When I was a toddler I was burnt; I have a very noticeable third degree burn scar on my right arm.
Although as a self–conscious teen I would have given anything to rid myself of this, now as a woman I realise our differences, our quirks and our physical scars are what make us unique. I have embraced my burn as part of my story and wear the tight, twisted flesh with a sense of pride. It is a visible reminder of my strength and endurance.
Yet increasingly I have noticed that the media and popular culture do not embrace diversity; our differences are presented as problems that can be best solved through medical intervention.
Many celebrities seem to now have the one generic, geometrically perfect face; they feature the same bee-stung lips, chiselled cheekbones, wide eyes and wrinkle-free brow. Plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures are now also no longer solely the domain of celebrities or accident victims; they are very much mainstream. And why wouldn’t they be? Buzz words that sell cosmetic surgery make it sound like a choice no more serious than choosing a location to holiday in; they include terms which declare the procedure will leave one ‘refreshed’ and ‘rejuvenated’. In fact, you can even go on holidays to have your surgery. There is a huge growth in what is known as “surgery tourism”, this allows patients to enjoy cut-price procedures in exotic overseas destinations.
But the reason why we are finding it easier to spot someone who has had “work” is not simply by virtue of the increase in those who may make this decision. Facial Cosmetic Surgeon Dr William Mooney explained that the biggest change he has noticed in his practice over recent years is the expectation from clients that they want their surgery to be identifiable, “There is an increased idealisation of the surgery itself and requests to look ‘done’ rather than for me to create a more natural look. Colleagues tell me that the move away from wanting a naturally achievable look is particularly the case in breast enhancements. In Australia there has been an increase of between 10-15% in the size of the implants being used over the course of the past 5 years.”
And it seems that it is no longer enough to have a facelift or a boob job, or to have some collagen injected in the lips. Vaginal ‘rejuvenation’ procedures are now popular too. Everything female needs to be reshaped.
According to figures from Medicare, there has been an increase in the number of women undergoing vulvoplasty or labiaplasty in Australia of 140 per cent. However, Dr Meredith Jones, a media and cultural studies scholar, believes the actual increase may be as high as 400 per cent due to the fact that many procedures are not necessarily claimed on Medicare, nor carried out locally: “There have been no fewer than four major international conferences for doctors and surgeons who want to learn how to perform these procedures in the past few years; it is seen as a growing and lucrative industry.”
Why the desire for a designer vagina? Researcher Karen Roberts McNamara notes that ‘in years past, women rarely had the opportunity to see other women’s vaginas and thus had no sense of how a typical vagina might look. Yet with the mainstreaming of the adult entertainment industry, the situation has changed dramatically. Now, a beauty standard has emerged, one established primarily through porn actresses, nude models and strippers.’
She argues that women are going under the scalpel to have their vaginal openings tightened and their labias made smaller because they have been convinced this will ‘normalise’ them and give them confidence. The plastic surgery industry’s ‘sanitized ideal of the clean, delicate, discreet vaginal slit’ casts the bodies of women who have not undergone these procedures ‘as necessarily dirty and unsightly’.
Sadly, it’s not just grown women who are being told they should doubt their own genitals. Gynaecologists report girls as young as 12 are requesting cosmetic genital surgery. Meanwhile, beauticians have noted a huge increase in the number of young women wanting ‘intimate’ grooming treatments. Girls as young as 14 are asking for Brazilian waxes.
With all the pressure to wax and ‘rejuvenate’, we seem to have lost sight of what ‘normal’ might look like. In an episode of the UK Sex Education Show, when teens of both sexes were shown images of women with pubic hair, they gasped in what seemed to be shock or disgust. The producers had set out to show that in reality ‘we all come in all different shapes and sizes. From penises to pubes, bums to boobs whatever you’ve got it’s all perfectly normal.’
Whilst I respect the individual’s right to make decisions about their own bodies, I also can’t help but think we need to work to end this body-hating madness. We are more than just our faces, breasts, and vaginas– just as I am so much more than my arm.
When we see ourselves and other girls and women as just bodies, we forget that we are all actually somebodies.
One thought on “Reshaping all things female”
I’d just like to add that the Medicare figures I looked at for labiaplasty procedures showed that the number has doubled in Australia over the last ten years (around 700 women in 2002, and 1500 in 2012). These are national figures, so they’re not especially high, though we don’t know what proportion of women are undergoing this procedure privately. It’s nice to see you quoting Dr. Meredith Jones too!
Also, I have a research project, which aims to answer some of the questions raised in this article about possible cultural influences on this phenomenon, such as pornography. My co-researcher and I have developed a survey about genital satisfaction in response to the apparent rise in labiaplasty procedures.
The survey is called ‘Vulvatalk’, and it asks Australian women to talk about how they feel about their genitals. It’s the first major nation-wide survey to ask women directly about genital satisfaction, and we’re giving women the opportunity to talk about their bodies openly and anonymously. It’s a joint project between the Gender Studies program at the University of Melbourne and the Centre for Mental Health Research at ANU. Because the statistics just aren’t there, we want to get some indication of how popular labiaplasty procedures are becoming, and why. We also want to know what women think about it.
If you would like to participate in our survey or pass it along to your friends please visit the Vulvatalk Facebook page at facebook.com/vulvatalk
Or go directly to the survey page: http://bit.ly/NS2to4
Dr. Camille Nurka
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