Monday, 18 August 2008

The Perfect Vagina

When you've had your nose, lips, eyes, tummy and breasts done, why not let your vagina go under the knife too? Yes, incredibly, vaginoplasty is becoming an increasingly popular type of cosmetic surgery. The British Medical Journal describes the procedure as the "shortening or changing the shape of the outer lips, or labia, but may also include reduction in the hood of skin covering the clitoris or shortening the vagina itself." RANZCOG have warned against this type of surgery because of the potential for scarring, infection, loss of sensation and other complications. But when the average operation costs $9,500 (US) there is certainly money to be made.

As part of Channel 4's 'G-Spot' season on modern "women's issues", Lisa Rogers investigates The Perfect Vagina. Increasing numbers of British women are selecting to have labiplastys, a less invasive form of vaginoplasty in the hope it will give a more uniform appearance. What Lisa wants to know is who are these women doing it for? Is it themselves?

The documentary starts with a visit to Professor Linda Cardozo, who tells us demand for labiplastys on the NHS has doubled in recent years. As the vagina is now another marker of fashion, women generally want to look like other women. Unfortunately the hegemonic look is that of a small child's. As the BMJ notes, "patients who sought genitoplasty "uniformly" wanted their vulvas to be flat and with no protrusion, similar to the prepubescent look of girls in Western fashion ads". So when did this fashion begin? Lisa nips down the salon for her first Brazilian in a couple of years to find out. The beautician says the fashion for pubic styling/hair removal became voguish in the late 1990s, especially after a Sex and the City episode on that theme was screened.

However, hair removal is one thing. Surgery quite another. Lisa meets with 21 year old Rosie who is booked in for a private labiplasty. Rosie's story is one of body confidence. From a young age her sister has continually made fun of her labia and has made it known to all her friends about her "hanging ham". She has also used it to ward off potential boyfriends. It was difficult not to feel her humiliation when she talked about standing in a club with a group of male "friends" who were "jokingly" laying into her about them. It's a pity there are no surgical solutions to boorish insensitivity and sexist bullying.

It is to The Perfect Vagina's credit it did not skimp on the uncomfortable surgery scenes. We are shown Rosie's fear and pain as her labia are anaesthetised in turn and unceremoniously sliced off. Even though I don't own a pair, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who couldn't suppress a wince. But if this wasn't bad enough, the wounds can take up to three months to heal. Surely seeing Rosie sat on a loo with a handful of tissue pressed between her legs in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding is enough to put anyone off this procedure. I hope so.

Lisa then meets 31 year old Kelly. She was brought up by her grandparents, which meant anything to do with the body was strictly off limits. When she started her period her grandmother told Kelly it would be "their secret". This set the tone for a problematic relationship with her vagina. As a red head she would take mascara to her pubic hair in an effort to look like everyone else in the changing room. She also talked about watching porn with her husband and how it was predisposing her toward labiplasty and liposuction so her vagina could compare with porn star genitalia. Her reasoning was if hers were perfect then maybe her husband wouldn't feel the need to watch.

To try and dissuade her from surgery, Lisa took her along to have a cast of her bits done. Jamie McCartney, a Brighton-based sculptor, is building a wall of vagina casts. Several women who'd already been done thought the experience was quite encouraging because it showed them what they had was not freakish or unpleasant. Kelly was similarly positive when she'd been done too. She went from describing it as a hot dog bap with a "beak" to seeing it as it really was - genitalia well within variation. Happily it made her think again about the surgery.

Lisa then goes to see Eric Shulton, a plastic surgeon specialising in vaginoplasty procedures. She asks wouldn't it be better to encourage women to accept their bodies instead of slicing bits of it off? His reply - as you'd expect - is that the women who come to him have tried to and failed, so what solution is left? Lisa then decides to submit herself to an examination to see if, according to his opinion, whether she qualifies for surgery. His conclusion is that she's normal, but has operated on at least one very similar vagina because the patient thought her clitoral hood was a little too large.

