Sunday, February 24, 2013

FGM vs "Cosmetic Surgery", and the falseness of "choice"

I never thought that an episode of Insight would inspire another blogpost from me, but clearly hell has frozen over. I have watched the show again for the first time since I appeared on it, and here we are. In my defence though, this post has not happened in a bubble. Many things have culminated in it, and whilst this will inevitably be a post that barely scratches the surface of what is an incredibly complex issue, I'm going to give it a burl.

So to start at the Insight programme, the topic was female circumcision/genital mutilation. It featured three women who had gone through the procedure in different parts of Africa talking about their experiences; two of which had been through the procedure in childhood and one who had chosen to go through it in adulthood as part of reaffirming heritage via women's initiation ceremony. In addition to this, there was a Gynaecologist who has worked a lot with African communities, a GP who campaigns actively against FGM, a couple of women who felt the need to explain to the women who had been through FGM exactly how what they had been through was horrific and incomparable to things such as having your ears pierced, a Cosmetic Surgeon who specialises in genital surgery, and a Lawyer. I wasn't expecting much with regards to how this weighty topic would be handled on this programme, and I wasn't pleasantly surprised. What I was surprised though was what I ended up being most angered about.   

After watching the show, I tweeted the following comment: 

"ALL "culture" that propels women to feel that their genitals should be altered for social inclusion needs to be examined".

It was interesting to see how this comment was perceived by other people who viewed the show. Most got it, but I think some assumed that I was just referring to FGM (which I still see as FGM, by the way, despite hearing more about the contexts of this practice as discussed on the programme, as it is still the removing of parts of female anatomy) because they made the assumption that "culture" was something those other women had, and that western culture has little equivalence. I can't begin to express just how erroneous this assumption was. When I say "ALL culture", that's exactly what I mean. Western culture, and the Australian context, does not get a free pass here.

To argue that Labiaplasty, or any other genital surgery, in an Australian context is not "cultural" and is completely choice-based is wrong. This culture around women's genitalia has changed so much that in the space of 10 years there has been a minimum of a doubling in the rate of Labiaplasty surgeries performed in this country, and that's just the ones claimed on Medicare. One Doctor states that he experienced a 100% rise per year. What's more, most agree that the majority of these procedures are aesthetic and not for medical reasons. Both the interviews I've just linked state that the women seeking these surgeries wish to look "normal". This stuff doesn't happen in a bubble, folks. Something has changed dramatically in a short period of time to make a number of women assess themselves differently.

And now I wish to travel back in my time machine to the 90s, as I have so oft returned in these blogposts before, to reflect partially on this "culture" that has changed. I reflected on this in another forum, and have had a similar discussion with one of my sisters, but back in those long ago years there really didn't seem to be such a narrow concept of what constituted "normal". Sure, occasionally in those dreaded PE classes when we had to go swimming you might have caught a glance of difference in the change rooms, but this was unlikely and even then, a judgement probably wouldn't have been made by those present as to who was the most, and least, normal. I've mentioned previously that back then a bit of a tidy up of the edges and a trim of the hair itself was the most common pubic hair style, so really, we were mostly covered. This wonderful world of labial diversity all seemed to change rather quickly. 

I remember that the first time I heard that women's Labia could be judged as more or less desirable was (sadly) when I was watching the first season of Big Brother. Sara-Marie, who worked as a manager in a strip club, was educating the housemates on "innies" and "outies" and how innies were seen as more desirable for that line of work. Additionally, that edge-trim and lawn mow seemed to no longer cut it, and Brazilian waxing, or at the very least removing all the hair there, became a normalised practice thus the entire area became much more visible than it had been. People link the rise in porn viewing to a rise in hair removal and surgery and I admit to not having seen enough/read enough porn to have a view on how accurate that idea is. This article does talk about the airbrushing of external genitalia in order to be consistent with Australian Classification laws. Despite my naivety on the porn front though, I do know that the internet happened and that this provided a vehicle for women to be able to compare and contrast the female genital area in a way that unless they were a gynaecologist or involved in female-to-female sexual practice would not have been able to do before. Thus, it seems that the idea that having externally hanging Labia Minora became an undesirable state for many women. What's more, men have been exposed to the same things and also therefore have made judgements on what may, or may not, be normal. If all that combined (and this is bare bones here, there is a lot more too this) does not state "cultural", then I am curious what does. The way I read it says that a number of social pressures that did not really exist before have been placed on to women, and therefore women are now more likely to judge their own genitals as being abnormal, when in actual fact they are perfectly normal, and then seek solutions. As mentioned earlier: this does not happen in a bubble.

