Recent discussion of body modification, specifically female body modification, has inflamed cultural sensitivities and ignited serious academic debate over the role personal context has in determining what is considered the ‘inhumane’ subjugation of women.
Questions of what should remain unchallenged in the name of cultural sovereignty from an outside, often Western, judgement are raised from this.
On a western-centric website, body modification is described as being performed for “motivations (such) as sexual enhancement, a rite of passage, aesthetic reasons, denoting affiliation, trust and loyalty, religious or mystical affiliations, shock value, and self-expression”. Interestingly, these are the exact same reasons that certain body modifications such as the oft-criticised Female Genital Cutting (FGC, also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation) are performed in non-Western states.
Labiaplasty is a surgical procedure that involves the removal of the labia majora, usually with scissors or a scalpel. Despite the grim images such an operation is likely to conjure, it has been rising by over 100% each year in Australia and can often even be subject to Medicare rebates.
There is a belief that the proliferation of the ‘designer vagina’, or the vagina that 0.7% of the female population have, can partly be attributed to other types of vaginas being deemed too rude by the Australian Classification Board. According to their guidelines, “Realistic depictions may contain discreet genital detail but there should be no emphasis”. What this has been reported to mean in practicality, according to Brad Boxall, ex-editor of People Magazine, is that “they basically consider the labia majora too offensive for soft porn”.
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Female Genital Cutting on the other hand describes a variety of procedures from the removal of some of the labia majora to a practise known as infibulation, which constitutes the total removal of much of the outer vagina, including the clitoris, with the organ sewed up with a 1 cm hole to allow urination and menstrual blood to flow. The reasoning behind the clitoridectomy is that a woman will be less likely to be unfaithful to her husband is she is unable to feel any sexual pleasure. It is also used to prove virginity and so maintain the economic value of a woman to her husband. On the wedding night the husband will have to rip open the sewed up vagina, to perform intercourse.
The justification for both labiaplasty and FGC is to increase their desirability. If all motivations are stripped to their rudimentary reasoning, female genital surgery in and out of the West both stem from an identical basis.
However, many feminists have justified such discrepancies by arguing that the two practices are not comparable, as Western FGC is conducted surgically in sterile environments with anaesthetic on grown women who elect to undergo the operation, whereas in developing countries, the practice is often forced on girls as young as a couple of days old in unsanitary environments. The UN adds weight to this argument, emphasising the more crude aspects through the description of the implements often employed for the practice, including “a kitchen knife, a razor-blade, a piece of glass or even a sharp fingernail”.
Furthermore, there is irrefutable proof of the medical complications that can occur. Short term health issues such as severe pain and haemorrhaging and infection can often prove fatal. There is also an increased chance of contracting HIV/AIDS (as the same implements are sometimes used on different girls), and “infertility as a result of infection, obstructed labour and psychological complications” are just a few of the longer term affects, with those “in rural areas where untrained traditional birth attendants perform the operations, complications resulting from deep cuts and infected instruments can cause the death of the child”. Whilst this procedure is illegal in Australia, there is a belief that it is still occurs underground, with 600-700 cases being presented to the Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital each year alone.
The UN is far from ambiguous in its perspective, citing the practice as violating many human rights laws, such as the the right of the child to the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health”, as laid down in article 24 (paras. 1 and 3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
What the international community has often failed to see is that many women who have undergone the operation specifically in African nations have cited the fact that they are, as a result, more desirable; in contexts that afford little opportunities to women, the process has oxymoronically offered them an avenue to gain power socially and economically via increased marriage opportunities. Nonetheless, despite the fact that ‘desirability’ being listed as a determining factor in undergoing FGC may appear deeply troubling to many in the West, a very striking comparison can be drawn in this justification with “acceptable Euro-centric operations”, such as labiaplasty.
Labiaplasty, on the other hand, whilst dramatically less damaging than infibulation, is also a cause for much concern. Some women have reported being left with painful scars and diminished ability to enjoy sexual activity, but many are placing their inaccurate perceptions above their sexual enjoyment. Looking at the bigger picture, some have reported that they’ve become so psychologically damaged that they go to great lengths to avoid sexual activity.
One UNSW student who requested not to be named, and who underwent the procedure, stated that the thought of any sexual activity with her boyfriend made her feel sick. “I thought I was a freak and I was desperate for him to never see me naked. Now I’ve had it (labiaplasty) done and I now know what a ‘normal’ vagina looks like, I wish I’d not wasted the $4500 getting it done. I was actually very ‘normal’ all along,” she said. “I’m so bitter and angry with society that myself and other girls are being caused so much psychological damage for something that is completely unnecessary,” she added.
Many Western women are electing to have the surgery to prescribe to a view of what is “normal” for female genitalia, therefore creating a crevasse between what is “natural” and what is “socially acceptable”; a view that is echoed by their Non-Western counterparts. As most women have no point of reference and have internalised what constitutes a ‘normal’ vagina, from the airbrushed and often labiaplastied vaginas of pornographic pictures or videos, it is easily seen that the mutilation of their genitalia is a direct result of the pornification of Western culture.
Clearly the practise in these instances is not something that is desirable for any woman, regardless of culture: what is needed is increased dialogue and education about this all too often taboo subject.