Bodies of Flesh, Bodies of Knowledge: Representations of Female Genital Cutting and Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery

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III. Current Representations

1 - Engaging in Cultural Practices in the Age of Globalization

Globalization is generally defined in economic terms. Heald (2004) writes that globalization is traditionally defined as “the inexorable spread of capital and commercialized culture throughout the world” (117). Feminists such as Heald however, call for a more inclusive definition of globalization; one that positions it as a complex web of social relationships and movements and that recognizes it simply as “global interconnectedness” (Vargas, 2003: 906).

Mainstream and feminist ideas of globalization vary greatly. Mainstream theorists focus on increasing economic dependence between nations, a definition that often limits discussions of globalization to spaces where men have dominated, such as economics and politics (Heald, 2004: 120). Feminist theorists are more likely to agree with a more expansive definition which includes “cultural processes, social groups and movements, as well as understandings, manipulations, and contestations of these processes” (Heald, 2004: 120). Furthermore, globalization is about the flow of ideas which implies the “proliferation of social definitions and cultural interpretations’ (Vargas, 2003: 906). That is, globalization often entails the imposition or marking of bodies, both of flesh (people) and knowledge (their beliefs, tradition, education, ways of expression, etc.) in relation to other bodies of flesh and knowledge. This becomes particularly important when discussing cultural practices such as FGC and FGCS.

The current Western feminist representations of female genital cutting are born from the work of Fran Hosken in the 1970s. In 1976, Hosken began writing about FGC in her newsletter Women’s International Network News (Wade, 2009: 26). Hosken visited Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in 1973, never having heard of FGC until a European woman working at a hotel in Nairobi mentioned it to her, calling it “female circumcision” (Hosken, 1980: 5). She was the first person to coin the term female genital mutilation and defined it as “a disfiguring genital cutting procedure that happens to women in Africa” (Wade, 2009: 26). From here Hosken began researching FGC and in 1980 published The Hosken Report, its purpose being to “initiate action to abolish all forms of female genital and sexual mutilations, whatever purpose they are said to serve” (Hosken, 1980: 1). Hosken ties FGC explicitly with patriarchy, stating that the practice derives from fear of female sexuality, the desire to diminish women’s femaleness and sexuality, an ignorance about sex and sexuality more generally, and a desire to “protect” women from rape, sexual assault, and their own sexuality (Hosken, 1980: 2). Hosken writes of the women in FGC-practicing countries:

The victims of the practices described here, are for the most part, illiterate and too young to speak for themselves, unaware of the rest of the world and of their own bodies’ biological functions. They are quite unable to communicate their needs. Where they do speak, their pleas are met with ignorance or disbelief, or shrugged off, especially by those concerned with modernization and development (Hosken, 1980: 3, emphasis mine).

Wade posits that Hosken and her contemporaries mobilized an entire generation of Western feminists (26). These particular feminists and scholars focused on the practice as a “barbaric form of patriarchy” and eradication and intervention efforts were crucial to their cause (27). Hosken engaged in some of the very first efforts to bring FGC to public attention in the West.

Alice Walker and her fictional novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, her documentary Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, and the accompanying text of the same title were also incredibly influential in bringing FGC to national attention, especially in the United States. Walker, like Hosken views FGC as mutilation and as fueled by patriarchy; she also places great emphasis on eradication. Throughout her book and the film Warrior Marks, Walker often refers to “female genital mutilation” and “sexual mutilation” synonymously. She writes that FGC robs girls of their ability for full sexual pleasure and that FGC-practicing culture “demands the literal destruction of the most crucial external sign of [a female’s] womanhood: her vulva itself” (Walker et al, 1993: 21). Great emphasis is also placed on these women as victims of their own cultures and often interrogates the idea of mothers as victims who perpetuate the practice. Walker writes:

And though one is struck by the complicity of the mothers, themselves victims, as of the fathers, the brothers, and the lovers, even the complicity of the grandparents, one must finally acknowledge, as Hanny Lightfoot-Klein does in the title of her book about genital mutilation in Africa [Prisoners of Ritual], that those who practice it are, generally speaking, kept ignorant of its real dangers – the breakdown of the spirit and the body and the spread of disease – and are themselves prisoners of ritual (Walker et al., 1993: 25, emphasis mine).
The emphasis placed on women’s sexuality and the idea of “sexual mutilation” has its roots in the Western feminism from which both Hosken and Walker derive concepts of their analysis from. In the 1970s, second-wave feminists came to see the clitoris as a site of female power and self-determination (Sullivan, 2007: 405). Therefore, the excision of the clitoris becomes a patriarchal tool to stifle women’s sexuality and their ability to live their lives to the fullest. This idea however has been disputed. The knowledge of a woman’s clitoris as crucial to sexual enjoyment and orgasm is “known” 7 to women in Western countries but may play no importance to proper sexual enjoyment and expression for women in FGC-practicing countries. That is, these arguments of “sexual mutilation” are used but, as Njambi (2007) writes, there “is no interrogation of the constructions of “sexuality” and “orgasm” upon which the discussion is based” (98).

Regardless of these disagreements however, both Hosken and Walker have contributed to the creation of current popular and mainstream feminist representations of FGC. These representations are ones that view FGC as oppressive, and depict women who undergo FGC as victims of a barbaric patriarchy. Most significantly is that women are viewed as victims who do not have autonomy over the decisions they make about their bodies. They are viewed as victims of their culture, victims of a patriarchal social structure, and victims of a barbaric, tortuous, and “backward” practice.

Mainstream representations outside of the realm of academia and feminist theory also typically present FGC from this “victim” or “us vs. them” perspective. While some of these publications do include information about women in FGC-practicing countries making efforts to end the practice, many of them use language that depicts women as victims. In two recent New York Times articles from April and May of 20118, the terms “subjected to”, “torture”, “restrained”, and “tied down” were most frequently used to describe the practice. Such terms create unfair representations of these women that do not allow for the entire picture of their experience with the practice. That is, it does not allow for an interrogation of the fact that many women support and perpetuate the practice or that many women in FGC-practicing communities are actively fighting against the practice.

The representation of women in FGC-practicing communities as oppressed and victims however, is over-simplistic, homogenizing, and problematic. FORWARD (Foundation for Women’s Health, Research, and Development) is a campaign and support charity led by Diasporic African women, dedicated to advancing and safeguarding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of African girls and women (FORWARD, 2011). Based in the UK, the campaign also works in Europe and Africa. FORWARD was created and is run by women who have undergone FGC in an attempt to stop practices such as FGC and child marriage and the medical consequences such as fistula.9 In the 1980s and 1990s, FORWARD played a crucial role in moving FGC into international and national policy agendas. The campaign also aided in conceptualizing FGC as a form of abuse and a child protection issue. Its predecessor, “The Women’s Action on Excision and Infibulation” was at the forefront of advocacy efforts that led to FGC being introduced onto the agenda of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). In 1992, FORWARD helped to establish the first “African Well-Women Clinic” in London which is a health clinic that focuses specifically on the specialized care that women who have undergone FGC need (FORWARD, 2011).

The actions taken by this campaign create representations of women in FGC-practicing countries that differ from those common in mainstream feminism and in mainstream publications from Western countries. Organizations such as FORWARD show that women in FGC-practicing countries have autonomy and self-determination, and are not mere victims of their culture and patriarchy. Furthermore, FORWARD shows that these women take active, rather than passive roles in their lives. They are able to act for their own well-being as well as for the well-being of other women in their communities.

Aside from these women outside of FGC-practicing countries, local women within these countries also actively advocate for change. Although Walker et al. (1993) maintains her perspective of FGC as barbaric and of women in FGC-practicing countries as victims of culture, her co-author Pratibha Parmar interviewed two young women in Banjul who organize in their educate young people in their school about the harmful effects of FGC. One of the young girls Mam Yassin answers a question asking if young people are changing their attitudes about FGC:

Yes; now young people are changing. People are campaigning, like Mama’s [the second girl in the interview] mother and sister. They’re all campaigning against this. And as Mama said, we are forming our groups at school, and most of them agree with us. And some of the mothers come, too (Walker et al., 1993: 334).