I do question "choice" made under those circumstances. Sure, a woman may make a choice to walk into a surgery and undertake a procedure, and she may receive both physical and emotion benefits from doing so. Where that choice though has been made in the context of a woman being continually bombarded with images and ideas of what constitutes "normal" and where she may also have been told by a partner who has been bombarded with those exact ideas and images that she is "different", I then argue that she has been denied the complete and unfettered ability to ever interpret her own body as being perfectly normal, and make a decision in a society that positively supports anatomical difference for women. What's more, going back to Insight for a second, it was interesting to hear a Cosmetic Surgeon and a Lawyer use the idea of "choice" to differentiate FGM from Labiaplasty and related practices in a Western context. Just a little food for thought: of course a Cosmetic Surgeon specialising in genital surgery in a western capitalist society is going to argue that a woman undertaking a procedure in this context is making a "choice". Their very livelihood is dependent on women questioning their appearances and therefore spending big biccies on "corrective procedures". Questioning the culture surrounding those choices ain't going to bring home the bacon!

I think additionally there is enough of a cultural imperative here for a counter-movement to spring up. At this very point in time there seem to be a number of art installations, books and websites geared toward changing these ideas of what constitutes "normal" and celebrating diversity. Warning: none of the upcoming links are safe for work! The Great Wall of Vagina has involved artist Jamie McCartney taking casts of the external genital area of a number of women* volunteers then displaying these casts as a series of panels. The 101 Vagina Project (this is still looking for a few more volunteers so click the link if you're interested) is reproducing photos of the external area, as well as stories written by the anonymous participants related to that area, in an artistic coffee table book format. The Large Labia Project is a similar idea except that women submit their own pictures and stories that then get shared on the site. Oh, and one glance at the site tells you that what women think is "large" is perfectly normal. Finally, there was this UK documentary called The Perfect Vagina (note, there is a big pause in this doco after the first segment finishes but it does come back) which looks at the surgery women are undertaking and investigates some of the diversity-affirming activities women are getting involved in to counter these ideas of "normal". This documentary also asks a couple of Cosmetic Surgeons why they do what they do, and the answers are rather interesting... Can I just say though that whilst I think all these positive, affirming projects existing is amazing and they need to be encouraged and viewed by many more women and girls (and the blokes too), I really REALLY think it sucks that they have to exist, particularly when it wasn't that long ago that they would have been almost an unnecessary exercise.

To return to the Insight episode, I think this was why, by the end of it, I sensed the frustration that the women who had undergone FGM were feeling, particularly when some in the audience were so easily dismissing Labiaplasty in the West whilst demonising FGM and the women who practice it, in other cultures. There was at times a complete cultural arrogance on display, and an almost stubborn refusal to look at practices that exist here with the same amount of scrutiny. That's wrong and it should not have been the case in this show. As I wrote earlier: ALL "culture" that propels women to feel that their genitals should be altered for social inclusion needs to be examined. Considering all I have written above, if people still think that this means cosmetic surgery in an Australian context gets a free pass on the basis of "choice" then they are sorely mistaken. All women, worldwide, need to know that they are born perfect and that they do not have to endure any sort of genital mutilation to be socially acceptable. No matter what the cultural circumstance. 

* Sorry, but I just am still not good with this entire area being referred to colloquially as the "Vagina" as it erases all the other brilliant bits!  



  1. Thanks Celeste, great summary.

    This is so tricky. It goes to the heart of the ideas of the contrived body. As someone who rarely wears high heels, makeup or frocks, I am likely seen as willfully against ideas of women performing femininity (or at least myself doing it). But I am also not somehow the opposite of that...and I assume here we all know that the opposite of femininity in that frame is not masculinity, but an unfeminine woman's body.

    I am not - in my jeans, tshirts and boots - uncontrived. I make choices every morning about what I wear and those choices are still about how I look and how I feel and how I want to be perceived, and to deny this would be nonsense... though I've heard it cast about me and by others before.

    I mention fashion, rather than the body, because of what you said about the comparisons of body types and styles with the emergence of the internet... for me, at least, it's been a seemless disconnect between the body, what I can change, and what is worn. As a fat woman, in particular, I am constantly asked (or required) by culture to operate in a particular way, dress a certain way (even as someone who is willfully unfeminine), and to fix the problem. It gets framed as a health issue, but fairly thinly veiled really, because using the same ideas of the internet showing us how we should be in terms of our bits and pieces, it shows us how we should be in terms of ALL bits and pieces.

