulva art discipline hasn’t limited itself to simply printed or digital images, either. There is everything from macramé to earrings to trinket dishes to Virgin Mary statues. There are thousands of items overall, and hundreds of artists. It is incredibly heartening to see not only how well the art is being received by consumers, but also how much it is being enriched by artists of different disciplines, brought together by a desire to see the vulva be appreciated aesthetically.
Is the typical pastel print found on Etsy slightly more sanitised than Wilke or Dodsworth’s work? Perhaps. But this in itself is part of the beauty of the cartoonisation of the vulva. It occupies the intersection between pride in the female form and home decor. There is playfulness as well as boldness.
If the market on Etsy does not yet have the desire to display realistic images of the vulva, that is okay. Maybe we can appreciate where we are in terms of progress of de-objectification of female genitalia, whilst enjoying these whimsical pieces of art in their own right.
Illustration by Shalina Prakash