This demonstrates that young women and even some of the older female members of these communities are beginning to campaign against the practice. In this particular interview, motivation to end the practice came from both the health consequences as well as the amount of money it often costs to pay for circumcision and the ceremony that accompanies it. Mam Yassin states: “I’d like my parents to use the money they pay for the party to further my education or do something for my younger brothers and sisters, rather than waste it. And I would like to be healthy and live longer” (Walker et al., 1993: 335).

In contrast, representations of FGCS on cosmetic surgeons’ websites often depict the practices as empowering and as a way for women to seek sexual liberation. The homepage for the Manhattan Center for Vaginal Surgery states that the reason why women are seeking these procedures more frequently is because of “Society’s increasing acceptance of women’s expectations of sexual satisfaction and happiness” (2011, emphasis mine)., a website dedicated to providing contact information for surgeons, pre- and post-op pictures, testimonials, and general information for women considering FGCS states that the increased frequency of these practices is the societal liberation of perceptions about women’s sexuality:

It is widely know that men today are experiencing more open awareness and discussion of their sexual problem and needs10 […] Women are now experiencing the same thing. There is a societal evolution occurring about how men and women perceive each other in areas of sexual expectation, SPECIFICALLY when it comes to sexual performance and appearance. Simply stated, women, like men, want to “look good”. This is a perfectly normal expectation. Women today can usually achieve this prospect through labia reduction surgery (2009, emphasis mine).

The Laser Vaginal Institute of Michigan sends a similar message about empowering women through FGCS. This center states that their mission is to “empower women with knowledge, choice, and alternatives” (2007). It also stresses that FGCS allows women to “participate in their healthcare and surgical design [in order to] accomplish whatever [women] desire” (2007, emphasis mine). The Michigan Institute also claims that “As a sexual biological organism, women are superior to men” because they are multiorgasmic and that when asked “do women want to be loose or relaxed or do women want to be tight? Women answered 100% - women want to be tight” (2007). The Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation Institute of San Antonio lists the very same mission: “to empower women with knowledge, choice, and alternatives” (2003).

Davis (2002) writes about a female genital cosmetic surgeon who utilizes the image of the “surgery consumer” as a liberated woman and as an “independent self-fashioner” during his consultations (Davis, 2002: 24-25). She also notes a website that advertises by fueling itself on the “long-lasting feminist” call for a more responsive medical establishment: “Very few physicians are concerned with the appearance of female external genitalia. A relative complacency exists that frustrates many women” (Davis, 2002: 25). In other words, doctors who address the appearance of women’s genitalia are giving women what they want and are relieving them of their frustration.

Sullivan (2007) states that Dr. David Matlock, a leading cosmetic surgeon who developed and trade-marked Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation® and Designer Laser Vaginoplasty® uses this same empowering language in both his book Sex by Design and in his own office (404). Matlock refers to the laxity of women’s vaginas after giving birth as the “price for motherhood” and states that “women’s needs have been neglected” and that “Laser rejuvenation empowers women with choice and freedom to enhance sexual gratification” (404). Furthermore, Matlock “claims that he is a feminist ‘because I’m here for the woman and I’m all about the woman’” (Tiefer, 2008: 468).
This use of feminist rhetoric and ideas for practices and actions that are not necessarily in tune with feminist goals is referred to as “pseudo-feminism”. These surgeon’s and their websites appropriate and funnel feminist rhetoric around choice in order to promote their procedures as empowering and sexually liberating. “Pseudo-feminism” is in essence used as a tool for business marketing. Depicting FGCS in this way represents the procedures as a necessity for women to be empowered. Furthermore, it represents women who have undergone FGCS as in complete control of their bodies, as feminist, as “wholly” sexual, and as sexually superior. This rhetoric places FGCS in the context of empowerment regardless of the social pressures that often accompany the decision to undergo the procedure. Words such as empower, choice, liberation, desire, knowledge, active, and participate obscure the beauty ideology that creates the need for the procedures in the first place. It is crucial to remember that there is a large difference between feminist freedom and the “freedom” to choose as a consumer.