It was inevitable Lisa would come across hymen reconstruction surgery at some stage. For a minority of Muslim women (though, it should be said, not exclusively so), bleeding after sex on the wedding night is taken as proof of her virginity. Lisa meets with one 19 year old woman desperate for a reconstruction. If anyone found out she wasn't a virgin she and her parents would feel compelled to kill themselves for the shame it would bring upon them. She made it clear this was a punishment she had to undergo to save them all - she couldn't care less about the man arranged to be her groom.

In her closing, Lisa finished with a plea to women to "love your flaps", which summed up the body positive image The Perfect Vagina laboured to get across. It centred on personal and educational means of overcoming women's alienation from their bodies. Kelly benefited, as did Raegan, who attended a holistic sex therapy session with Lisa where they were encouraged to talk about the memories associated with their vaginas. Lisa also pledged to bring her two daughters up in a body positive atmosphere to head them hang ups off at the past. But is this enough?

As far as I'm concerned, anyone should be entitled to change their bodies how they wish. But when large groups of women feel compelled by a variety of pressures to go under the knife, something is seriously wrong. With regard to designer vaginas, there are two interrelated and mutually constitutive factors the programme identified but did not go into enough depth.

The first of these are men. Lisa asked her partner, a group of her male friends and Jamie McCartney whether they "noticed" vaginas - had they ever been put off by a foo? The answer was no. But it appeared on the basis of the evidence presented in the show to be an age and class thing. Rosie's young male "friends" certainly cared. Kelly thought her husband cared. Part of Raegan's insecurities stemmed from her ex who used to make disparaging comments about her after she'd had a baby. And the two work men Lisa hired for painting work certainly had very fixed and detailed opinions on how a vagina should look. Rosie's group were young and presumably affluent like her. The remainder were working class.

As far as I know, there's no data on porn use by men by class location. Nor am I about to assume middle class men like Lisa's friends are any less likely to view it. Whatever these specifics are, it's not a great leap of the imagination to suggest a relationship between porn, pubic fashions, vaginal anxiety and men. As Lisa noted earlier on, waxing has a lot to answer for. But this is one property of a new ubiquity of genitalia. The continuing spread of the internet and the vast quantities of it devoted to porn means sexual imagery of one kind or another has never been so accessible. Most women who work in porn conform to conventional body stereotypes. But also their vaginas, which tend to be shaved or waxed, are seen by many more men ... and women, than the Razzles and Escorts of old. This has a knock on effect in hegemonic constructions of femininity. The disappearance/minimisation of pubic hair and the ideal vagina of the porn star translates into a mainstream aesthetics of the pubis. This aesthetics is sustained through magazines, marketing, peer pressure, and the perceived expectation that potential sexual partners prefer the porn star look. Small wonder some women turn to vaginoplasty in an effort to conform.

Unfortunately, this culture seems to be getting stronger all the time. The gaze, the libidinal economy of patriarchal sexuality that greases the wheels of the multi-billion pound sex industry has never been so powerful and pervasive. Literally every inch of women's bodies are commodified and pronounced upon. This culture, which distorts sexuality by casting women in an inferior position is a big obstacle to building the humanistic, fulfilling and liberating socialist society our species deserves. How do we halt the juggernaut?

26 comments:

Bent Society said...

Perhaps it is because we no longer believe that we will live forever as asexual cloud dwelling angels that we seek sexual perferection with penis extensions, the gym, bum-hole bleaching and desigenr vaginas.

Now you see 50 year old women pulling 18 year old boys in night clubs. More people model themselves on film stars atc rather than considering themsleves middle-aged at 35 (as my parents generation did)

I wrote about our need to remember that the ancient Greeks taught us that real secret of happiness is "To thine own self be true"

http://bentsocietyblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/sex-lies-and-stereotypes.html

Try telling that to the very successful mockney talking Blair, Jagger (who sang and danced like a Black American musician). Jamie Oliver etc and the implanted millionaire Jordon.

Robin

John Meredith said...

Before we get too worked up about it, do we have any figures to contextualise what 'increasing numbers of women' having such operations means? Is it really a significant trend or just a bit of TV prurience dressed up as social concern, I wonder.

Phil BC said...

