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Designer Vaginas: Is Female Circumcision Coming Out of the Closet?
Posted on Jul 2, 2009
As a circumcised and sexually fulfilled African woman, when I consider the fuss that female circumcision has attracted to Africa over the years and the wind of labiaplasties and genital rejuvenations currently sweeping across Europe and America, I cannot help but ask in the words of Dr. Deborah Tolman, professor of social welfare at Hunter College School of Social Work, “What happened in the last three years to make [these] women’s labias so big that they can’t walk around with them?”
I was watching an episode of “Dr. 90210” on E! Entertainment Television recently. A young American woman was getting a labiaplasty and clitoral hood reduction. She said her labia “didn’t look nice” and her clitoral hood was “uncomfortable,” especially when she was having sex. I didn’t know what to think.
I was circumcised (read labiaplasty and clitoral hood reduction) when I was 9 days old, in line with the tradition of the Yoruba of western Nigeria. And thanks to the “enlightenment” of Euro-American NGOs, I grew up lamenting what I thought was my irreparable loss and thinking I would definitely have been better off with my genitals intact. Imagine my confusion at the spectacle before me on television.
I have since seen more labiaplasties and clitoral hood reductions on “Dr. 90210.” I am an avid fan of the show and confess to being totally smitten with the effervescent Dr. Robert Rey. But the more of these procedures I see, the more I ... well, wonder. What are labiaplasty and clitoral hood reduction if not female circumcision?
Female circumcision, also known as female genital cutting (FGC) or the more demonized female genital mutilation (FGM), is defined by the World Health Organization as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons.”
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The WHO identifies three broad types of female circumcision. Type I circumcision is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce or clitoral hood. Type II circumcision is “partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora. Type III circumcision involves narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and repositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris. This type of circumcision is also known as infibulation or pharaonic circumcision. It is the most extensive form of FGM, and accounts for about 10 percent of all FGM procedures identified in Africa.
And what are labiaplasty, clitoral hood reduction, vaginoplasty and the other procedures classified as female genital cosmetic surgery? Labiaplasty is plastic surgery of the labia majora and/or the labia minora, which are the external folds of skin surrounding the structures of the vulva. The procedure involves reducing the size of one or both sets of labia. Clitoral hood reduction is an operation which repositions the protruding clitoris and reduces the length and projection of the clitoral hood. Vaginoplasty is the surgical modification of the female vagina. The most frequent vaginoplasty procedure is the narrowing of the vaginal opening to make it firmer.
These operations involve cutting that includes full or partial amputation of the labia or clitoris, as well as procedures to narrow or tighten the vagina—all hallmarks of circumcision and infibulation.
Now, from what I understand, some Euro-American women are becoming so disturbed by the appearance of their genitalia that they are asking plastic surgeons to modify them. But how did this new worry start? Or, as professor Tolman puts it, “What happened in the last three years to make [these] women’s labias so big that they can’t walk around with them?”
Physicians and mainstream mass media report that the widespread viewing of pornography has increased demand for labiaplasty. As more people see the shortened labia of pornographic actresses, they are getting the idea that trim genitals are the ideal. Human sexuality expert Bonnie Zylbergold argues in an article that women are getting the HD version of their vulvas outside a biology class for the first time. And “while women might not be trading notes on their vaginal proportions,” says Zylbergold, “they have become increasingly comfortable with mainstream pornography and that leads to one dimensional representations of what vulvas look like.”
Just as the phenomenon of Playboy magazine in the 1950s spread the craze for breast enlargements in the ’60s and ’70s, an increasing number of women are going to plastic surgeons with pictures of spread-eagled models in magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse and saying, “I want those clit and lips,” very much as some women have been ordering Angelina Jolie’s mouth and Jennifer Lopez’s butt in surgeons’ “supermarkets.”
Call it “labia envy,” says New York writer Louisa Kamps. A host of plastic surgeons are aggressively offering women relief from this new form of envy.
Kamps quotes Dr. Gary Alter, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, as saying: “Some women have this feeling they’re not that pretty down there. If you really think you’re deformed, you’re going to be less open to a sexual relationship. Before, it was the dark ages, because nobody really cared, or knew, what it looked like. But now, with Penthouse and all these magazines that show vaginas—I mean, they really show it—you have women, not just men, looking. And they start making aesthetic judgments.”
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