    But, in the same way as we can blame the internet or globalisation for the prevalence of comparison and homogenisation, it also provides a way for us to align, show difference and mark our own spaces... in much the same way that we always have. I can see other fat women, see that they live normal lives, hear their stories and not just be wrapped up in my own experience.

    When I did my PhD (in performance art) a few years ago, it was on the intersection of gender, sexuality and Indigeneity. It involved images and ideas around the body (bit eighties, yeah, but it was hopefully slightly more insightful than inciteful), and the feedback I got from exhibitiobns and performances was that I should stop referring to myself as butch, because I was pretty (I'm not pretty by anyone's standards, but it was a cultural reassurance that I understood). It was, to say that butchness - deviation from the norm - is not attractive. I know, heaps written on this and not the thrust of your article... but I did want to bring it up because a big part of the exhibition focused on the clitoris (or more specifically, *my* clitoris - and other bits and pieces, I'm vague on the names of the bits). And what I really noticed was that people would say that my clitoris looked normal... like they expected it to look something other than normal and also like they *knew* what a normal clitoris looked like. The odd thing is that although I would roll my eyes or make comments, it did make me fairly glad, cos to be frank, I wasn't too sure if it was. I got the normalisation nod from enough people to think that I didn't need to challenge it. And it sent me quicksmart to a range of sites to check if this was true... including some of the spaces you've mentioned.

    So I wonder is this the solution? Does diversity, reassurance and discussion actually help, or is it another way to reinforce the 'pretty' and the 'normal'.

    As someone who has shifted her opinion radically on plastic surgery over the last 20 years, I probably can't speak to surgical interventions, except to say that they operate (boom boom) as a strategy of action and whether I support it or not, I always support a woman's right to choose... because we all - all of us - make choices based on our own cultural understandings. Providing a bit more of an informative think about the ins and outs of it (so to speak) is why your blog is - quite frankly - great!

    1. Thanks as always, Sandy! And definite thanks for your further insight. It's interesting, but those of us who make active stances to step outside what is socially sanctioned don't ever manage, in most circumstances, to free ourselves from the process of social judgement and evaluation, even if that approval is in a way that runs counter to the mainstream. As you say, we are all shaped by our cultural understandings, and the only way we can challenge that are by examining the elements and making more informed choices in those contexts. This most definitely stands for every culture across the world (and for those active counter-culturalists in each society too)!

    2. Labiaplasty.
      It is disconcerting that this type of mutilation occurs in our "civilized" western communities. It is shameful that young girls are now exposed to advertisements and literature about labiaplasty makes them believe their genitals are ugly and need to be surgically altered. This can lead to life long damage to a young woman's sexual identity. Women need to know that we are all uniquely beautiful and wonderful. Our beautiful flowers should never undergo this indignity. Many women suffer chronic genital pain after this procedure.
      Western society needs to outlaw this practice, just like they are trying to outlaw FGM in other cultures. If they don't, they are displaying the ultimate example of hypocrisy!
      I can't believe that doctors are doing this to women! These plastic surgeons need to be educated about the damage they are doing to the self esteem of women by offering these services and putting out advertisements that suggest that their normal genitals are ugly and need to be cut away to be beautiful. Even the porn magazines are guilty because they photoshop the models so they appear to have no labia minora. Porn stars are having labiaplasty to "look" better. Of course this then creates a society of some men who believe that unless their woman looks like these altered woman, they are not "pretty" there. Before, men were just happy to "be there", (joking), without concerning themselves about whether or not a woman is comparable to the latest porn star they saw or centrefold they just looked at. They are also aware of the new labiaplasty trend and therefore may get sucked into believing that women's labia should look a certain way. Now women have to worry about if their labia measure up during sex rather thank enjoying the moment. Something has to be done to counteract this. More people need to speak out like you. Women should boycott surgeons who provide these services. Those doctors should be put on a list of "female genital mutilators" who should be blacklisted. We need huge websites to shout it out loud and clear. We need to raise money to put out large bold print "ads" about how damaging this practice is and how it should be demonized just like FGM is in other countries.
      I have been doing my part lately by putting out my views when I come across this subject. Perhaps a standard letter should be written up and sent to all surgeons who perform this procedure to educate them in hopes that they will stop. I don't know if I have enough info and writing skills to create a letter that could sway them.
      Anyway, all it takes is someone like you to get the ball rolling. Maybe one day we will see the fight against FGM include the the fight against Labiaplasty.