I was hoping to get some figures last night, but couldn't find any.

Here's one set from the USA:

"According to statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), who started tracking statistics for vaginal surgery for the first time in 2005; 1,030 vaginal rejuvenation procedures were performed in 2006 in the USA, a rise of 30% on their 2005 figures. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) also started collating statistics on this procedure as late as 2007 and showed that over 4,500 vaginal rejuvenations were performed in 2007 in the U.S..

No official figures are yet available for the UK, but vaginal surgery is becoming increasingly popular and more available in this country too." Source

I have managed to unearth some from the UK at last:

"Over the past two years vaginal surgery has become the fastest growing form of plastic surgery with a 149% increase in NHS approved operations. The exact numbers are unknown (as many of the procedures are carried out privately or even abroad) but in 2004-05 800 labial reductions were carried out on the NHS more than a doubling of the figure of six years earlier. Labia reduction requested purely for cosmetic reasons and carried out in the private sector have increased by 300%." (Written Aug 2008) Source

Thing is John, should we really reserve our worries until thousands of women of having the operation every year? I think not.

John Meredith said...

Presumably the operations approved by the NHS were not for cosmetic purposes?


I have a feeling that this is all a bit concocted. There will always be a small number of people who are attracted to strange practices but it can't tell us anything much about the society as a whole. I do think we have to wait for a real trend to show before we let it bother us much.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

perfection for me would mean i fit LOL

Foxessa said...

Since about 5 years ago USian periodicals have carried these stories too.

There is no doubt that pornification is in play and has been since the 80's.

What is most negative about this cosmetic drive for perfection is that physical perfection can never be achieved. Thus the drive takes all a woman's time and attention on one hand -- not to mention money -- while keeping her in a state of constant anxiety. Moreover the definition of physical perfection, the very image of it, can change overnight. So this year it includes very large breasts, which the woman has achieved by surgical augmentation. But next year the ideal woman is flat-chested.

At some point a woman has to figure out this is a game that has no win in it for her.

At least if she expects to do anything else in her life other than work to finance her unachieveable quest for physical perfection as defined by others.

A long-time friend writes for hit television shows on the order of "House" and "Smallville." She's very successful. She makes more money in a year than I may see in a lifetime. She spends her money on jewelry, not on on physical perfection, because, with the nearly 24/7 on the job demanded by a season of writing, getting out samples and submissions to be ready for the next year's round of looking for work -- she has no time for this.

She says, "Everyone's got real life and television mixed up. On television a woman who is really good, an expert at something -- forensics, aviation, scientist -- she's always under 30 and beautiful. Now you and I have lived long enough to know that experts seldom are younger than late 40's, and they aren't beautiful because they're working at their professions and getting expert at them. I'm a hit television writer and I'm not under 30 and I'm overweight -- because I work all the time, and that's how I got to be a hit writer."

Love, C.

Adam said...

As a man who has no problem at all with body modification (I am heavily tattooed, my nipples are pierced, my earlobes have been stretched, etc.) I have been concerned for some time about the current bod mod fashion and the way in which people feel coerced into changing their bodies through social pressure.

I know several tattooists who have said that there are going to be a lot of unhappy people in a few years time when the current tattooing craze has died down.

I would bet good money that quite a few cosmetic surgeons would say the same about this kind of surgery.

BenSix said...

Greer was railing against this 38 years ago in The Female Eunuch. Her claim was that men had always found vaginas disgusting, and that they were sanitised - shaved and scented. If correct, this would imply that, far from shaping male desire, porn was a reaction to it.

susan said...

NO NO NO- people are not "entitled to change their bodies." Why in God's name would anyone want to unless cajoled by the unrealistic demands of asociety which regards the anodyne as the norm.
This documentary utterly dumbed down the phenomenon of female genital self-mutilation - cut the crap about "The Perfect Vagina." Its protagonist was a young-ish, attractive, middle-class media-savvy woman with a eye for a sexy subject. It was prurient and pathetic. Surgeons who mutilate women in this way should be blasted out of the country - not given the simpering treatment. Trivialisisation and titillatisation of a serious subject.........

susan said...

