Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Guest Post: Introducing The Orchid Project

Today's guest blogger, Mayuka Kowaguchi, recently created the Orchid Project, a wonderfully empowering and somewhat controversial experiment. Here, the Dartmouth College senior on her experience with the project and her peers' reaction to it. Mayuka is hoping to spread the Orchid Project to other schools, so contact her if you are interested!

The Orchid Project launched on October 18th, when hand-held mirrors were sent to the mailboxes of the 1,796 female students on campus at Dartmouth College, with a note encouraging them to use the mirror to look at their vulva. The distribution of mirrors was meant to provide an opportunity for each student to think about their relationship with their bodies and in particular, their genitalia.

I was inspired to begin this project through my own personal experience of having difficulty developing a healthy relationship with my body, particularly those characteristics that make me uniquely female, due to my conservative, Japanese upbringing. I designed this as my end-of-term project proposal for Sexperts (Dartmouth peer-advising group for sexual health and pleasure) training in the Fall of 2009, after I learned about the health benefits of regularly monitoring your vulva: knowing what your vulva normally looks like enables you to notice when there is an irregular discoloration or bump that may need treatment. With encouragement from those around me, the project became a reality. Now, to my amazement, over 20 campus organizations support The Orchid Project and the project has even received attention from outside the Dartmouth campus.

The Orchid Project has been criticized by some who have, in my opinion, misunderstood the intention of the project and I wish to address their concerns. Firstly, although the delivered notes focused heavily on sexual pleasure, my first and foremost concern is sexual health. The project aims to provide as much knowledge of the genitalia as possible, which includes the dimension of pleasure. But I do not think the project is a promotion of promiscuity, as some have claimed. Secondly, I respect everyone’s personal values and beliefs. Although I advocate women getting to know their bodies better, I completely understand that some people are uncomfortable talking about, looking at, or touching their genitalia. I would much rather women to feel safe than for them to forcefully develop a relationship with their body and/or genitalia. It’s usually a long, slow process so no one should feel pressured to immediately deal with something they would rather not right now. Moreover, some may even choose never to talk about, look at, or touch their genitals. I respect that choice, as long as they recognize what influences are causing them to think and feel in that way.

The majority of the feedback I have received has been positive. Even those who are religious or those who were uncomfortable when they found the mirror in their mailbox have talked to me about how the mirrors gave them a chance to reflect on their values and beliefs and a chance to engage in discussion with those who have opposing views. The Orchid Project is not just about the mirrors and their usage; it is as much about the issues raised by the topic of genitalia and I am thrilled that the project has sparked conversation.

Looking ahead, I am planning for events at Dartmouth College such as informational presentations by OB-GYNs and panels of female faculty and students sharing what their relationship with their genitalia is like. I would also like to set up further discussions to expose the influence of our environment on our perception of the genitalia. Outside of Dartmouth, I hope to spread this idea to leaders on other college campuses so that they may replicate the mirror distribution and further increase dialogue on this topic.

If you would like more information or help with setting this up at your school, please contact me at Orchid.Project@Dartmouth.edu and visit The Orchid Project blog.

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