The lectures, readings and video for this week make it extremely apparent that a beauty standard that we may find horrifying or absurd can be completely normal in another culture. This week, several practices were discussed – Chinese footbinding, female genital cutting and plastic surgery. Chinese footbinding is a practice that occurs around age 5 or 6 and requires breaking the toes and feet to allow it to set and heal in a much smaller size. This often takes around two years to be complete with the breaking of the feet generally happening at different times (See, 2005). As discussed in lecture, footbinding served as an exotic symbol that suggested obedience and high status or served as a path to higher status for families of middle class that could afford for one of their daughters to be withheld from work inhibited by the pain and discomfort of footbinding. Much in this way, footbinding stood as a symbol of wealth as poor people could not afford to have a daughter that was unable to work in the fields to help support the family. Footbinding was a way to further expand the gap between men as the superior and women as obedient and indentured to men and their families. This week’s lecture discussed how the government worked to eradicate footbinding during the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s but it was not until the 1940’s shift into communism that changes started to occur due to a shift in cultural perception around the act. Although footbinding became much less common, China’s sexist culture still remained.
In the UK where the video The Perfect Vagina was made, labioplastyor female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) has become an increasingly common procedure throughout the last decade. While in the past it was usually for things like removing longer labia that may be uncomfortable, more often now it has become a tool to obtain societal beauty standards – with many believing the ideal vagina has little to no labia seen from the outside (Leach, 2016). FGCS includes things like labia reductions, vaginal tightening, clitoris repositioning, and hymen reconstruction to reverse the appearance that one has lost their virginity (Braun, 2005). When speaking of having these procedures to achieve societal standards in some way, they all contribute to a delicate cultural perception of beauty and perfectionism. Deeper than this it is another way for beauty standards to make women feel like they are not good enough, like they have to look different in some way for the attention of men and to “feel normal.” Having the hymen reconstructed is a practice used mostly by Muslim women who want to appear to be virgins to their soon to be husband and his family. In Islam culture, it is considered unthinkable for a female to have other sexual partners before marriage. Here there is often a double standard where it is acceptable for men to have previous sexual partners, but men expect their future wife will be a virgin (Leach, 2016). Although this does not exactly qualify as a beauty standard, it is however a double standard that makes women feel less than for having or wanting other sexual partners. If FGCS were suddenly banned, women getting the surgery due to their own insecurities would be forced to live with these insecurities without much more happening. Muslim women doing hymen reconstruction surgery may be shunned from their future family and even from their own family if they were to find out they were not a virgin. The theoretical perspective in the video The Perfect Vagina is an anthropological/epidemiological approach because they are essentially asking the question, how can we get rid of the problem of women feeling the appearance of their vagina is not good enough? They investigate, how and why did the problem of female vaginal insecurity even start? For many of the women in the video, it stemmed from personal experience with negative comments (Leach, 2016).
The next, and often less consensual practice is female circumcision, which can include four different common methods from just pricking the clitoris, all the way to removing the labia and sewing part of the vagina shut. In America this is often called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and seen as an act of violence, but for some cultures, including many in Africa, Iraq and Indonesia, it can be seen as a rite of passage into womanhood or moral humanity. In these cultures, this practice is often done soon after birth but can also occur around the time of puberty, and they believe it can enhance sexual pleasure rather than destroy it. In the article by Lynda Newman regarding Muslim female circumcision, an interpretive theory approach is used due to her fieldwork in West Java and the UN ban on female circumcision, she seeks to explain how different views on circumcision greatly influence this ban and negative outcomes that could arise from it. For the Muslim community, female circumcision is not a practice of harm but deeply imbedded in Islam and represents equality of boys and girls (both of which are circumcised). The UN zero tolerance policy has led to the medicalization of female circumcision, which often then becomes a more invasive practice. The risks of not complying to the zero-tolerance policy put Indonesia at risk for being grouped with countries that practice more intrusive forms of circumcision but complying puts people at risk for imprisonment that leave the country to have the procedure done on their children (Newland, 2006).
Braun, V. (2005). In search of (better) sexual pleasure: Female genital ‘Cosmetic’ surgery.Sexualities, 8(4), 407-424. doi:10.1177/1363460705056625
Leach, H. (2016, July 19). The Perfect Vagina [film]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Kx0Tj1FpEc
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
See, L. (2005). Snow flower and the secret fan: A novel. Pp.17. New York: Random House.
Serena Williams Extra Credit
When Serena’s story of her complications during birth are looked at from a lens of intersectionality, several factors are likely to have contributed. First off, Serena is a woman who is also not a doctor, just these two factors alone make her less likely to be taken seriously when claiming to know exactly what is wrong and demanding such specific treatment. However, Serena is an extremely famous athlete of high status, so it seems like they would have taken better care of her because of this. Serena is also a black woman which is where many of the complaints are centered around in this discussion because black people in general are often not given the same quality of care as white people. Serena’s story, along with many others that popped up in the media after this event shows that our society continues to have an unspoken racial hierarchy, favoring white people, especially in the medical system. Because Serena is in the spotlight, she is more likely to experience discrimination and hate since more people know who she is, which can increase stress and potentially have affected her blood clot. According to the article about Serena, black women are three to four times more likely to die or face preventable complications during birth than white women. The article goes on to mention that although certain risk factors for pregnancy like high blood pressure, obesity and poverty are more common amongst black people, this is not the only reason for the high increase in pregnancy risks (Williams, 2018). During the week 5 lecture video regarding intersectionality, a landmark study was discussed which showed that black women who had lived in America had significantly worse birth outcomes when compared to white women as well as black women that had recently been living in Africa. The African women who raised their children in America, their Children ended up having lower birth outcomes, showing that this was not a disparity due to genetics but that being raised in America lead to poorer birth outcomes for Black women. The lecture and article also talked about how discrimination puts stress on our bodies (Williams, 2018), in addition to black women being more likely to live in food deserts, low income and toxic areas, all contributing to the likelihood of poor birth outcomes.
Going back to the fact that Serena is a praised famous female athlete of very high socioeconomic status, you would expect she would have been treated with more urgency – knowing that if something bad happened it would show up in the media. This leads many people to believe that had Serena been any other lower class black woman, it is likely they would not have been taken seriously and their chances of dying would have been much higher. Sanithia Williams suggests that in order to solve the racist issues in the medical system, medical providers need to take cases like these seriously and reflect on what went wrong, how racism was involved and learn from them. Black women in America also need to allow their voices to be heard, especially when dealing with their experiences of racism in the medical field. Only then can changes start to occur (Williams, 2018).
Williams, S. L. (2018, January 12). Serena Williams’s Birthing Nightmare Is All Too Framiliar for Black Women. Retrieved from https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/43qb5m/serena-williams-birth-black-women-maternal-mortality