Pink Things featured The Vulva Gallery for the first time three years ago. Today, we interviewed Hilde Atlanta, the creator behind the project, about what they’ve been up to since we last spoke. Hilde is an intelligent, kind, and endlessly passionate person, and I feel so lucky to know them. Over the last three years, Hilde has never wavered from their mission of normalizing the vulva, in all of its shapes and sizes. Now, they plan on taking the next step by publishing a book that educates and furthers recognition around the vulva. Read on to hear about Hilde’s Kickstarter campaign, what inspires them to continue creating, and how their view of pink has evolved since starting The Vulva Gallery.
Sarah Sickles for Pink Things: For those who don’t know, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and why you started The Vulva Gallery?
Hilde Atalanta: My name is Hilde Atalanta. I'm an illustrator and painter, currently living and working in Amsterdam. My work revolves around the search for identity and different forms of relationships, sexualities and gender identities. In my work I like to play with gender; many of the, often androgynous, characters I paint are based on female models. Besides making portraits, I'm working on two other projects. With The Vulva Gallery I focus on body diversity/positivity and sexual health education. With my most recent project You're Welcome Club, I focus on diversity, body positivity, and inclusivity.
All vulvas are unique — just like our hands, noses, and eyes are. The problem is that there’s just one kind of vulva shape being displayed in the popular media. Whether it is in magazines, mainstream porn, or even biology books; all over the world we are constantly confronted with a distorted image of the “perfect” vulva and it has led us to believe that we don’t fit the “normal” image. As a result, girls as young as nine are researching labiaplasty (the surgical procedure that alters the aesthetic appearance of the labia and/or clitoral hood) online, and we are seeing a sharp global increase in girls under 18 (and even under 15) undergoing labiaplasty, making this procedure one of the fastest growing types of cosmetic surgery in the world.
Just before I started The Vulva Gallery on Instagram, I painted a “mini vulva gallery” as a birthday gift for a friend, and I noticed something interesting happened. Everyone in the room had some thoughts to share about body diversity, labiaplasty, and sexual health education. It seemed that they felt relieved that something simple like these illustrations had opened up the conversation about this topic. I realized that this might actually be helpful to more people: showing a wide range of accessible representations of vulvas; thereby opening up conversation and showing that diversity is beautiful. This is when I decided to start The Vulva Gallery, an Instagram account where diversity is celebrated by sharing one illustrated vulva a day, educating about anatomy and encouraging an open conversation about the vulva and related topics. I wanted to create a place where diversity is shown and education about anatomy is given. It started small, and the illustrations were based on my imagination and knowledge of anatomy, combined with images I found online. The response was incredible, and many international publications followed. I started receiving more and more messages from individuals from all around the world, telling me that The Vulva Gallery changed their view on their vulvas; that they never realized their vulva was actually normal; some of them even cancelled their labiaplasty surgery. Although I was surprised by the fact that something so seemingly simple could have such a big effect, it became clear to me that The Vulva Gallery could really make a difference and change lives.
PT: So then, what have you been up to these past two years? How has your practice evolved?
Hilde: In the past two years The Vulva Gallery has been growing into an amazing educational platform, where information about anatomy is shared, and where personal stories are shared alongside vulva portraits. Also the community of The Vulva Gallery has grown into a wonderfully supportive, kind and interactive community. In the past two years I’ve received so many different stories, and I have painted over a 1,000 vulva illustrations and portraits so far.
PT: And your next project is a book? Can you tell us about that? Why a book? Why now?
Hilde: My next step is to bring The Vulva Gallery to the mainstream. I want to create a book that embodies everything The Vulva Gallery has expanded upon over the past two years; a book that can be used in practices and in health classes; that can be looked at in waiting rooms; that can be gifted from one person to another. It's for individuals with and without a vulva; for all who have ever struggled (or still struggle) with the appearance of their vulva; for parents to open up conversation with their children and teach them about body diversity. The book will open up a conversation about this taboo topic and take a step in destigmatizing a part of the human body. This book is for all who want to hear a voice in opposition to what we learn from popular media; this book is gender inclusive, respectful, and encouraging.
PT: Who did you make this book for?
Hilde: The book is dedicated to everyone with a vulva: whether you’ve always loved your vulva or not (yet). It’s dedicated to everyone with a vulva, no matter their gender, as this book is gender inclusive and welcomes all. It’s dedicated to everyone familiar with vulva-related struggles; maybe you have a friend who feels insecure about their vulva, a daughter, or a sister who deserves to see how beautifully diverse we can be. It’s dedicated to everyone with a curious mind, wanting to learn more about this beautiful part of our bodies, and share their knowledge with others.
PT: Why is this project so special to you?
Hilde: In the past two years I’ve learned how important it is to speak openly about vulva-related topics. It’s something most of us aren’t used to, for many different reasons, but many of us benefit greatly from sharing our experiences (or just reading along on the Instagram account). I receive messages on a daily basis from individuals from all around the world who thank me for The Vulva Gallery, as it gives them the opportunity to learn about themselves and about the incredible diversity of our vulvas. When I started The Vulva Gallery I never expected it to become such a big thing, but the more it started growing and the more I realized what it could mean to others, the more special it became. Every day I feel touched by those who choose to share openly on my platform, I’m impressed by the courage and empathy of my community. The Vulva Gallery has become very dear to me.
PT: Tell us how our readers can get their hands on a copy!
Hilde: You can pre-order the book via my Kickstarter campaign. While supporting, you can choose all kinds of rewards and even get a signed copy! There are also some rewards I made especially for the Kickstarter campaign and if we reach our stretch goal I’ll be making a Vulva Quartet Game! The Kickstarter campaign is running for one more week, so make sure you pre-order in time! Check out the Kickstarter page for more info.
PT: Finally, you know we ask everyone a question about the color pink. How has your perception of the color pink shifted or changed since starting The Vulva Project? How do you understand the color now?
Hilde: I haven’t always loved pink, but somehow, when I started illustrating two-and-a-half years ago the, color pink started popping up in all my work. It appears to be the easiest color to paint with for me. When I started The Vulva Gallery I realized that pink is a color we all expect vulvas to be, as it’s something we learn (open up a biology book and you’ll see that the anatomy image is pink). Throughout the past two years, while seeing thousands of vulvas, I noticed that vulvas often have many beautiful shades of brown, purple, and black — as well as a hundred different shades of pink. But they are rarely just pink. I love that, to me, pink has shifted from being the expectation to a sweet side-kick.
This interview was conducted via email and has been condensed and edited.