20-year-old Petra Collins, a visual artist and photographer from Toronto, recently found her Instagram account revoked because she'd posted a picture of her lower half in a bikini bottom that revealed some pubic hair. The shutdown led Collins to feel she was being shamed for not complying with a beauty standard. Somewhat ironically, it's this very body-shaming and sexuality-shaming that her art aims to unveil and evaluate, perhaps best exemplified by the new shirt she designed for American Apparel that features a masturbating, menstruating, and unshaven vagina.
The photo Collins posted to Instagram, via Oyster Magazine.
Collins, whose art seeks to explore female sexuality and teen culture, also designed a T-shirt for American Apparel at the beginning of the month called "Period Power." The shirt features a line drawing of a hand masturbating a menstruating vagina with pubic hair. The illustration, "a play on souvenir tees that are derogatory to the female body," she says, was first featured in the exhibition Gynolandscape in Manhattan in September. And unlike her Instagram bikini picture, Collins was not surprised by the reaction to the shirt.
"That we're so shocked and appalled at something that's such a natural state — and it's funny that out of all the images everywhere, all of the sexually violent images, or disgustingly derogatory images, this is something that's so, so shocking apparently," Collins told Vice a few weeks ago. "The graphic on my shirt is a line drawing, too. It's not even a full-on image."
The main criticism of the shirt seems to be that it's controversial only for the sake of being controversial, an argument that both states and overlooks the very obvious point: It's controversial.
Comments circulating have included "I wouldn't want to see a penis on a shirt, either" and "let's keep all bodily discharges hidden" (as well as "ew" and "icky"). Duly noted, but here's the problem: Penises are everywhere in media. They may not always be literally drawn on things — except for when they are — but they're constantly, eternally, and unapologetically in our vocabulary and are very much depicted in one form or another. Male sexuality and male pleasure are the norm. We rarely bat an eye over talk about penis size or male masturbation and ejaculation (all of which are standard in a large number of mainstream comedies, and films in general). The argument that we should keep such matters personal or private doesn't work, because we don't expect the same from men.
Depicting a masturbating, menstruating vagina may be crude and may be provocative — because it's pointing out the glaringly obvious: It's startling because we rarely see such depictions. Because it isn't normalized. Because it isn't acceptable. Because societally we haven't become accustomed to straightforwardly discussing periods, vaginas, or female masturbation.
"Grown women are taught to repress their post-pubescent body or hide it. When you start puberty and you start growing hair you're taught to shave it, because no one's supposed to see it," Collins says. "With your period, it's something that you conceal — no one's supposed to know … Women are supposed to be submissive, we're not supposed to be in control of our sexuality, so I guess it's scary when a woman goes through puberty and gets hair and is able to take control of herself and her body." She could hardly get the news anchors who interviewed her to say "vagina," and even had TMZ cancel an interview because the outlet deemed her shirt "too explicit for television." Collins is asking us to ask ourselves about these reactions: Why?
Women who don't fall into compliance with the imposed gender norm of not talking about or acknowledging the desires and natural states of their bodies often find themselves shamed for not meeting a standard that falls in line with "traditional" femininity — of staying neat, clean, and tidy. Teenage girls in particular are often most sensitive to feeling pressured to meet body standards they may not even understand or have had the time to process personally.
Of course, women using or accessorizing their bodies to rebel against gender norms and restrictions is nothing new. It was scandalous when women first began wearing pants or going braless, and Collins appears to have hit a nerve in a similar way. Her tee is meant to provoke a visceral reaction in order to show how uncomfortable we are with what it represents: a woman in control of her body, in a natural state. Her choice to design something wearable makes the art and what it represents very accessible to millennials, and gives teen girls the option to visually display their rejection of imposed body norms.
Whether anyone will wear it now almost seems besides the point, however. The deletion of Collins' Instagram account further highlighted how uncomfortable our culture is with beauty-standard noncompliance. Certainly society has progressed to a point where it's much more normal than ever to freely discuss genitalia and sex, but the amount of disgusted reactions to Collins' work spotlights that there's still an enormous discomfort with representations of unaltered, unashamed female bodies and sexuality.