NO NO NO- people are not "entitled to change their bodies." Why in God's name would anyone want to unless cajoled by the unrealistic demands of asociety which regards the anodyne as the norm.
This documentary utterly dumbed down the phenomenon of female genital self-mutilation - cut the crap about "The Perfect Vagina." Its protagonist was a young-ish, attractive, middle-class media-savvy woman with a eye for a sexy subject. It was prurient and pathetic. Surgeons who mutilate women in this way should be blasted out of the country - not given the simpering treatment. Trivialisisation and titillatisation of a serious subject.........

Infantile and Disorderly said...

Susan's post seems to be an angry and - dare I say it - self-righteous attempt at not engaging with the issue at hand. Of course these women are victims of society. Rather than just slandering the programme, why not provide an alternative framework in which to view the problem? Throwing around adjectives like "prurient" without any real basis is the sort of reactionary dismissal more usually made by members of the religious establishment. Besides, I'm pretty certain if the makers were intent on a making a titillating take on the subject, they wouldn't have included graphic surgery scenes.

If you deny people the right to change their own bodies, what other rights are you going to take away?

Infantile and Disorderly said...

Btw, very interesting post!

Phil BC said...

John, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree. That porn and fashion promote a newly hegemonic pubic aesthetic, it's only a matter of time before more women start turning to surgery as a "solution" to the anxieties likely to result. That's my opinion anyway.

Phil BC said...

Cheers C. It's no different here. One of our downmarket celeb gossip glossies, Heat (which, to my shame, I have a not-so-secret penchant for) devotes space to decrying the bodies of super skinny celebrity women. And then the next issue they're off on one about overweight celebrities. I find the hypocrisy pretty sickening to be honest (before anyone asks, I don't actually buy the thing!)

Adam, I couldn't agree more, which is why I strongly disagree with Susan. People undergo body modification, including surgery, for all manner of reasons. As much as I disagree with Rosie's decision to have her bits sliced apart, I wouldn't deny her the right to pursue it. I think it is an error to blanket deny anyone who seeks any kind of cosmetic treatment too. Part of what we have to do is help create a more body positive culture, which, of course, is easier said than done. I'd be interested in hearing peoples' thoughts on this.

Laurel Dearing said...

think the problem is that porn women are all one way, and we really dont see a lot of normal vaginas of our friends or anything and the porn is the only real example we have of whats normal, and it just isnt.

Stephie said...

Good post. I saw the programme itself and was absolutely appalled by the whole thing. To be honest, my "girlie-bits" were probably the only part of my body that I've never gven much thought to and never thought that I wanted to change at any point during my life....

Anyway, there is an element of truth in Susan's post. Yes Lisa Rogers is a media-savvy woman with an eye for a sexy subject. Just as Dawn Porter did the same with her BBC3 documentaries on trying to become a lesbian etc. And it did dumb down the idea of female genital self-mutilation. BUT it did raise important issues around how women are influenced by men in their lives and the influences of porn on a relationship and on society in general. I find the idea that a woman would believe that she had to have vaginal surgery to "look better down there" appalling, BUT I believe in the personhood of a woman. And the ability of a woman to make a decision about her body and her choice to have surgery. Blasting surgeons out of the country wouldn't address any of the underlying societal problems that vaginoplasty is symbolic of.

Mrs Boggins said...

A very intelligent response to a thought provoking programme. Thank you!

John Meredith said...

"That porn and fashion promote a newly hegemonic pubic aesthetic, "

The trouble is that this implies that 'porn and fashion' are agentless. But how can we know in which direction the influence is flowing? Perhaps fashion adopts the tandards it does because women and men prfere them? There are, after all, more and less beautiful vaginas, just as there are more and less beautiful eyes, noses and penises.

On the porn side, I also wonder how many here have seen much porn. I am no expert (I insist) but from what I have seen womens vaginas are presented in all their glory and are not tidied up much beyond the trivial matter of shaving. At the very soft end of porn, I suppose, there is an emphasis on a certain infantilised look, but that tends to be the kind of porn where women's genitals are very much hidden away. In most porn (it seems to me) women's genitals are pretty spectaculary on display. But I doubt that the good people that post on here spend much time looking at porn.

