Ideals about what constitutes feminine beauty is vastly different depending on where you are in the world and what cultures are present. This week we have taken a look at varying practices including foot binding, female genital cutting, and vaginal plastic surgery. Each of these practices serve specific purposes in the societies that they are practiced in, and would no doubt affect women’s lives if they were ever completely outlawed.
In the case of foot binding in China, the practice has fallen out of style since around the 1940’s when it was outlawed by communist forces in China. However, foot binding began as far back as the 1200’s and was a symbol of wealth, ethnic identity, religious piety, obedience to parents, and being a good wife while also sexually appealing a future husband (See 2006). Lisa See, a woman that began foot binding at the age of seven, uses an interactive perspective in discussing the practice. She describes foot binding as a clear sign of wealth. Young girls in the gentry class could start the process at the early age of three, while more middle class families like her own would usually start girls at the age of 6 (See 2006). Even lower class girl might only bind their feet when looking for a husband and abandon them when they married. These girls would need the mobility to work in the fields alongside their husbands. Higher born girls, with enough money to not need to do heavy labor had their feet bounded, decreasing their mobility, but further displaying their higher social status. In her book, Lisa further described regular feet as large and clumsy and not attractive. Men looked for women with the smallest feet, and found the feet to be sexually appealing in the bedroom. Lisa began her own foot binding ceremony at the age of 7. This process followed very specific rituals that her mother was in charge of. This process was seen as a sort of rite of passage that marked the beginning of Lisa’s entrance into womanhood, and her preparation to become a good and desirable wife. However this process could be very dangerous. 1 in 10 women died from complications caused from foot binding. Even Lisa’s younger sister died a short few months after begin her foot binding process from a blood infection. Although foot binding had this deadly potential, it served an important function in Chinese society at the time and families continued to practice it regardless of the risks involved.
Foot binding might not be a practice still in style today, but female genital cutting is still practiced in many parts of the world. Lynda Newland used a critical anthropological perspective to analyze female circumcision in Indonesia through her participant observation (Newland 2006). While she shows another side to female circumcision, one that is not as violent or oppressive to women as a person in American might thing, she also discusses the political and religious circumstances that surround the practice. She mentions the 1998 UN campaign to eradicate the world of female genital cutting, and how this could be detrimental to the Muslim community in Indonesia. If the government did indeed comply with the UN’s desires they would be suggesting that they oppose this very important Muslim tradition that marks a child as a true Muslim. This would be difficult considering that 90% of the Indonesian population identifies as Muslim (Newland 2006). If a zero tolerance policy was truly enforced and the practice came to an abrupt end, it would negatively impact the Muslim population. Children are often barred from Mosques if they have not yet had their circumcision (Newland 2006). To the Muslims in Indonesia, female and male circumcision is what makes humans equal to each other in gods eye. Trying to eradicate this process might not be the best choice for government in Indonesia as Newland suggests.
Americans might think that female circumcision is an appalling idea, but more and more women in the U.S. and the UK are going under the knife themselves in pursuit of ideal beauty. Procedures like labiaplasty and hymenoplasty are become more and more popular as a means to achieve the appearance of women in magazines or pornographic movies. Filmmaker Heather Leach follows Lisa Rogers as she pursues this topic in her film, “The Perfect Vagina”. She uses a feminist perspective, describing women’s insecurities about their vaginas as the result of unrealistic standards of beauty coming from media and men (The Perfect Vagina 2008). She fights strongly against the idea of women changing aspects of themselves in surgery, and these procedures possibly becoming cultural norms. However, because the procedure isn’t as common as female circumcision in Indonesia, if it was outlawed at some point it would not have as large of an impact on the population.
Serena Williams Extra Credit
1) What are the factors that contributed to this situation when viewed at through a lens of intersectionality?
Serena Williams might have not been taken as seriously because of the combination of her gender and the color of her skin. The Doctors may have some underlying biases that they don’t even realize are there.
2) What does this say about how our society in general and many people in biomedicine view black women?
Doctors are not free of biases. They might have wrongly judged Serena’s ability to know what is going on in her own body because she is a woman of color. This moment could reflect a larger problem in the medical system of physicians not hearing out people of color and other minority groups.
3) Where does class come into play and how might this have turned out differently for a lower class black woman or a white woman?
Serena Williams in a well known and affluent athlete. Her social status might have been what helped her finally get through to her doctors and get the proper test and medical treatments that she needed to survive. If it had been a very poor women black or white, the situation might have ended in death. A doctor might have seen him or herself as so much higher in status then the poor women to consider her complaints or concerns as valid medical knowledge.
4) What does the author suggest is a solution to this deeply embedded racist problem in our country’s medical system?
Author Sanithia L. Williams, MD makes a valid suggestion for all medical professionals. She beseeches doctors to be reflective in the ways that they might be complicit to racism in the medical field. She also states that one of the most important things in to always listen and be receptive to patients and their concerns. She finishes by calling doctors to amplify the voices of these black women.
The Perfect Vagina accessed: 08/10/2018
Female Circumcision: Muslim Identities and Zero Tolerance Policies in Rural West Java. Womens Studies International Forum 29(4): 394–404
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: a Novel. New York: Random House:
Williams, Sanithia L.
Serena Williams’s Birthing Nightmare Is All Too Familiar for Black Women. Tonic. tonic. https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/43qb5m/serena-williams-birth-black-women-maternal-mortality, accessed August 10, 2018