The practices of Chinese foot binding, female genital cutting, and plastic surgery function in multiple ways. Both foot binding and FGC function as rites of passage and ways to connect to culture as well as family life. All three practices also function as beauty standards and beauty ideals and are intimately tied to both the way society views women and the way women view themselves. These practices are inherently and intimately connected to culture and the way women live in these cultures.
In the act of Chinese foot binding, a young girl’s feet are tightly bound with cloth in order to make them smaller and make them an “attractive” shape. This is done because small feet are considered to be very beautiful and help women get married. In Lisa See’s book Snow Flower and the Fan, she describes the main character and her sisters’ foot binding. In addition to being considered beautiful, foot binding is considered part of a very lengthy ritual with the need “to find an auspicious date to begin” (See 2005). The process of foot binding also included the need for a “diviner”, who gave the family advice on who the daughter could marry if the foot binding went well. In the book, See describes all of the benefits that a good foot binding and small feet could do for a poor family including “improve social standing… better connections, a better bride-price, and long-term political and economic protection” (See 2005). Therefore, not only was small feet considered beautiful but in fact for lower status families, could greatly increase the status of their daughter as well as bring wealth to the family and improve their quality of life. Small feet showed to “prospective in-laws personal discipline and ability to endure the pain of childbirth”, which was why it was seen as so valuable (See 2005). Although the process of foot binding was incredibly painful and could be dangerous for the girls, the beginning of the process was an incredibly joyful process, as described in the book, “sounds of celebration filled our room… everyone was happy, singing, laughing, talking” (See 2005). There were also very specific traits that “perfect” feet could have, “small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture… a perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus” (See 2005). All of these factors were ways in which the culture of arranged marriage, and standards of beauty influenced what was considered beautiful in this society. Foot binding, in this society, not only functioned as a status symbol and as evidence to how obedient the woman could be but as evidence of beauty.
Female genital cutting functions in a very similar way to Chinese foot binding, including the belief that it makes the woman more beautiful. In a paper about FGC in West Java, Lynda Newland argues that “such processes are not necessarily oppressive to women… they are a representation of parental responsibility towards the child… to refuse to do this would amount to neglect” (Newland 2006). She describes how midwives in the village she was in believed “through female circumcision… the child can inherit desirable characteristics” (Newland 2006). The women in the village Newland interviewed also gave religious reasons for female circumcision, mentioning if a child is Muslim “they must be circumcised, because circumcision is the direction given by Islam… for throwing away what’s dirty” (Newland 2006). In the opinion of the people in the community, female circumcision also “reinforces the idea that both sexes can attain equal purity… not is it intended to control female sexuality” (Newland 2006). In Fuambai Ahmadu’s paper, she echoes the idea that FGC is not violent or restrictive and not based on “sexual dysfunction or repression” (Ahmadu 2007). She instead argues that the women who have been circumcised have “different and varied experiences” not based on if they have had FGC (Ahmadu 2007). She discusses how many Westerners believe that FGC decreases a woman’s sexual pleasure and independence, but instead Ahmadu shows that African women “support a woman’s inherent capacity for sexual pleasure and aspirations for sexual autonomy” and the only difference is the ways in which these two different cultures express these values (Ahmadu 2007). Both the Muslim and African reasons for FGC show that the practice is not about violence against women or suppressing their rights. It is instead about not only good parental care for children, but concern about religion as well as sexual independence.
The final beauty practice is plastic surgery and more specifically labiaplasties or vaginoplasties, where the labia or vagina of a woman is surgically altered to fit the definition of what a “beautiful” labia or vagina looks like. In the video “The Perfect Vagina”, the filmmaker tries to discover why women are getting these surgeries and what leads them to consider taking such drastic measures to change something about their bodies that not many people see. She finds there are a host of reasons that women tell her about, including being made fun of by friends and relatives, not feeling beautiful after having kids and even repairing a hymen for a soon to be wed woman (Barcroft 2017). This practice for many of the women, is a procedure to correct and fix something they do not think is beautiful about themselves. The filmmaker argues that every vagina and labia is beautiful and that it does not matter what they look like.
If any of these beauty practices were outlawed abruptly, it would greatly affect the lives of these women. The beauty standards described are ways in which women view themselves in a positive manner and also gives them a connection to their culture. If they were outlawed, that tells women that in fact they should not believe they are beautiful and that they do not deserve to feel good about their looks, as well as their culture and beliefs do not matter or are bad, changing their lives for the worse.
Ahmadu, Fuambai. ““Ain’t I a woman too?.” Challenging myths of sexual dysfunction in circumcised women,” in Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context, Y. Hernlund and B. Shell-Duncan, Eds (2007): 278-310.
Barcroft Media. YouTube, YouTube, 15 Oct. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ih4cJ4X8k4A&t=316s.
Newland, Lynda. “Female circumcision: Muslim identities and zero tolerance policies in rural West Java.” Women’s studies international forum. Vol. 29. No. 4. Pergamon, 2006.
See, Lisa. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: a Novel. Random House, 2006.
Serena Williams Extra Credit
As we’ve seen from the Week 5 readings and lectures, the problems Serena Williams faced when dealing with the modern biomedical system are problems that many other black women face as well. These problems include issues about not being taken seriously by healthcare professionals, having their opinions or concerns be invalidated, or not getting adequate medical care. As the lectures mentioned, in the US medical system, black mothers are 2 to 3 times more likely to die than white mothers. Serena William’s case highlights the fact that this can happen to any black women, even if they are a world famous athlete. When viewed through a lens of intersectionality, the main factors that contributed to this situation were the fact that Serena Williams is a black woman as well as pregnant. Unfortunately, this situation illustrates how our society and especially medical professionals in the biomedical system do not respect black women and further do not trust their opinion and knowledge about their own health. They also do not take black women seriously about their health issues or questions they have. One of the biggest issues about this situation was the fact that Serena Williams was a very successful, famous upper class woman and she was still treated poorly (Williams 2018). Had she been a lower class black women, she probably would not have been listened to at all and she might have ended up passing away due to complications. As we learned from the lectures, especially with the medical care of black women, socioeconomic status does not matter. However, had she been a white woman, regardless of socioeconomic status, she might have been treated better and her concerns might have been taken more seriously. The author of this article suggests a simple solution to correct this problem. She suggests that medical providers simply listen and learn from patients, especially black women, and reflect on the ways in which medical providers are complicit in issues dealing with racism (Williams 2018).
Williams, Sanithia L. “Serena Williams’s Birthing Nightmare Is All Too Familiar for Black Women.” Tonic, Tonic, 12 Jan. 2018, tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/43qb5m/serena-williams-birth-black-women-maternal-mortality.