John B said...

John M's point on porn might fit well with Phil's original point on class.

Most men, of all social classes, sometimes masturbate to /real/ porn, in which vaginas are presented in all their glory. But this is a solo activity based around your own sexual preferences.

The airbrushed softness of Pirelli calendars, Zoo & Nuts, Page 3 and so on, where women are at their most infantilised, are a significant and *communal* part of working-class male culture - with actual sexual preferences subsumed to social norms.

Jo Christie-Smith said...

This is a great post.

I think there's a real problem with the way women's bodies are portrayed in porn, its increasing availability thanks to t'internet and young men's views of what women's/girls bodies should be like.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if a lot of young men for example didn't realise that women had pubic hair.

I've overheard young men at my gym talking in a quite gynaecological way about women's vaginas and comparing and contrasting, so no wonder that young women are looking to change themselves to conform to what young men want.

I'm a liberal so believe people should be free to do whatever floats their boat as long as they are not harming anybody but I am getting increasingly worried about the over sexualisation and objectification of women's bodies. It cannot be good; it cannot be 'not harming, some women.

Laura said...

This is a great post (I got to this via a link at the f-word, so thanks for that).

I saw the programme and I think the surgeon who saw fit to slice off Rosie's perfectly normal-looking labia should be struck off.

I really feel for all these young women whose friends/boyfriends compare every inch of their bodies, including their genitalia, to the images they see in porn.

Adam said...

Phil BC said
“People undergo body modification, including surgery, for all manner of reasons. As
much as I disagree with Rosie's decision to have her bits sliced apart, I wouldn't deny
her the right to pursue it. I think it is an error to blanket deny anyone who seeks any
kind of cosmetic treatment too. Part of what we have to do is help create a more body
positive culture, which, of course, is easier said than done.”

I agree that we need to develop a more positive body culture, though how we go about doing that I don’t know; but, I’m not sure that body culture is the only thing at work here. I get the feeling that it’s more a case of people wanting to be the same… being afraid of individuality, a fundamental insecurity about themselves. It’s the same reason why so many women in their early 20’s bear identical arse antlers on their lower backs… it’s funny how the more one hears the word “individuality” trumpeted, the less one sees it. Everyone wears the same corporate brands bought in the same shops, everyone conforms to the norm…

… I also agree with you that it is important for us to have the right to make decisions about processes which, though they may have long lasting effects, and even when others may not like them, are OUR decisions. This was what Spanner was all about, and, this is what every person with a serious personal interest in bod mod would tell you.

To me, it has always been a question of why is a modification desired… I gained much of my tattooing (I have about 60% of my body covered) before the current craze. For me it was an urge. I didn’t care about how it would be received by other people - I WANTED it. On the other hand, there are those who simply want to fit in… anyone who seeks a permanent modification of any kind for this reason is really going down the wrong path. I suspect that many of them are still going to find things about themselves to be unhappy with.

The best thing that these people can do is to develop the courage to resist peer pressure, which for some people, is easier said than done…

On the subject of “porn”… we have to decide what we are discussing.

John B said...
“John M's point on porn might fit well with Phil's original point on class.

Most men, of all social classes, sometimes masturbate to /real/ porn, in which vaginas are presented in all their glory. But this is a solo activity based around your own sexual preferences.

The airbrushed softness of Pirelli calendars, Zoo & Nuts, Page 3 and so on, where women are at their most infantilised, are a significant and *communal* part of working-class male culture - with actual sexual preferences subsumed to social norms.”

I agree with this… except that Pirelli calendars, Zoo, Nuts etc. aren’t porn… they are unpleasant, objectifying, and most of all crap, but they are not porn. The interesting thing about porn is that the harder and more explicit it gets, the more authentic it becomes…

Jo Christie Smith said...
“I've overheard young men at my gym talking in a quite gynaecological way about women's vaginas and comparing and contrasting, so no wonder that young women are looking to change themselves to conform to what young men want.

