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Blog Against Heteronormativity

*posted early because I probably won't have time to do it tomorrow

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.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 21st, 2006 10:21 pm (UTC)
"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."

Now, I think demand is somewhat of a strong verb, mostly because the government isn't sending an SS squad to slice up any woman's axe wound (currently). However, the other extreme of male improvement does exist in the US, mostly because I get at least 20 e-mails a day about it. However, there are no drugs out there even proported to 'enlarge your vagina' (at least that I know of). But I believe the ideal is still there. Don't have a big penis, and you can't get a girlfriend (or at least one of those girlfriends with a sliced up crotch). The same social pressures are there for males as well as females, although perhaps a bit diluted.

Just my two cents.

Also, have you ever considered a career in Sociobiology?
Apr. 22nd, 2006 07:40 am (UTC)
I also think there's a fair bit of pressure on men, especially young men, over male circumcision; i.e., an uncircumcised penis is unattractive, unclean, etc. I'm not trying to belittle the pressures women feel, but they're definitely there for men too, though in different ways.
Apr. 25th, 2006 01:31 am (UTC)
You're right, and in fact a lot of my objections to female genital cutting apply to infant male circumcision as well - done at a young age, no health benefits, may damage the genitalia. Of course, as it's practiced in the West, male circumcision is more hygenic and less dangerous than FGC, so there's that consideration as well.

I guess I should have expanded my post to include this subject, because of course it's related. The major difference for me, though, involves the cultural roots of the respective practices - FGC is caught up in fears of female sexuality and a desire to control women's behavior, while labiaplasty is part of the cut-yourself-up trend that pushes women into a narrower and narrower "ideal" image created for the pleasure of (male) others, regardless of the damage to women's pleasure/health. Male circumcision, on the other hand, isn't about restricting male power or pleasure, and the pressure to be circumcised is less prevalent than that to have a vulva that isn't "ugly."

I do, however, oppose male circumcision performed on infants without their consent. That's definitely a choice to be made by the penis-owner in question.
Apr. 25th, 2006 01:21 am (UTC)
I definitely agree that men also feel pressure about their bodies. The difference to me is that there isn't something analogous to labiaplasty: a surgical practice for enlarging penises that may risk damaging men's genitalia. "The same social pressures ... perhaps a bit diluted" is a good way of describing it. It happens to both sexes, and it's sucky for both sexes - but women are harmed more/too much by it.

I haven't thought about sociobiology much - I'm mostly interested in the society part rather than the biology part.

That is a mesmerizing icon. o_o
Apr. 22nd, 2006 02:54 pm (UTC)
So, do men *really* feel some kind of societal pressure from spam emails? Or are there other forms of pressures to conform to the ideal penis size? I'm thinking not through the media, at least not any of the things I see/read. But since I'm a woman, I might not be aware of it.

Anyway, I think this idea of a choice that's not a choice is interesting. Can the decision to alter one's own labia (or whatever) EVER be a free choice. I guess that I would argue no, at least not until there's a change in the way we as a society decide what is beautiful.

On the note of variation. YES YES YES. We need variation. I consciously resist the paradigm that difference is bad.

Thanks for writing this- I learned something!
(sorry, I guess I've never posted on LiveJournal and it won't let me do anything but be anonymous- but I'm turtlebella (http://turtlebella.wordpress.com))
Apr. 25th, 2006 01:47 am (UTC)
I would say that yes, men feel pressure in regards to their penis size - though it's more an issue of being manly and virile (i.e., for themselves) than the pressure on women to be attractive (for men). I would also say, as per my comment to chibi_ginn, that the pressure doesn't translate into an actual physical practice, which would add onto the feelings of inadequacy.

I've been convinced by feminist theory that there really isn't any such thing as a free choice - even if you choose to rebel against the mainstream, the mainstream influences you by giving you a frame of reference. It just isn't productive to spend time trying to find the perfectly "free" choice. We can't escape society influence - so why not just spend time working to dismantle the influences that are actually harmful.

Yay for variation. :D Seriously, it would go so far in mitigating the damage caused by societal pressures if we could just acknowledge that variations from the "ideal" exist.

Thanks for dropping by!
Jul. 24th, 2007 07:30 pm (UTC)
I am currently searching the internet for a surgeon in my area that WILL do a labiaplasty. After 5 children my genitals have stretched into one loose "pile". This has made stimulation during sex almost non-existant (can't feel through the mass of skin that now covers my clitoris). I have a couple of friends experiencing the same thing - one refers to her genitals as "utters" and I have to agree that it is a good visual tool. SO...don't assume that women are trying to look a certain way for a man. They may want to have some great sex again!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )