Fair warning -- this is not for the faint of heart. It involves girls and their hair.
Guess what an increasingly common and popular form of plastic surgery is? In case you haven't heard, it's called "the Barbie" and prestigious surgeons in the US and around the world are spending their time, and making lots of money, "beautifying" women's genitalia by making them smooth ... like ... Barbie's. I'll spare you the pictures, but you don't really need them, do you?
All I have to say is, thank God for this Saturday's Muff March in London. This morning's Guardian reports that tomorrow morning, wielding signs like "Keep your mitts off our muffs!" and "I love my vagina!" protesters will march to raise awareness of the wrongness of this type of surgery. I know everyone should make their own choices about how they want their labia to look, but this is scary. The Muffia, organized by UK Feminista and a group of performance artists, ask a good question on their Facebook page: "Tired of cosmetic surgeons profiting from body hatred? Want to speak out against a porn culture that is driving more and more women to the surgeon's table to get a 'designer vagina'??" I am kinda bummed out that we don't have our own Muffia march on this side of the pond.
This summer, Atlantic Monthly described the surgery, part of a burgeoning field of cosmetic gynecology, this way: "the labia minora are completely amputated" in order to "improve the appearance" of women's private parts. In some parts of the world, a variant of this type of surgery is called a clitorectomy, where the clitoris and part of the labia are removed, but in this part of the world we call that torture and it's not the same thing. According to the website of a premiere surgical practioneer of obg/gyn plastic surgery, "The Barbie or Smooth look is the most requested technique of labial surgery ... and the most popular appearance wanted on the West Coast." The bonus of course, is that this extremely lucrative surgery is unregulated.
It can be added to the list of other lady-parts enhancing fun like bedazzling, pink-dying and peach smoothie spa "facials."
Porn aesthetics are trickling down, and the real question is how do girls and women compare to porn stars in that area -- literally, in that area? It is the question that seems to be on the minds of the girls and women opting to pay to have their lady bits excised, (with some really nasty risks like permanent scarring, infections, bleeding) or just tightened (that would be vaginal rejuvenation therapy -- the younger the vagina, the better, right?) There's a movie freely available online, The Perfect Vagina, if you care to watch it in your leisure time. I am wondering exactly what world we'd live in where men would internalize their own objectification and consider, say, inserting metal rods in their penises or living in a state of perpetual priapism so that they could achieve the almost farcical lengths of some of porn greats? I am an ardent fan of the idea of the mulit-verse and think it must exist somewhere. Besides, I hate gender-based double standards and equity that area could make a vas deferns, opps, I mean vast difference to some women.
Now, to be sure, there are women who, particularly after childbirth benefit tremendously from surgery that addresses physiological problem, but that's not labiaplasty, it's generally vaginaplasty.
According to the Atlantic, the Guardian and other sources, the popularity of The Barbie, like that of Brazilian waxing, is almost certainly entirely derived from the normalisation of porn's idealization of pre-pubescent pudendal beauty. Even Whoopie Goldberg, live on national TV, recently weighed in on the effects of porn and the grooming habits of women when it comes to their nether regions. Like many women, she loves porn, but hates it's effects, apparently. The point isn't to blame porn. Porn is not a cause of misogyny, it's just another indicator of how women's bodies and desires are portrayed in our culture. A portrayal whose internalization by women is driving demand.
Women should decide for themselves if they want this type of surgery. But, I actually don't think it's a genuine choice unless they can examine to what degree they've internalized their own objectification -- something our culture actively disparages in girls and women. They sometimes end up being ... dare I say it ... feminists and we know what happens to those women. That's not to say that there aren't feminists that ... nevermind.
The real question is, what's a girl -- and I mean that literally -- to make of the designer vagina? More and more teen girls are asking their doctors about this surgery.
How far are we willing to take this obesssive focus on female bodies and these trends in modifying womens' and girls'? How young is too young? Recently, Strollerderby, a parenting blog, actually had to suggest out loud that tweens are too young for Brazilian waxes. Those would be girls without pubic hair, for the most part. It's just a little further along the spectrum of options to go for The Barbie.
Buffing, waxing, tweezing, grooming and various skin treatments are all available to younger and younger girls whose parents are willing to pay mucho dinero for luxury beautification of their children, even in this economy, with, I'd argue, serious long-term deleterious effect on girls' sense of their own body image and confidence.
Dr. Nancy Brown, a developmental psychologist who is a senior research associate at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) Research Institute and teaches Adolescent Sexuality and Gender, Culture and HIV in the department of human biology at Stanford University, describes hair removal for tween and teen girls this way:
The idea that removing genital hair is becoming the norm disturbs me on several levels. First, genitals without hair look pre-pubescent, and therefore the "creep" factor for me is big. Second, it is usually the male requesting the process, which is dangerous to the female, who gains very little except a rash and severe itching as the hair comes back. Finally, I think that this is one consequence of the increasing amount of pornography young males are exposed to, where they are exposed to a world where hairless genitals can be common.
The exact same thing can be said of designer vaginas and, in principle, about encouraging girls to focus on the details of every aspect of their bodies and appearance through regular spa and beauty treatments. I have three daughters. They LOVE this stuff. So does my mom and so did my mother-in-law. I know what the pressure and allure of this culture is. Besides, it's fun, right? It is a constant tug-of-war.
That's why organizations like Spark are dedicated to fighting the self-sexualization that girls come to develop as a result of inappropriate marketing and the effects of ubiquitous porn imagery. That's why organizations like Spark are important.
I say parents, women in particular, need to stop and think doubly hard before using beauty as the primary form of bonding with girls. Try music or cooking or kite-flying or dog training or script-writing or sewing or basketball or singing or bike riding or dancing or knitting or stamp collecting or Star Wars re-enacting or knife sharpening or painting or virtually anything else you can possibly find instead. It's one of the only ways to practically offset the oppressiveness of the alternative.
So, where is our Muff March? Because we sure as hell need one.
Follow Soraya Chemaly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/schemaly