The way in which culture impacts women’s standards of beauty differs throughout the world. In China, the practice of foot binding allows women to gain power and status within a culture; in Africa, the cutting of female genitalia opens the door for continued prosperity and development; in America, depriving ourselves of adequate nutrition and undergoing intensive surgery to get a nose job increases our chance to fit in. Though the practices vary, the one thing that is consistent throughout these women, is that a standard of beauty comes about that ultimately sets in motion a set of laws that determines dominant cultural values.
Within Chinese culture, continued practice of foot binding ultimately caused women to gain strength in their thigh and buttock muscles, creating a status among the elite. Foot binding served many purposes of life at the time (early 1900’s) such as an ethnic identity, religious devotion, an obedience towards parents, it signaled that she would be an obedient daughter in law and a good wife, and it made her more sexually appealing to her husband. After years of practice and normalization, foot binding became a symbol of wealth and a way to move up the social ladder. Though the pain that came from foot binding was extreme, the social benefits it produced for Chinese women was far greater.
Another taboo practice for Americans is the cutting of female genitalia (FGC). Initially, the church of Scotland Mission tried to eradicate this practice, but the Kikuyu Kenyan women left the church and continued on with the practice. This procedure occurs mainly in Africa, but it has been found to exist in Yemen, Iraq, Indonesia, the UK and even in America. In these places, FGC is seen as a rite of passage into womanhood, is an expression of their faith, determines ones’ marriageability, and is seen as a standard of beauty. However, the rite of passages does not come without pain. In the most extreme and least common style of FGC, the vaginal opening is almost completely sewn shut, skin is removed, and the clitoris is removed (infibulation). The woman who undergoes this procedure will have to have a few other procedures later on in life is she wants to have intercourse and if she wants to give birth vaginally. It is important to note, however, that most of the sexually responsive tissue in the clitoris is internal, not external, so the sexual stimulation is not always taken away from the women who participate in this practice. This suggests that the reasoning for female genital cutting is not to rid women of pleasure, but is a dominant cultural practice that values woman’s rites of passage, and that while Americans might see this is a cruel punishment, it is actually a way for these women to increase their social status.
In the film “The Perfect Vagina,” vaginal cosmetic surgery in the UK is very prominent. The film starts out with a comment from a male stating that if he sees an unappealing vagina, he will not be as interested in that girl; a value placed on sexual attraction is regarded in terms of the perfect vagina. The irony of this practice is that we cannot control the natural development of the vagina, whereas something that is controllable like weight, a person might undergo liposuction to become more sexual appealing. At least with liposuction, an individual understands that there are options to get the same result: either lose the weight through diet and exercise, or get surgery. With vaginal reconstruction surgery, there is only one way to get the perfect vagina and that is through surgery. To play on irony even more, perfection lies within the eyes of the beholder, so at what point do we begin devaluing ourselves in order to meet a standard that technically does not exist? The film says that the vaginas these women are valuing are “nonexistent,” and the labia’s that are shown are significantly smaller than the average woman (ranging from 2cm to 10cm in length). So not only does this leave women with an unattainable and unrealistic goal, but it tricks men in to being sexually aroused by a vagina that doesn’t exist; when they see the real thing, they may become disappointed and frustrated. “The Perfect Vagina” promptly recognizes that what we think of as beautiful is really the de-normalization of something.
Likewise, cut genitalia is said to be more beautiful than uncut genitalia—not normal is more beautiful than normal. A comparison for this is like the standard of shaving/being hairless in America, making women appear clean and youthful suggesting that in order to have an appealing look, women cannot age. It doesn’t seem too taboo when we compare those two things; both standards are brought about depending on the values that we hold to be true during a particular time. These unrealistic standards become the cultural norm that then directs the way in which we view ourselves causing us to change our physical appearance. Between foot binding, FGC procedures, and eating disorders, it is clear that women put themselves through immense pain in order to feel beautiful, whether it be for the rite of passages or the fear of not fitting in, women all over the world are controlled by standards of beauty.