I've been buying a lot of magazines lately - stuff to read at work mostly, since I'm not able to access most internet sites from work due to privacy issues. Anyway, I typically get Oprah's magazine - O, Marie Claire, Martha Stewart Living, and In Style. Nothing too challenging, but entertaining and sometimes interesting. So imagine my surprise when I find in the December issues of two of those magazines, O and Marie Claire, articles about cosmetic surgery on female genitalia.
O magazine asks, "Is NOTHING Sacred? The newest rejuvenation treatments target...'down there'", while Marie Claire goes a slightly different direction by asking, "Sex Crimes: Should cosmetic surgery on your lady parts be banned?" From O:
Last year doctors in the United States performed just over 4,500 "vaginal rejuvenation" procedures - not many compared with almost 400,000 breast augmentations and some 450,000 liposuctions, but enough to prompt the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) to issue a statement about "the lack of data supporting the effectiveness of these procedures as well as their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, pain, and scarring."
Now, I have to say that I've heard about this before this month. Jenna Jameson had a vaginoplasty in 2007. Channel 4 (in the UK) aired a program called The Perfect Vagina this summer. This summer I also bookmarked Vagina Anxiety: The Rise of the Labialplasty - which referenced several other media mentions of this "new" plastic surgery obsession - and which led me to this "designer vaginas" rant. In other words, this diary was almost written this summer, but I was overwhelmed by unpacking from a move and finding/starting a new job and of course, by working to elect Barack Obama (Yes we did! I'm still jumping up and down about that), and so it wasn't until I came across these two articles that I remembered all the links I'd set aside this summer on the same issue. I think it's high time we ask - WTF?! Who does this? Why do they do it? And...do we have any business in trying to stop them? If so, how?
Marge Berer, editor of Reproductive Health Matters was interviewed for the Marie Claire piece. She believes labiaplasty is attractive to some women because they fear that their own labia are too large or abnormally shaped when compared with those they've seen on websites and in magazines. Berer also says that these procedures constituted female genital mutilation and that it should be banned:
The definition of FGM, according to the World Health Organization, includes any cutting of the labia, as well as part or all of the clitoris. It is much more severe than what is being done by these plastic surgeons. But in all cultures, using a surgical procedure to conform to an external definition of what a woman's genitals are supposed to look like is mutilation.
I don't watch Dr. 90210 because I would probably vomit if I did, but apparently the tv show has featured a mother bringing in her teenage daughter because her outer labia was "too big". This guy must be quite the doctor! Check out the amazing things he can do for your vag:
At his practice in Beverly Hills, labiaplasty surgeon Dr. Rey can reduce the labia to a more comfortable size, while ensuring minimal scarring. A more youthful vaginal appearance, as well as comfortable physical activity, is the pleasing result.
There's even a link to view before and after photos (do I really need to tell you the link may not be safe for work?)- looks to me like a lot of slicing goes into this surgery. A lot of unnecessary slicing.
O takes a slightly different approach in their discussion. They basically discuss the issue by talking about a "medspa" in NYC called Phit (Pelvic Health Integrated Techniques). This is a facility that promotes itself by celebrating "pelvic fitness" on the one hand (Kegel and other strength exercises to increase sexual pleasure and bladder control), and pelvic improvements on the other, from laser treatments to smooth cellulite and the labia, labiaplasty - described as "an operation to "recontour" the inner labia", and tightening of the vaginal muscles.
I'll be a little bit more blunt. Here's the message: apparently your vag isn't tight enough anymore now that you're older and especially after you've given birth. And according to...someone...you'd better tighten that shit up or you'll be persona non grata. I mean, because everybody's seen your vag and is judging your worth based on the looks, right?
The Perfect Vagina program I linked to above notes that vaginal cosmetic surgery is the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the United Kingdom. There's a link to a poll (it's closed - no PBS poll repeats here, so don't bother) that has 43% of respondents indicating that they've thought about vaginal cosmetic surgery - over 4000 women. Where is this desire coming from? Have these women forgotten that nearly every photo they're seeing online or in a magazine has been photo-shopped to someone's idea of perfection - typically a man's idea of perfection.
When I was in school many years ago I read Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, by Laura Mulvey. In this article, Mulvey discusses the "male gaze":
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacie and narrative. (Note, however, how the musical song-and-dance numbers break the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, , yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative. As Budd Boetticher has put it:
"What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance."
More detail for those of you who want it, at Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog.
"I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. This window, if it gets a bit dark, and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straight-away a gaze". - Jacques Lacan
The gaze is about power. It has been suggested that heterosexual men are immune to the gaze. I argued in a paper or two that while this may have once been true, it wasn't anymore. There are plenty of heterosexual men who are now using a gaze to look back at themselves and judge- and I don't think it's shocking to note that this gaze seems to spread as media focus on the perfect male body and personality increases. I do believe women are still the larger victims of this gaze.
Religious and cultural beliefs, as well as societal pressure have contributed to Female Genital Mutilation around the world - and even in the United States.
- Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
- An estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
- In Africa, about three million girls are at risk for FGM annually.
- The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
- Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later, potential childbirth complications and newborn deaths.
- It is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15 years.
- FGM is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
The procedures being done here in the United States are cosmetic. They are not medically necessary. How these procedures aren't already illegal in the United States is beyond me - and really, if these procedures aren't illegal, then doesn't that make it easier for those promoting FGM to achieve legality? What kind of mother brings her teenage daughter to a doctor and says, "make her outer labia smaller, it's too big"? How often is this happening?
Isn't it time we learn to love ALL of ourselves? We can't expect to have healthy sex lives otherwise.
- Take out a mirror and look at yourself
- See if you can recognise all the parts of your genitals – the outer lips, the inner lips, the clitoris, the hood, the entrance to vagina...
- Acknowledge that you may not be like the pictures in all the anatomy books but everyone is different. You are normal just the way you are.
- Close your eyes and visualise your genitals as the most beautiful flower in the garden, imagine that your lips are the petals of this flower and, when you open your eyes, gently touch your labia lips with your fingertips as you would touch the petals of the flower.
- Create a positive statement as a daily affirmation whenever you have negative feeling about your vagina. For example, "I am perfect just the way I am’.
Remember everyone is different... and not just in the shape of their face but also in their genitals. No-one has the perfect vagina, they are all different and perfect in their own way.
So by getting to know and accept your genitals you will increase the potential for pleasure and orgasm and all-round sense of wellbeing.