Designer Vaginas, Anyone?
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Once you've had your breasts enhanced, your thighs sucked thin, your skin stretched taught over your cheekbones, and your lips pumped full of cow's tissue, what better way to finish off that perfect Barbie doll look than to have your genitals surgically remodeled and your pubic area waxed smooth? And if you're worried that your partner might be tempted to stray because you've had a couple of kids and things have started to sag a bit, what better way to guarantee his fidelity than to transform yourself into a porn queen lookalike with the fanny of a pre-pubescent girl?
Hymenoplasty, vaginal tightening, revirgination, G-spot amplification and labial reduction are the latest craze in cosmetic surgeries for women with more money than sense. Surgeries that were originally designed to help overcome some of the more debilitating side effects of childbirth have now been appropriated by an industry whose sole purpose is to convince women that they're imperfect and to profit from the plummeting self-esteem they promote.
In last week's Observer, Cristina Odone lauded hymenoplasty as "brilliantly subversive" and as "good news" for women. "After all," she chortled, "nowadays you don't have to be a virgin -- you just pretend to be one."
Well, sorry to burst your bubble Cristina, but having your hymen repaired to meet with societal expectations of a new bride's virginity, or having your vagina tightened as a gift to your husband so he can re-live that first night experience, is not "good news for women," not by any stretch of the imagination. Something's surely gone amiss if we're now celebrating voluntary mutilation as some kind of benchmark for women's progress.
We rightly condemn female genital mutilation (FGM) when it's forced on women and girls in the name of culture and tradition, yet we're quick to embrace it when it's sold to us packaged in the language of choice. There's a glaring inconsistency in the western notion of female empowerment, when enshrined within that is the right of women to go under the surgeon's knife in pursuit of a socially imposed model of physical perfection. It's no wonder we face accusations of hypocrisy and cultural imperialism, when glossy magazines carry worthy articles about the horrors of FGM in the developing world on the one page, and advertisements offering the latest in designer vaginas in the classified section at the back.
Of course there's an enormous difference between a young girl being forced to undergo FGM without anaesthetic, where the purpose is to reduce the desire for sex, and a grown woman choosing surgery under the misapprehension that it's going to improve her sex life (doctors have now warned that the potential risks, which include infection, scarring, nerve damage and loss of sensation outweigh the potential benefits). While the procedures and motivations are different, both come firmly under the banner of harmful cultural practices.
In 1915 the Chinese government finally declared foot binding illegal; for centuries Chinese girls had been forced to endure agony for the sake of a pair of tiny feet. Ironically, podiatrists in America are now performing toe shortening surgery, to help women fit into the latest designer shoes. And while a quarter of young girls in Cameroon are being subjected to breast ironing, where their breasts are pounded and massaged with a variety of heated implements to try and stop them developing, in the west, teenage girls as young as 14 are being treated to breast implants.
From one generation to the next, and from one society to another, women's bodies are being continually sculpted to fit in with cultural norms and orthodoxies; but it's not just women who are falling prey to the myth that the body beautiful is within everyone's reach. While we might wince at the thought of the subincision practised by some Aboriginal Australian tribes, increasing numbers of men are seeking out penis enlargement surgeons, or inserting splints attached to weights into their members in a bid to make them longer. And while breast enhancement surgery has become an almost routine procedure for women, men too can now have their chests reshaped with pectoral implants.
There's a scene in the film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club where the two main protagonists steal discarded bags of liposuctioned fat from waste bins; the fat is a vital ingredient for the designer soap out of which they make their living. As we watch the bags being dragged out of the bins, the narrator intones:
Tyler sold his soap to department stores at $20 a bar. Lord knows what they charged. It was beautiful. We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them.
Cosmetic surgeons now offer injectable fillers, containing human fat harvested from the patient's own body to pack facial creases and build up shallow contours. Palahniuk got it right. We're selling rich women their own fat asses, and someone's laughing all the way to the bank.
Cath Elliott is a feminist and a trade union activist. She is currently working in local government.