For a myriad of reasons that all feed into the larger reason of you know, the ongoing subjugation of women by society, we don’t see vaginas represented in popular culture very often, and when we do they’re these hairless, perfect, unrealistic things that make us feel very uncomfortable about our own.
Artist and jewellery designer Bronte Leighton-Dore is trying to change that, one vagina pendant at a time, via her new jewellery label, Vulvè. She takes the real form of the vagina, and turns that preconceived ugliness into something very kawaii, and, ultimately very feminine, which makes complete sense.
Bronte’s work isn’t just in the name of fashion, though. Her mum, who has worked in sexual health her whole life, has opened her eyes to the consequences of the misrepresentation of vaginas, including the explosion of labiaplasty procedures. Bronte is trying to do her bit to tell women everywhere, “your vagina is totally unique, and that’s cool with me”, as she explains here.
Hey Bronte, introduce yourself!
Hello, my name’s Bronte Leighton-Dore, I’m a 20 year old artist based in Sydney who is launching a wearable art brand called Vulvè.
You make jewellery shaped like vaginas. Where did the idea come from?
Previously I had created an installation involving beaded motifs of the spine, lungs, and breast muscles. The beading of the vulva (the external and visible part of the female genitalia) was an extension of this previous work and a response to the media, centred on gender inequality at the time. There was the backlash against Robin Thicke’s video and the creation of its parody Defined Lines; Petra Collins challenged censorship; the media outrage when Miley Cyrus took control of her sexuality, no longer a child star; the Sydney Uni Honi Soit cover of eighteen unsexualised vulvas. These things all really affected me.
Another thing which really affected me and instigated the creation of Vulvè was my exposure to the surgical procedure of labiaplasty (the removal of a part of the labia minora). The jewellery, while visually representing the vagina, hopes to help educate people by also presenting the clitoris, the clitorial hood, urethral opening and the labia minora.
Are you making a gender or feminist statement?
To me, in a nutshell, Vulvè is about empowering the individual to make their own choices around their anatomy. Not to feel ashamed of their bodies but to feel open, confident and free.
People, especially women, are constantly told by society to feel a certain way about their bodies. I feel Vulvè is a way to reclaim this space, our bodies, our canvas and to break down taboos.
There’s this interesting dichotomy with the representation of vaginas isn’t there, because they’re considered ugly but they’re actually quite pretty in colour and shape when you recontextualise them, which is exactly what you’ve done. Can you elaborate here?
There is that dichotomy because a lot of people do consider them ugly, but what I’d like to do is get people to reconsider that perception and to bridge the division through the beauty of the jewellery. To make people see the inherent beauty of the organic shape itself. There is no ideal form. The beauty is in the inherent individuality.
Is there anyone or anything that you’re inspired by in your work?
I think my mum’s a big inspiration. I definitely wouldn’t be beading vaginas if it wasn’t for her. At her recent birthday it was brought up that both her children had turned out to be working around issues of sex and sexuality (my brother just released a book called I Think I’m a Poof). My mother has worked in the reproductive and sexual health industry most her life, so it kind of makes sense. We definitely had interesting dinner time conversations.
Any other jewellery designers who you admire?
I’ve always really admired Elke Kramer. Not only is she a jewellery designer, but she’s a multifaceted creative who is always working on something new, bold and beautiful.
Do you aim to shock, empower, or something else entirely?
I don’t want to shock, I want to normalise. However it’s been interesting receiving peoples’ responses. Recently, a friend was asked to remove a prototype of the choker by her boss. He was afraid of what the customers might think and deemed the pendant inappropriate. I found that incredibly shocking. I think this scenario for me demonstrated the real stigma which exists.
Do you think we’re at a point where we’re way more comfortable with our female genitals and how they look and are represented than we ever have been before?
I think there are a lot more positive initiatives which are helping women feel comfortable. Social media and the Internet have definitely enabled a new platform for females to access important information, voice concerns and view realistic representations of the female genitals (the labia library for example).
However I think it depends on whether women are accessing these educational and supportive projects. The fact that labiaplasty is fast gaining participation, with more than 1200 Australian women getting labiaplasty a year, would suggest while some of us may be more comfortable there are still plenty who are not.
When you’re not designing jewellery, what are you doing?
Other than work you’ll find me riding my bike, going for swims, drinking coffee and mulling over ideas. I’m currently learning to sew as a part of Vulvè’s next wearable art project – so stay tuned!
What are you currently watching / reading / listening to?
I’m watching Orphan Black, Reading Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things and I’m absolutely addicted to Banoffee!
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