In 1913, American poet Gertrude Stein famously wrote, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. This notable phrase elegantly imparts the idea that, when all is said and done, a thing just is what it is. On discovering Bex Day’s new photobook ‘PETAL’, I was instantaneously reminded of this adage: in particular, the power of its simplicity. Featuring analogue photographs of vulvas decorated with a flower of the sitter’s choosing and accompanied by writings on their bodily experiences, ‘PETAL’ asserts that rather than being a source of hidden shame, something unspeakable or a symbol of submissiveness, “a vulva is a vulva is a vulva is a vulva”.
Created over the course of the past three years, ‘PETAL’ is the latest in a series of socially conscious projects by self-taught, London-based photographer Bex Day. This project furthers the creative’s desire to platform experiences and individuals that are too often ignored or erased and builds on her 2019 London solo exhibition ‘Hen’, which focussed on older transgender communities in the UK and her 2022 film and photo series ‘Children of Covid’, which explored the pandemic’s impact on the UK’s youth. As an artist who seeks to, in her own words, “challenge rigid beauty ideals and society as a whole by creating projects that help to reshape representation and give voices to those who need them most,” Day has achieved immense success. She has worked with renowned image maker Ryan McGinley, acted as the Photo Editor of PYLOT and collaborated with brands such as Adidas, Fendi, Burberry and Stella McCartney and magazines including Vogue Italia, The New York Times, AnOther, and the British Journal of Photography.
Featuring 70 photographs of vulvas belonging to female, non-binary and female-identifying individuals, her newest venture ‘PETAL’ aims to “dismantle the taboos that envelop female genitalia” whilst creating unity for all those who have a vulva. Rather than focussing on the differences between bodies, the images suggest that all vulvas are in equal parts beautiful and worthy of celebration, irrespective of whom they belong to or their unique form.
The sitters included in the project – drawn from Day’s roster of family and friends, alongside sex-work communities and life-drawing groups – deliberately span a wide range of races, ages, body types and life experiences. The diversity in subjects works to reject the idealised beauty standards and homogenised visions of genitalia which dominate the mainstream media and the adult entertainment industry. For Day, the core aim of the project is to help people “feel confident” and to know “that they should not feel ashamed in any way by their bodies.” She hopes readers will “laugh, cry and commend these brave women and non-binary people’s stories.”
The project’s title, ‘PETAL’, is loaded with meaning. On a personal level, it is connected to Day’s evolving relationship with her mother, who called her ‘PETAL’ when she was young. Having also dedicated the book to her, Day intends it to be a homage to repairing and maintaining supportive intergenerational bonds between those with vaginas. Looking deeper, the title is also reminiscent of the somewhat mystifying monikers children are instructed to use for their genitalia. Day notes that “people who are socialised and raised as females are brought up to refer to their private parts with ‘less obscene’ but diminutive terms like ‘flower’ and ‘foo-foo’.” For Day, this is intrinsically damaging as it “has created a public misconception of what is considered a ‘normal’ vagina.” In calling the series ‘PETAL’, Day draws our attention to the impact our upbringing has on understanding our bodies while also rejecting pejorative colloquial terms for vaginas that are often used as insults, like ‘pussy’, ‘cunt’ or ‘gash’. Much like a petal, for Day, the vulva is a site of powerful beauty.
The notion of finding power within the fraught territory of our bodies and sexuality is at the heart of this series. In her seminal essay ‘Uses of the Erotic’, Audre Lorde argues that women have deliberately been prevented from harnessing the power of the erotic. Lorde speaks to the fact that, throughout history, women have either been denied their sexuality or chastised for embracing it. Numerous examples come to mind such as the simple use of the word ‘slut’ or the labelling of women as hysterical by psychiatric institutions in the 19th century. These forms of degradation have all been aimed at one goal: repressing women’s potential to harness erotic power. The images in ‘PETAL’ consciously seek to do the opposite: they are raw, uncensored and honest depictions of female and non-binary bodies which refuse the male gaze. In their beauty and quiet eroticism, they imbue the subject with power.
During this process, “many people had personal stories associated with their chosen flowers,” Day tells me, and their choices often “represent how the individual sees their own vulva.”
Further empowering her models, Day’s photobook is centred around allowing each person pictured agency and foregrounding their individuality. While on set, Day’s subjects were encouraged to guide the photographer in depicting their story. This methodology was important to Day, who had “seen other projects about the vulva that sexualized women or were lacking in sensitivity and empathy, particularly those created by men.” She invited each participant to choose their own flower, one which personally resonated with them, whilst allowing them to determine how much of their body was visible in the final image. During this process, “many people had personal stories associated with their chosen flowers,” Day tells me, and their choices often “represent how the individual sees their own vulva.”
In homing in on the floral, Day intended ‘PETAL’ to both embrace and reject the long-standing associations between women and nature. Shooting year-round and in all weather, the photographer could not help but notice the parallels between the cycles of some women’s bodies and the changing of the seasons. She also often observed a resemblance between the vulva and the chosen flower. However, Day was aware that affiliating women with nature has historically been used as an oppressive patriarchal force to forbid them from accessing the traditionally masculine realms of logic and reason. In ‘PETAL’, Day therefore presents a nuanced conception of the floral, resisting a reading of it as purely feminine. She tells me that flowers are typically hermaphrodites and carry associations with masculinity such as in the tale of Narcissus when a man is turned into a daffodil. The careful way in which she alludes to these connections allows the artist to illuminate the multifaceted nature of both women and flowers. Day remarks that “flowers are misconstrued as delicate, much like the vagina is too often considered the lesser sexual organ, when, in fact, flowers are extremely resilient and can survive through terrible weathers and grow tall out of mounds of shit – just like women.”
Flowers are misconstrued as delicate, much like the vagina is too often considered the lesser sexual organ, when, in fact, flowers are extremely resilient and can survive through terrible weathers and grow tall out of mounds of shit – just like women.
In the book itself, each photograph is accompanied by each sitter’s writing on their feelings towards and experiences of their own bodies. “Because the vulva is such an intimate topic, it was vital to me that the subjects had the opportunity to share their personal journeys; for some, it became an opportunity to process traumatic events, and for others, it helped them find more confidence in their bodies,” Day notes. Coming from women and non-binary people with a wide range of backgrounds – such asporn stars, mothers and rape survivors – these first-person narratives are immensely moving and incredibly vulnerable, including accounts of rape, domestic abuse, victimisation, inequality and sex workalongside the refreshing joy of individuals who have always loved their vulva and are happy to praise it.
Taken holistically, the photographs and accompanying narratives in Bex Day’s photobook ‘PETAL’ present the innate complexity and nuance which enshroud women and non-binary people’s experiences of their bodies and sexuality in the twenty-first century. In doing so, they invite self-acceptance and empowerment while asserting that when it comes to women, non-binary people and their vulvas, it’s okay if it’s complicated.
When all else fails, just remember, “A vulva is a vulva is a vulva is a vulva.”
Art writer, curator and public relations specialist, focussed on platforming emerging talent across the visual culture sector. When not walking my dog in rainy East London parks, I can be found on my sofa writing articles for Bricks Magazine, FAD magazine, Art Plugged and Off the Block Magazine.
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