Holiday decorations at Pennsylvania Hospital — angel wings, or something else?

As an inadvertent holiday gift to the world, the historic hospital cofounded by Ben Franklin has provided a new entry for the long list of euphemisms used to describe female anatomy.

A photo from Pennsylvania Hospital is going viral because of decorations meant to be wings of an angel.

With poufs of white “fur” above crescent pairs that curve to form an elongated opening between them, the series of glittery pink appendages hanging in the lobby of the Philly medical center look an awful lot like fancy vaginas.

“Who wants to tell this office about their “angel wings?!” Sarah Wasserman posted on Twitter Thursday morning, a day after she stopped by to visit a friend there.

By Friday morning, her tweet had more than 80k likes and over 5,000 retweets.

Wasserman didn’t give away the location, but her pic included the edge of a Penn Medicine poster, and people began replying that they hoped the scene was from an OB/GYN office, where imagery of female reproductive parts would be quite appropriate.

A visit to the hospital at 8th and Spruce, where the decorations in question hang, indicates the symbolism was entirely unintended.

“Oh, I can’t believe people,” said one front desk receptionist when told of the interpretation, shaking her head in dismay. “People are horrible. Of all the things.”

To Wasserman, a Philadelphia resident who runs the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware and teaches English there, the connection described in the photo doesn’t have negative connotations at all.

“People (including me) love them! They are a delightful bit of holiday cheer — and body positivity,” Wasserman told Billy Penn.

Female anatomy is under-studied in the medical profession, and women in general are routinely left out of biomedical research. In sex ed classes, the vulva, labia, and clitoris are often entirely skipped, with concentration instead placed on internal organs like the uterus. The word “vagina” itself is considered taboo in some circles and cultures.

Art is one place where this anatomy has been represented, said Roberta Fallon, cofounder and executive editor of the online publication Artblog.

“Feminist artists have gone for the gusto and consciously represented the vagina and vulva and clitoris in their art as an embrace of their sexuality,” Fallon said, citing Hannah Wilke and Louise Fishman as examples.

Philadelphia crochet artist Lace in the Moon in 2021 created an installation centered around these body parts, “in attempts to destigmatize the sexualization of female anatomy and empower women to take control and own their bodies.”

Was someone at the decor company trying to make the same statement? Fallon doesn’t think so.

“I can imagine that from design concept to execution,” Fallon said, “an inexpensive holiday decoration like this gets made so fast nobody has a minute to think about what that open space between the wings might represent in the eyes of viewers.”

How did Pennsylvania Hospital end up with the trio of vulva-like wings in the first place?

The decorations were the work of the person who takes care of the exterior grounds, according to a different front desk receptionist.

“He comes up with a different theme each year,” the receptionist said. She was told this one was inspired by his daughter’s pink hat and his sister’s wedding.

The unnamed decorator’s handiwork graces nearly every open surface in the hospital lobby. It incorporates a wealth of rose-colored baubles, many silver and gold globes, dozens of blush-tinged bows and berries, sparkly cones, and a little stuffed gnome in a pink sequined hat with its beard tied in pink bows.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Delighted by the interest and the funny replies on Twitter, original poster Wasserman has seized the opportunity to promote a related charitable cause.

“I think anyone who likes ‘angel wings’ should donate to reproductive health organizations,” Wasserman posted, linking to an article that lists nine potential charities, “because anyone with ‘angel wings’ should be able to keep them safe and healthy.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...