A purse by any other name ...
One of the central questions posed by Insight’s ‘Clear Cut’ last week, (and written about on Daily Life) was whether or not the west has the moral upper hand when it comes to invasive surgery performed on women’s genitals. Given we are currently experiencing rising numbers of women seeking cosmetic vaginal surgery to ‘correct’ the aesthetic of their vulvas, how can we baldly accuse other cultures of butchering their women when increasing numbers of our own are voluntarily lining up for it? Western society's unwillingness to see the comparisons is understandable, if not frustrating. When you can point the fingers at something happening 'over there', it's much easier to resort to prejudiced ideas of cultural difference so that you can avoid the uncomfortable reality of your own similarities.
Cosmetic surgeon David Caminer, appearing on ‘Clear Cut’, argued that western cosmetic vaginal surgery differs from FGM because one is dictated by culture and the other aesthetic desire. But what governs aesthetic desire if not culture? Conforming to cultural standards of beauty isn’t an act that occurs in a vacuum - without sufficient encouragement from external sources, it’s highly doubtful that women would volunteer to have their vulvas sliced and diced for their own benefit.
The most common reason cited for labiaplasties is embarrassment over a vagina’s appearance; women are worried that, in addition to being ‘wrong’ somehow, their partners will reject them. And because labiaplasties are now listed on the Medicare scheme, their numbers are skyrocketing - particularly among women aged 15 - 24. One Australian gynaecologist has even spoken of being approached by a 13 year old girl. The Channel 4 documentary The Perfect Vagina referred to the case of a 16 year old girl who sought out labiaplasty because she was worried her boyfriend would laugh at her.
Unfortunately, it comes down to a culture in which women’s bodies aren’t just digitally manipulated to cater to specific ideals but in some cases altogether erased. As this excellent report from the ABC’s (sadly axed) program Hungry Beast details, Australian censorship laws deem visible internal labia to count as ‘hardcore pornography’, and instead advocate a ‘neat and tidy’ look. (As far as I’m aware, the law even extends to tampon instruction guides - I’d say if you have to resort to fudding yourself over a tampon guide, you deserve it to be as hardcore as possible). In publishing circles, it’s known as ‘healing it to a single crease’.
As a result, inner labia have become the fairies at the bottom of the lady garden - they might exist, but who can really be sure?
The incredibly lucrative cosmetic surgery industry is naturally keen to cash in on all this body shaming. One of Victoria’s leading providers, The Ashley Centre, describes it as “a basic procedure designed to help women feel more confident about themselves.” They make sure to mention that some women feel ‘embarrassed during sex’ and that it’s ‘not uncommon for women to worry about the size and shape of their vaginas.’ Despite all this careand interest in women’s confidence, the vice president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said last year that 70% of labiaplasties carried out in Australia were done so unnecessarily. Why, given our outrage for other cultural practices involving the surgical manipulation of women's AND girls' vaginas in order to placate social standards of sexual attractiveness, do we not turn our critical lens to this but instead mouth off about 'choice' and 'consent'?
The Large Labia Project [warning: highly NSFW] is one woman’s attempt to correct the misconceptions about women’s vulvas. Emma, a 24 year old woman living in Sydney, was inspired to start the project after watching the above linked Hungry Beast story.
“I took [the findings of the report] personally,” Emma explains. “My own labia minora are on the larger size. They protrude from between my outer lips and are darker coloured tending to brown. They’re a bit lopsided in length with one side longer than the other, and with different textures from one lip to the other. Perfectly normal, but had I been one of the models in those magazines my bits would have been digitally cut off. And that appalled me.”
The Large Labia Project posts photographs of women’s vulvas, submitted voluntarily by them, in order to demonstrate the incredible diversity that exists in women’s bodies. Because it operates on Tumblr, it can exist outside of Australia’s censorship laws. Some of the stories women relay to Emma are heartbreaking. One 14 year old girl spoke of trying to numb her labia with ice and cut off the protruding parts (or what The Ashley Centre refers to as ‘excess’) with scissors. Another woman, married for almost 5 years, was inspired by Emma’s project to finally allow her husband to see her naked with the lights on. Others have told her they finally feel like there’s nothing wrong with them.
“The most common reaction [from women] is relief, tremendous relief that they are not alone, and that a huge body of women share vulva similar to them, or that they can see that there isn't the homogeneity in labia size, shape and colour that they'd been convinced existed.”
It’s impossible to not find similarities between the practices of FGM and our own culturally sanctioned forms of genital modification. One of these things may not be precisely like the other, but there’s no doubt they stem from the same beast. If we are to criticise one as an example of culturally regressive barbarism, we must also be willing to shine the light on our own complicated relationship with the sexual packaging of women’s bodies as commodities. Yes, it is atrocious to tie a child down and mutilate them. And this must be properly targeted, preferably by those who exist within its culture of origin. It isn't our job as western crusaders to storm in and tell the natives what to do, as if their entire society is constructed out of the uncivilised village we imagine for them in our minds.
When Ubah Abdullahi (featured on Insight’s ‘Clear Cut’) moved to Australia, she was able to find a doctor and somewhat reverse the effects of the infibulation she’d experienced as a child. But there’s an obscene irony to the idea that while this may have been occurring in one clinician’s room, a woman next door may have been undergoing similarly invasive, painful (and potentially dangerous) surgery in order to match an aesthetic ideal that better fits in with western culture’s construction of female sexual attractiveness.
Instead of always pointing fingers at other people, we should turn our attention to the culture in which we operate. A society that has turned the unnecessary butchery of women’s perfectly fine bodies into a lucrative financial business (while hiding behind the excuse of informed consent) is equally deserving of investigation. At the very least, we should acknowledge that the moral high ground we keep clinging to is built on very precarious foundations.
The Large Labia Project is conducting some ground breaking research into the size and shape of women's vulvas. If you would like to participate (photos aren't necessary), please find Emma's survey here.
Disclaimer: Clementine would like to acknowledge that the issue of male circumcision is also fraught. She is personally against all forms of cultural sanctioned genital surgery, including male circumcision. However, this article is not about that so she would kindly ask that comments not be derailed. There will be a time in which to discuss male circumcision, but this article is not it.