Sunday, April 25, 2010

Designer Vaginas

The push toward cosmetic surgery to “mask” the effects of aging is not news, and as the likes of Heidi Montag will attest, its practice is growing at an alarming rate with young women as well. What is talked about a lot less, though, is cosmetic surgery below the belt or, put another way and a lot more specifically, “designer vaginas” – a moniker granted it in a 2005 Globe and Mail article.

Both men and women today have wildly distorted impressions of so-called “normal” genitalia. Research repeatedly shows that women in particular are widely unfamiliar with real genital diversity, so they tend to rely on marketing and images provided by doctors and other professionals with ridiculously narrow aesthetic and sexual ideals. The reality is that the size, shape and form of a woman’s genitalia vary greatly, and change over time – we are as diverse “down there” as we are in our faces or our fingerprints.

That’s what I learned from the New View Campaign when I interviewed them several years ago. A grassroots organization formed in New York about 10 years ago, its purpose is, among other things, to challenge distorted messages about sexuality, and to expose aggressive marketing tactics that normalize women's dissatisfaction with their bodies.

We’re talking women as young as 15 years old, going in for procedures such as drastic labia amputation or clitoral unhooding, with poor research on the consequences.

My question is this – how did we get here? How did we get to the point where we are so fucked up about our bodies, women of all ages are lopping off bits and pieces of their private parts in order to feel desirable?

The pressure to conform to a commonly agreed upon norm can be a highly oppressive force. We see and allow for diversity in nature much more easily than we do in our bodies, or for that matter, our sexual experiences. We’re always thinking about whether we measure up. Biologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey dedicated most of his life to educating people in this realm in the 1940s and 50s, yet we’re still dealing with a lot of the same (recycled) attitudes today.

Why are we so afraid of being different? As we age, and develop a more intimate relationship with our own bodies and our selves, this question might be more relevant than we think.


My Buzz on Vibes said...

Excellent post! Yet another example of unrealistic expectations and women trying to live up to some impossible "standard" getting out of control. It makes me sad.

Jesse Mendes said...

Thanks so much for your feedback -- it is very encouraging. Jesse

Barry Price said...

Good, insightful article, Jessica. Being slightly different has always been an evolutionary advantage (see most studies on mating and how mates are selected) but being extremely different threatens the survaval of animals which depend on social compacts to survive. We humans need our tribes, so being ostracized significantly lowered our chances for survival until recently. Now it just means we have to become computer programmers and get our paycheck without actually interacting with anyone else. lol. Joking, of course.

As for the practice of genitial surgeries for purely cosmetic reasons, it's extremely sad that we've gotten so warped in our views, perceptions and priorities. Reversing this has to start with the most powerful influence on attitudes: parenting. Parents have to sit their kids down at some point and demonstrate/teach self acceptance both emotionally and physically, including their own sexual organs. How and when to do this is every parent's question, and to that I have no great answer.

Jessica Mendes said...

Hi Barry

I appreciate your comments, and you make an excellent point about the role and responsibility of parents. Funny, I did an interview once with a medical doctor who took a strong personal interest in the history of the names parents use to describe their kids privates "weewee" or "doodle"...there were a whole bunch. I should look him up again, it was fascinating, because one of his points was, we do our children a disservice when we don't teach them the real names for these parts (at appropriate ages, of course) and help them to understand their function.

Anyway, thanks for commenting.