The Ins and Outs of Vagina Advocacy with Melina DiMarco (NSFW)

In the United States in 2016, 14 out of 50 states are still not required to provide sexual education, and only 13 out of 50 states require that the information provided in sexual education programs be medically accurate. The government’s intentional denial of non-biased, comprehensive, fact-based information leads not only to a higher likelihood of teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs, but mass confusion and entire generations of misinformed people. And the latest trend for teen girls? Introducing the Labiaplasty, a cosmetic plastic surgery procedure in which one or both labia are snipped to give the appearance of the vagina being more “tucked in,” like one would see in porn, only what the average teenager doesn’t know is that even porn is photoshopped, misconstruing the appearance of a “normal vagina” even further.

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In short, when the government and education systems won’t tell the truth we turn to the media, and when the media lies we are left misinformed, self-loathing, and profoundly confused. So if all of our major resources are depriving us of factual information on our own bodies, who are we supposed to turn to? Allow me to introduce you to Vagina Advocacy. Centered on body positive and honest information about the female anatomy and reproductive system, the role of such an advocate stretches beyond the title. Vagina Advocates are the protagonists of this sex education nightmare, filling the void that the rest of our resources have left us with, answering the most uncomfortable questions, and most importantly, speaking truthfully about what it is to be human.

Witty and well-spoken, New York-based model, vagina advocate, and face of THINX, the latest in period-proof underwear, Melina DiMarco is anything but fearless when it comes to discussing the uncomfortable truths of being a modern woman. Paired with effortlessly beautiful and honest images by Atisha Paulson, Ms. DiMarco chats with us about the stigmas attached to female anatomy, body image, and of course, everyone’s favorite – vaginas!

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Q&A

LF: What does it mean to be a vagina advocate?

MD: It really comes down to speaking about and depicting the vagina in a positive way. I’ve always been very open about my body and how it works and what it does. Whether society thinks that it is right or wrong, it’s who I am. It has become more and more apparent to me that not everyone is as comfortable with their body. Not only from a self esteem point of view, but more specifically, on a clinical level. I still hear women WHISPER the word vagina, regardless of whether they are talking to their doctor or their friends.It is still something women associate as a private or out of reach topic. It’s not! It is a reality. Let’s talk about it. Let’s continue to educate about it. The vagina itself is unique and we should work toward feeling more comfortable advocating for it. Being a vagina advocate is looking past the physical existence of the vagina, and truly represents the appreciation of all women and female empowerment. #vaginaadvocate

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LF: How did you get involved with THINX? How has being one of the faces of the brand influenced you, personally and creatively?

MD: I got involved with THINX through a friend from my graduating class at Pratt Institute. She had contacted me about a last minute shoot that they were working on and after reading what the company was about, I knew it was something right up my vagina. I never expected to work with them past the initial shoot. It has really been an honor to be called back each time to work with them. When I learned that agencies did not want their models to participate particularly because it could reflect poorly upon their image, it just made me realize how special it was to be part of. When I began working with THINX, I finally started to feel like I wasn’t crazy or isolated in thinking about this kind of subject matter openly. On set, the word vagina was spoken about so confidently, my natural imperfections were praised; if I had a bruise on the day of our shoot, I wasn’t lookedat as damaged goods. It was thrilling. This was one of few job experiences where I felt like I was being talked to as a human being, not a hired object. There were no assumptions: they listened. As a result, we created things that, to me, are more important than trending fashion styles. Working with THINX has continued to motivate me to speak up about the topics I care about and keep creating for myself.

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LF: You mentioned in another interview that you’ve been working on a project focused on the stigma of the vagina. What have you learned from photographing vaginas, and investing so much time focused on the stigmas surrounding them?

MD: This was a project that I started in college. I think it was the true beginning of several ideas that have come together for me this year. When you’re in art school, it is pretty easy to find students who don’t mind spreading their legs for the sake of art and research. But as I continued to do this beyond school, it became evident that people didn’t quite feel as comfortable with the topic as we did. It’s an intimate and awkward, yet incredibly rewarding experience. I have seen so many vaginas, I can honestly say that no two are the same. Which is pretty fucking cool. You begin to see them for so much more than their classification as a sex organ. They are delicate and detailed and diverse. And I swear, if you take the time to learn the ins and outs of your vagina, you’ll have a much better understanding of yourself.  

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LF: What needs to be done in order to remove the shame and negativity attached to the idea of the vagina, as well as female sexuality?

MD: We live in a society where the female form has been undoubtedly over sexualized. This is an issue that is far from a secret, yet extremely difficult to change. If we look back hundreds, even thousands of years, we are presented with works of art that showcase the female form and nudity as something natural. Today, this idea does not exist. If a woman is naked, she is artistic in a “vulnerable way,” or even spoken about as if she has done something wrong. If a woman is naked, it is assumed she is doing so for attention; even more commonly assumed for a male’s attention. If a woman is naked it is expected that she has nothing else to offer the world but her body. I’m not sure when these ignorant assumptions began to be treated as facts. I am educated, l make my own decisions and continue to listen and grow. Never have I taken off my clothes for anyone else but myself, for any other purpose than to create. I think it is most important to keep an open dialogue about these topics, create things that will push our society forward in understanding that the vagina (as well as female sexuality) is a reality of life. It has been said before but I feel the need to say it again and again: A woman can do whatever she wants with her body as long as it is her choice. Regardless of our own opinions, and regardless of what we perceive their intentions to be, we truly need to stop shaming women.

