A sheela-na-gig is a carving of a naked woman holding her vagina open. They are to be found carved on old churches (yes, really!) in Great Britain and Ireland. So the lyric, "He said, 'Sheela-na-gig, sheela-na-gig, you exhibitionist!'" is exceedingly graphic.
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"The song's a collection of different moments between lovers," Harvey told Melody Maker in 1992. "I suppose it's about being able to laugh at yourself in relationships. There's some anger there but, for me, it's a funny song. I wasn't intending it to be a feminist song or anything. I wanted it to have several sides."
When asked about the significance of the carving, Harvey told Puncture: "It was just the inspiration for the song, so it isn't a song about a stone carving, but when I wrote it, what I liked about the carving was that she was laughing, and ripping herself apart. You have humour and horrificness. It's the same with horror films – are they funny or just horrific? It's something that I really want to explore."
The repeated lyric, "Gonna wash that man right out of my hair," was taken from the song title "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" from the 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific. "I heard that and it had the humorous feel I wanted, so I put it in. I was trying to wash somebody out of my hair at the time, too," Harvey explained.
The lyric, "Please take those dirty pillows away from me," is a reference to Stephen King's first novel, Carrie (and the 1976 film adaptation). Religious zealot Margaret White refers to her daughter's breasts as "dirty pillows."
Harvey was blasted by the British press when she posed nude (with her bare back facing the camera, showing just a hint of one breast) for the cover of NME in 1992. She was accused of feeding into the notion that women couldn't get ahead in the industry without taking off their clothes and was further called irresponsible when she refused to explain herself. When asked about the controversy, she said, "That cover was saying a lot of things. In 'Sheela-Na-Gig,' the man says, 'you exhibitionist,' as if, the female can be powerful and beautiful, but you can't show it."