I'm a liberal so believe people should be free to do whatever floats their boat as long as they are not harming anybody but I am getting increasingly worried about the over sexualisation and objectification of women's bodies. It cannot be good; it cannot be 'not harming, some women.”

I’ve heard young (and not so young) women doing the same thing about male genitalia too… I’ve also heard them comparing and contrasting hair, noses, pecs, legs and buttocks. Comparing and contrasting is something that human beings do; it is part of out nature. To say that noses can be compared, but that genitalia can’t is to apply a double standard. I don’t mind if any part of my body is compared to anyone else’s… I’m different to other people… the fact that I am different means that I can be compared and contrasted. To see this as a case of men sexualising and objectifying women seems to miss the wider context of a society where all people, male and female, gay, bi and straight, are increasingly objectified. It is another facet of the corporate world. Everything and everyone becomes a product, a unit to be bought and sold, and to buy and be sold to… such is the nature of the commodification of life.

Phil BC said...

John, porn and fashion are not agentless, but neither is porn and fashion the sum total of those who consume it. Unfortunately it's too late for me to start writing about structure and agency and the Marxist view on it. But I will say any analysis that misses out the interlinked backdrop of male privilege, the commodification of sex, the porn industry, the cosmetic industry's pursuit for new markets and how they encourage a range of gendered behaviours is a very incomplete analysis.

Adam, on a body positive culture I don't think it will gain much ground in the absence of a more visible and effective women's movement. For example, I think it was on Splintered Sunrise where an interesting observation about 70s porn was made. Whatever one's opinion of pornography may be, the discussion talked about how female performers were more representative of "ordinary" women than the kinds of models that populate mainstream porn today. This, some argued, was the symptomatic of the strength of the women's movement and the success it had had in challenging the dominant 'body beautiful'. The problem of changing this body culture is the problem of rebuilding the women's movement and its allies on the left.

Btw, thanks everyone who's had nice things to say about this post.

John Meredith said...

"The problem of changing this body culture is the problem of rebuilding the women's movement and its allies on the left."

I wonder if we have any very good reason for supposing that a 'body beautiful' culture exists. Certainly there are many commercial images of beautiful bodies around, but you would expect that, people will prefer to look at beautiful things rather than ugly ones, all other things being equal, and this has always been true. There are simply more images of every kind around today and they are cheaper to acquire. To complain that this 'ojectifies' men or women is beside the point, people are objects too whether we like it or not; we can't all have subjective relations with every actress, model or passerby (no matter how much we might want to). But everyday experience seems to contradict the idea that young women (or men) feel pressured into having ever more beautiful bodies or suffer unduly when they fail to meet ideal standards of beauty. In the South of London a sunny day will bring out a huge range of skimpily clad women. It does not seem obvious that women here with non-perfect body shapes feel in any way ashamed or pressured to hide their bodies. The increase in obesity anmong young women can also be interpreted as evidence of growing self-confidence, that young women generally prefer to eat what they like rather than try to appeal to the male gaze. It may not mean that, but we have no good reason for rejecting that interprtation in favour of any other, as far as I can see, and, anecdotally, young women strike me as far more sexually confident than they were when I was young.

Andrew Barnes and Yvonne Lumsden said...

Heart of the Flower is an unflinching exploration of the beautiful diversity of women’s genitals, free of judgement, shame and embarrassment. Forty-two everyday women have posed for up-close and personal photographs that show their genitals from many different and rarely seen angles. Each woman writes candidly with wit, wisdom, passion, even despair, about her relationship with her vulva.

The book brings into light the ins and outs of the female sexual anatomy, and demystifies and challenges the way society views women’s genitals. Heart of the Flower is designed to normalise and celebrate diversity at a time when labial reconstructions have reached an all-time high and women’s body image is at an all-time low.

Andrew Barnes and Yvonne Lumsden

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Brisbane-Australia/Heart-of-the-Flower/37355251170?ref=s

www.heartoftheflower.com

web design Brisbane said...

I really can't see the point. If all vaginas end up looking looking like Barbie's life will become very stale and boring.