According to the old saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This statement still rings very true today, although certain beauty standards tend to be widely accepted in a given culture. Just as each culture has its own beliefs about what things are truly important, each culture has its own beliefs about what represents beauty. This week we examined three very different beauty practices among 3 different cultures: Chinese Footbinding, Female Genital Cutting, and Plastic Surgery. While these practices could seem crazy to an outsider, they are deeply rooted not only in the culture itself but also in the minds of those who practice them, being accepted as normal, and even aesthetically pleasing.
Chinese footbinding, for example, was an excruciatingly painful process that was accepted by the women of China for many years as a rite of passage, a status marker, and a sign of great beauty. Women with the smallest and best shaped feet were considered the most beautiful and were able to be married off to the best husbands and bring their family honor. When done properly, footbinding was an expression of obedience. It showed that the woman would be a good wife who was obedient to her parents and would continue to be obedient to her husband and in-laws. Footbinding was also seen as somewhat of an insurance policy. Because the disfigurement of the women’s feet made it hard for them to move around, it was assumed that they would not cheat on their husbands. While we, as Americans, may consider footbinding an attack on women’s rights, many Chinese women saw this as their duty and an honor. For the women who grew up in families wealthy enough to be able to afford to lose their daughter as a worker, it was just seen as a normal phase of life. While it is evident throughout the first chapter of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that footbinding is a very painful and dangerous process, there is no disapproving tone from the main character. She talks about the process simply as something she must do to bring meaning to her life and give her the opportunity to find a good husband. The author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See, examines the practice of footbinding through both the epidemiological and interpretive theories. She looks at footbinding at a population level, and then examines the reasons behind footbinding in Chinese Society. Footbinding was eventually eradicated with the rise of the Communist movement. Because everyone, even the upper class, was expected to work, women were unable to bind their feet in ways that would make working impossible. There were many attempts to ban footbinding before this Communist uprising and all had failed due to the fact that footbinding was so intertwined in Chinese culture and feminine beauty ideals.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting or Female Circumcision is viewed in much the same way as Chinese footbinding was in the cultures that practice it. It is seen as a rite of passage for the women of that culture, increases their marriageability, and also increases their physical appearance to meet the feminine beauty standards of that culture. Because female circumcision is culturally based, there are many different types of female circumcision that affect a female’s genitals differently and range in severity. Author Lynda Newland examined female circumcision in West Java, Indonesia. She used an epidemiological perspective and examined the practice from a population level to determine the type of female circumcision most often performed and the prevalence of it in the West Java area. She also used the interpretive theory to examine the cultural reasons behind the practice. She emphasized that in West Java, female circumcision occurs very soon after birth (much as male circumcision in the west) and is a very minimally invasive procedure with a simple prick of a needle and very little bloodletting. In her opinion, the mass movements to eradicate female circumcision do not take into account the different histories, cultures, standards, and the desires of women, but merely look at them through a westernized lens of stereotypes. Because most of the Javan population is Muslim, parents perform rituals on their children from a very young age to allow them to fit into the Islamic society. It is believed that both male and female circumcision is “the identifying feature to Islam” so families perform these rituals on their children so that they may fit into their society. If children are not circumcised, they are not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies or pray in the mosque (Newland, 2006). Circumcision is seen in the West Javan Islamic culture as the most important cleansing act, as well as an equalizer between men and women in the eyes of Allah. By performing female circumcision, parents are protecting their children from social ostracism, and refusal would be seen as neglecting parental responsibilities. If female circumcisions were instantly banned from West Java, I believe that many families would still practice them in secret because they would feel it is their duty to prepare their daughter to be able to be a good practicing Muslim. I also believe that they would fear that, if she were not circumcised, she would not be able to find a good husband.
We also looked at female circumcision from the perspective of an author who has herself been circumcised. Ahmadu examines the sexual experiences of females who have undergone female circumcision, and the “negative psychosocial ramifications of anti-female genital mutilation campaigns and stereotypes for circumcised African women.” Female circumcision has been seen as a way to ensure a wife’s faithfulness to her husband by eliminating the pleasure she gets from sexual encounters. Ahmadu believes that the way anti-female genital mutilation campaigns portray female circumcision may be affecting the way women, especially young circumcised African immigrants to the west, see their bodies and potential for sexual functioning. She believes that these women may internalize the stereotypes portrayed in these campaigns, which use words such as mutilation and unnatural, and that it may affect their expectations and desires for sexual encounters. She also points out that, just as circumcision is a beauty standard in some cultures, these women do not fit into the mainstream American idea of feminine beauty, and that may also have a negative effect on the way these women see themselves. According to research, the brain is the most powerful sexual organ, so a woman’s attitudes and beliefs about her body, her cultural environment, and her sexual expectations can have a greater effect on her sexual experience than any physiological function. (Ahmadu, 2016) Ahmadu also made a profound point of comparing female circumcision to elective genital surgery in the United States. If African women are changing their vaginas to be “normal” in their society, why is that any different from the western trend of “designer vaginas”?
Designer vaginas were the topic of discussion in the documentary by Heather Leach called, The Perfect Vagina. In this documentary, Leach uses both the Epidemiological and Interpretive theories to examine the growing trend in cosmetic vaginal surgery. She explores the process through which women who are not satisfied with the way their vaginas look go about permanently changing them to fit their ideal standard of feminine beauty. While this practice is different from female circumcision and footbinding due to the fact that it is an elective surgery, and the women undergoing the change do it by choice, there is still a common driving factor: the cultural idea of feminine beauty. All three of these practices are done so that women meet their culture’s beauty standard. If women are electing to have surgery, it is because they feel pressure from society to change their body to fit in, much the same way that women who undergo footbinding and female circumcision do. While I think that all women should have the right to choose or refuse these practices according to their own desires. I also think it is important to remember that each practice has its own cultural influences and history.
See, L. (2005). Snow flower and the secret fan: A novel. New York: Random House.
Newland, L. (2006). Female circumcision: Muslim identities and zero tolerance policies in rural West Java. Women’s Studies International Forum, 29(4), 394-404. doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2006.05.005
Ahmadu, F. (n.d.). ‘Ain’t I a Woman too?’ Challenging Myths of Sexual Dysfunction in Circumcised Women. In Y. Hernlund & B. Shell-Duncan (Eds.), Transcultural Bodies Female Genital Cutting in Global Context (pp. 278-310). Rutgers University press.
Leach, H. (Director). (2008). The Perfect Vagina [Video file].