Female genital cutting is a practice followed in many countries throughout Africa, a few in the Middle East, and occasionally in other continents, including Europe and North America. It involves a variety of procedures, depending on the community practicing it: Circumcision or sunna involves the "removal of the prepuce or hood of the clitoris, with the body of the clitoris remaining intact." Excision or clitoridectomy is the "removal of the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora." Intermediate cutting involves the "removal of the clitoris, all or part of the labia minora, and sometimes part of the labia majora." In infibulation or pharaonic cutting, there is "removal of the clitoris, the labia minora, and much of the labia majora. The remaining sides of the vulva are stitched together to close up the vagina, ecept for a small opening, which is preserved with slivers of wood or matchsticks." (From Warrior Marks by Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar)
You've probably at least heard of the practice, and heard a lot about it if you've studied feminism or international human rights. Have you heard of labiaplasty? It's an elective surgery practiced here in the U.S. in which the labia (minora or majora) are trimmed to be smaller, or injected with fat from elsewhere in the body to be fuller.
Are female genital cutting and labiaplasty related? I recently read an article called "Designer Vaginas" by Simone Weil Davis, which does a beautiful job of explaining why the answer is "yes." She notes that, "Among the key motivating factors raised by African women who favor female genital surgeries are beautification, transcendence of shame, and the desire to conform." How different is that from the motivations of women who choose labiaplasty because they want their vulvas to look "beautiful," are ashamed of the way their vulvas look, or want to conform and have vulvas that look "normal" like everyone else's?
Here's why I chose this topic for a Blog Against Heteronormativity post: heteronormativity is the way in which society pushes us to believe that certain things about sexual identities are normal, including but not limited to heterosexuality and traditional gender roles. One of the aspects of the female role that has long been the most persistent and demanding is that we look "pretty" according to society's definition of "pretty." And, according to the images of women's bodies we see today from sources like Penthouse and Playboy or porn videos, women's labia should be perfectly symmetrical, and their labia minora so small as not to be visible outside of the labia majora. The men who become acquainted with women's bodies through these media form an expectation of the female body that fits that model. So do the women - because women are discouraged from exploring our own bodies, or sharing them with each other, we often learn about ourselves through the same materials that men use. This is how we think "normal" attractive women look.
And these are not just neutral expectations about women's genitalia - they're ideals. Men and women who look at porn are looking for women who look good and are appealing. We learn that this specific way that the vulva looks - one way among dozens or hundreds that are possible - is what's ideally pretty. We believe or hope that everyday women should look like that too. And now we can accomplish that false ideal through surgery.
Oh, it's a free choice, you can say. Sure, very few women are actually forced into the surgeon's office. But bear in mind that, for many women in communities that practice female genital cutting, making their daughters undergo the surgery is also a "choice." The catch is, if you say no, your daughter will be ostracized and considered unmarriagable. Luckily, here in the U.S., if we don't modify our vulvas ... well, we'll probably just be called ugly by men, laughed at by women, feel ashamed of our own bodies, and maybe not have sexual relationships or get married.
My point is that we all feel the pressures from society to conform to the ideal. As women, we are under incredible burdens to meet very specific bodily ideals that are hugely difficult to achieve - we have to diet to be thin, get breast implants to be busty, get botox injections to be unwrinkled (and unexpressive), dye our hair if we have grey ... and now, we should get our labia sliced up to have a pretty vulva. None of us are entirely free from these pressures - even those of us who choose not to conform often have to do so consciously, and meet resistance on various fronts.
Women in communities that practice female genital cutting are under similar pressures. Sure, the specific practice seems strange, even horrific, to us. But how different are they? Pieces of women's external genitalia are cut off in order to match an ideal that can be tied to aesthetics, beliefs about sexual behavior, or cultural ideals. There is no physical benefit to women from the procedure - in fact, it reduces sexual pleasure, and can lead to pain during sex. Of course, female genital cutting is often practiced in unsanitary conditions, and can be much more severe and painful of a surgery than labiaplasty - but the point is that it's not wholly different. It's just further along on the spectrum.
As for the strangeness of it - well, we have all sorts of "customs" that involve altering women's bodies in strange ways for the sake of sexual aesthetics. How often do you hear that it's "weird" or "gross" for a woman not to trim - not to shave off - her pubic hair, even though hair is a natural result of puberty, a sign of sexual maturity? How many women get breast implants, which can make a woman lose sensation in her breasts, or result in dangerous silicon leaks? How many pairs of women's shoes have impossibly high, impossibly thin heels on them that make a woman totter around like a clown on stilts, and do all sorts of bad things to her spine?
These are not expressions of some abstract, eternal beauty ideal - they're constructed. They're made up as we go along. They change across cultures and across time periods. (Take a look at the hairstyles of the 80s and tell me that cultural beauty norms are stable.) The weird, unnecessary, coercive, and dangerous things we force women to do for the sake of "beauty" happen here and now - they didn't go away with the end of corsets and foot-binding.
A final thought: For those of you unfamiliar with the development of male and female external genitalia, they actually develop from the same set of structures (as do other sets of "male" and "female" parts). In the presence of androgens (i.e., a male fetus), the genital tubercle becomes the penis, the labio-scrotal swelling becomes the scrotum, and the uro-genital fold becomes the urethra. In the absence of androgens (i.e., a female fetus), those parts become the clitoris, labia majora, and labia minora, respectively. In other words, they're pretty much the same parts of different bodies.
Now imagine that certain cultures in Africa demanded that boys have some or all of their penises cut off, and in some circumstances sliced up the urethra and/or testicles.
Now imagine that, here in the U.S., we demanded that men cut into their urethras, or sliced off parts of their testicles if they were "uneven" or "too big." But we wouldn't force them into it, of course - we'd just convey, through media and social pressures, that not doing so would make they ugly and undesirable.
Heteronormativity doesn't just hurt people who aren't heterosexual. It shits on all of us.