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LF: What would you say to men and other folks who don’t have vaginas in regards to learning about and respecting the female anatomy?

MD: Okay, stick with me…

When I was a kid, I would go to the market with my Grandfather every Sunday morning. He would head straight to the deli counter and to be heard amongst the morning rush, he would speak loudly and confidently (and embarrassingly), requesting a pound of Provolone cheese. One Sunday, the delicatessen said, “Sir, we are out of the regular Provolone cheese, would you be interested in ordering Sharp Provolone instead?” Now one thing to note is that my Grandfather was a creature of habit. He rarely deviated from his order, especially when it came to his cheese. I prepared myself for the worst. I thought to myself, he is going to make a scene. But instead, I watched him consider the new option, take his time, and listen. He asked a few billion questions, holding up the line, before finally accepting the suggestion. He watched carefully as the delicatessen started working on his order, because believe me, if my Grandfather witnessed any manhandling or disrespect of the cheese he would speak up. As soon as the cheese was over the counter and into his hands, he treated it as if it were a newborn grandchild. When it comes to learning about unfamiliar anatomy, be like my Grandfather and his unfamiliar cheese. Listen, inquire, listen some more, and respect.

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LF: What are your thoughts on censorship of the female body, particularly in social media, but also through enforced dress codes and even state laws?

 MD: The censorship of the female body is something that every woman faces at some point in her life. I spent four full years in college drawing and painting both male and females nudes in life drawing studio classes, and never once did anyone feel offended or uncomfortable. But after I began to express my own nudity, I have had to spend hours explaining to my own family that I am NOT sabotaging my career, that I am NOT in the porn industry or going down a wrong path, and that a man did NOT tell me to take my clothes off. And that’s my family. How do I get my point across to a random stranger? I do what I do because it is a step toward what I care about. It’s a step in breaking the double standards and stigmas within our society surrounding nudity. When it comes to social media, we’ve heard arguments that there are children on Instagram and we need to protect them from nudity (no matter the intention behind the work). We cover up the female nipple as if that is a solution, when in fact, the breast that makes us distinctly female is still visible. By covering up the female nipple, we perpetuate the over sexualization and provide false information to younger generations. Well personally, I don’t ever want my future child to grow up thinking there is anything wrong about their body or anyone else’s. Dress codes can promote kids to see each others bodies as things to be covered up or regulated, when you actually want your children to be educated to not bat an eye when they see a belly button and to not feel uncomfortable to show one.

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LF: Have you always been comfortable in your skin, or is it something that you’ve come into with age?

MD: From a very early age, I’ve always been comfortable with the realities of my body. I wouldn’t say that equated to self confidence, I still struggle with being the most confident person I can be. I, like many others, have insecurities that are deep seeded. But I think over time we begin to realize that other people’s opinions of us matter less and less when we are doing what we believe in.

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LF: How has modeling affected your self-image? Being slightly shorter than the agency standard minimum, have you found your height to be a hurdle in working in the industry?

MD: I never had hopes and dreams of being a model when I was kid. I remember putting on skits and always trying to create things, but I was bullied so much as a child that the thought never even crossed my mind. When I started art school, I ended up being a part of some projects in the Photography Department and fell in love with the creative process of visual story telling. And here we are.

My self-image was definitely affected as I entered the industry. For the most part, the industry tells you what beauty is and what it should look like. When you don’t possess all of those qualities, it can become hard to navigate. I am shorter than the agency standard minimum. I have had meetings with several agencies and clients where they don’t even want to look at my portfolio because I walk in just under 5’7″. I’ve been treated as a lower class model because of my height and it has been a struggle to lock down an agency that fully believes in my potential. There are all these rules that for some unbeknownst reason we never question. Recently we have been seeing this idea slowly break down and more diversity has been flooding into the industry. It is far too slow, though, and it’s really important to understand that we need more of it. Beyond trends. We need to respect all shapes and sizes. One of the most important responsibilities about being a model is telling a story; when we open our minds to what beauty is or can be, we really start to create something much more dynamic.

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LF: What advice do you have for women and girls learning to be comfortable in their bodies?

MD: I wish I had realized while I was growing up that you can be both “pretty” and “smart.” They aren’t separate qualities, they go together. Too often media portrays these stereotypes about women that make us believe we can’t be everything we want to be. We get stuck in an idea of what we should be. Don’t listen. You never have to fit a mold based on “societal norms.” Being comfortable in your body takes time and understanding, and you should know that there is no one right way to go about it. Be gentle and confident, and develop a strong point of view that is your own.

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LF: How FAST do you live?

MD: I am the fastest Grandma in town.

L’Agent Goodies…