There is a proverb that says tall trees catch more wind. Like Tall Poppy Syndrome, it means those who stand out invite criticism, so it’s best to keep your head down and blend in.
Artist and illustrator Maria Conejo is a tall tree who hails from a small town just a few hours south of Mexico City. In this predominantly Catholic culture, the patriarchy rules and women are disposable. They are expected to conform, to be quiet, and to not stand out—especially in a country where femicide is a very real and constant threat. Every day, ten women are killed in Mexico, and in the last five years, femicide—the murder of a woman for gender-based reasons—has increased by 137%.
Talk freely of the body, the clitoris, the penis, and sexuality in general and you’re painted into a corner—even in the country’s most liberal city. In CDMX, Conejo wears the metaphorical scarlet letter. Nude, headless women populate paper and canvas. Her graceful, simple lines allow figures to dance, float, and kneel amongst flowers and flames. When it comes to her commissioned illustrations, Conejo is intentional, working mainly with women-and queer-owned businesses on themes important to her: body-related topics, sexuality, inclusion, diversity, and food. Collaborating with feminist organizations to help prevent gender violence, she openly shares her views on feminism, health, and sexuality.
So, when she and writer Zoe Mendelson started a Kickstarter campaign to create Pussypedia.net, a bilingual, gender and ability inclusive online encyclopedia of the pussy, Conejo already had the deck stacked against her. And she was just getting started. With words by Mendelson and illustrations by Conejo, Pussypedia, A Comprehensive Guide (Hachette Books) was published in 2021.
The two women, one American and one Mexican, saw huge gaps in the information available to them about their bodies and sexual health. “We realized that there was good and bad information about pussies on the internet,” Conejo remembers. “The good content was behind paywalls and written in a very complex language, without images or diagrams to reflect the real diversity of pussies that exist.”
From that realization, a collaboration was born to create Pussypedia. Mendelson would translate the dense and complicated concepts into a clear, concise, and modern language, and Conejo would illustrate a bold, shameless, and non-judgmental way to look at bodies, self-care, and pleasure.
The book opens with a new, positive and all-encompassing definition for the word pussy: “We propose a new gender-and-organ-inclusive use of the word, which means some combination of vagina, vulva, clitoris, uterus, bladder, urethra, rectum, anus, and who knows maybe some testes.” These words represent the stake that Mendelson and Conejo set in the ground, declaring loud and clear their intention to reclaim the word “pussy.”
The fact that a Mexican woman who grew up under a thick cloud of machismo—forcing women into subservient roles for generations—and a lack of comprehensive sex education in schools cannot be overstated.
Conejo weaves the patriarchy and the pussy in and out of our conversation. At times, it’s admittedly jarring to hear, as a Gen-Xer who grew up not saying the “P” word because it was considered derogatory, even vulgar. But the more we learn, the easier it gets. (The word “vagina” is Latin and means a sheath or scabbard for a sword. No, thank you.)
With the world in lockdown as COVID surged, Conejo began illustrating Pussypedia—which gave her plenty of time for reflection. “I was by myself working, going deep into my own thoughts and experiences as if on a silent retreat,” she recalls. “The origin of everything we believe is based on very old ways of thinking. We need improvements in our sexual education, to get rid of these religious beliefs that make us feel ashamed.”
Conejo’s drawings of the female body and aspects of sexuality, both beautiful to look at and physically accurate, bridge the gap between education and art. And that gap is massive. It was, after all, just 17 years ago that Australian urologist Helen O’Connell first revealed the full anatomy of the clitoris to the world. The sole function of the clitoris is the female orgasm—does it come as any surprise that medical textbooks—predominantly authored by men—gloss over it at best?
Conejo’s vibrant palette moves from one end of the pink spectrum to the other. Amidst the opaque shades of pink, black-and-white lines delineate details inside and outside the body. The clitoris is depicted anatomically correct and creatively at the same time: pubic hairs surrounding its menagerie of parts hark back to Conejo’s lyrical sketches of headless women. She always begins with ink on paper. “It has been important to me to stick to traditional techniques of drawing and painting.”
After she finished school, Conjeo didn’t think that she could be an artist. Art was a hobby. Design offered a way to stay connected to art and have a career. So, she embarked on a journey that included exhibition design in a museum, archive work at a gallery, and earning a master’s in book design. Conejo then worked with Mexican book designer Cristina Paoli on exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum of UNAM in Mexico City (MUAC) before she began working in the studio of Mexican sculptor Pedro Reyes. “Working with Pedro Reyes was a revolution in my mind,” she shares. “I realized I could be a professional artist—and I began searching for my own voice and my own style.”
Drawing every day is not the only habit that fuels Conejo’s creativity. “I read a lot, mostly women artists and all sorts of genres,” she shares. “Most of my references come from women or non-binary people.” She discovered feminism, and authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, and Donna Haraway, who have been transcendental for her art.
The knowledge she amassed was key to illustrating Pussypedia. Conejo admits communicating to a bigger audience through illustration was challenging. The words were written by women from other countries, with different backgrounds and experiences. It’s complex to create universal images for people to understand no matter if they’re in Mexico City, Paris, or anywhere else in the world.
At 432 pages with 50-plus illustrations, Pussypedia (and the website where Conejo acts as creative director, curator, and illustrator for the educational articles) is filling a gap in women’s health. Yes, there have been others that have come before, most notably the landmark Our Bodies Ourselves, which made its impact with medical, black-and-white illustrations of female anatomy and information on pregnancy, abortion, and birth control before the latter were even legal in the United States. Mendelson and Conejo have built a platform for today’s world in a language we all speak. Taboo topics are tackled in a conversational tone that makes them seem normal. Body parts kids traditionally whisper about are created as art. It makes sexuality and health accessible through words and images in a way that medical journals and textbooks do not.
Some years ago, when my daughter was 10, I planned to take her to Heart to Heart, a two-day workshop on puberty and sexuality for pre-teens. The night before I questioned my decision. Was it too much, too soon? She still believed in Santa. How could she be ready to learn about sex? My neighbor, a nurse, told me calmly, “Knowledge is power.”
Rebecca Bedrossian is global content director for Wunderman Thompson, where she leads thought leadership and content initiatives. Prior to agency life, she spent 15 years at Communication Arts magazine and served on the board of AIGA San Francisco. Rebecca’s articles on visual culture and creatives have appeared in publications throughout the industry.