Regardless of this difference, however, these tools for marketing fuel current representations of FGCS and of the women who undergo the procedures. These women are viewed as having choice and agency over their lives and their sexuality. They are portrayed as empowered and liberated individuals. Unlike women who undergo female genital cutting, they are not represented as victims of their culture.

The representations seen on surgeon’s websites about FGCS, however are not the only that are presented. The New View Campaign was formed in 2000 as a grassroots network to challenge the often distorted and oversimplified messages about sexuality presented by the pharmaceutical and medical industry. The goal of the campaign is: “To expose biased research and promotional methods that serve corporate profit rather than people’s pleasure and satisfaction […] [it] challenges all views that reduce sexual experience to genital biology” (2008). The New View Campaign has actively protests against FGC because the practice is fairly unregulated and unmonitored. It has also criticized the procedures because they exemplify the medicalization of women’s sexuality and the ways in which it creates new risks, negative norms, and insecurities. The campaign further emphasizes the diversity of normal female genitalia and scrutinizes FGCS for the pathologicalization of female genitalia (i.e. “labia hypertrophy”). This campaign, unlike what is presented by female genital cosmetic surgeons does not represent FGCS as an empowering, liberating practice that provides women with knowledge, choice, and alternatives. Instead, it depicts the practice as one that provides women with false information about the normality of diverse genitalia and their overall sexual health. It also emphasizes the need for more research about the procedures, showing that the practice compromises women’s health and well-being.

IV. Implications of Mainstream Representations of FGOs

The representations of FGC and FGCS that exist in some popular and mainstream feminist discourse are problematic because, notwithstanding the differences in the context of the two sets of practices, they fail to acknowledge the similarities that exist between them. Both FGC and FGCS derive from societal and cultural pressures to live up to specific ideals of beauty and sexuality. That is, both act as social and cultural conventions. The World Health Organization’s fact sheet about FGC reads: “FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are “clean” and “beautiful” after removal of body parts that are considered “male” or “unclean”” (WHO, 2, emphasis mine). Similar cultural ideals are noted as reasons for undergoing FGCS. The Women’s Pelvic Health and Wellness website states that “many women bring us magazines such as Playboy and say they want to look like that” (1). It also states that women seek Designer Laser Vaginoplasty® procedures in order to reconstruct conditions due to the aging process in order to obtain a more “youthful, aesthetic look and feel of the vulvar structures” (1). further examines the notion of age and mentions how often times, women want to return to a more youthful look (2). Both the discussion of age and Playboy exemplify the ways in which FGCS is influenced by social and cultural expectations. Davis (2002) writes that “the genitalia are cultural terrain that must conform to […] norms” (17). That is, the female genitalia are not untouched by cultural standards and expectations. She writes that much like the reasons behind the FGC focus in some areas on removing parts of the female genitalia that are deemed ugly and “unfeminine,” FGCS “is about excess” (9). They are both about the removal of parts that “should not” be there, according to social and cultural beauty and sexuality standards.

FGC is officially defined by the World Health Organization as “compris[ing] all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” (emphasis mine, 1). In looking at this definition alone, it would include FGCS for cosmetic, non-medical, and aesthetic reasons. Although women sometimes undergo FGCS for medical reasons, Renganathan et al. (2009) states that the majority of women who seek FGCS do so for purely aesthetic reasons. They also argue that women may use physical discomfort and other seemingly medical reasons to legitimize a request for cosmetic surgery that is primarily for aesthetic reasons (102).

Although FGC and FGCS both derive from social and cultural pressures to conform to ideals of beauty and femininity, there are also major differences. One major difference is the prevalence. Whereas the occurrence of FGCS is in the thousands, the World Health Organization estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women undergo FGC (WHO, 2011). Another major difference between the two practices is the idea of consent. In many cultures, FGC is performed on children from infancy to age 15 (WHO et al., 2008: 4), whereas FGCS is most often performed on consenting adults. The idea of consent has been disputed, however, especially among feminist scholars. Shell-Duncan (2008) writes that the idea of what is “normal” for a child varies across cultures. She critiques the United Nations for naming FGC a human rights violation under the “Rights of the Child” because parents who value the cultural, economic, and social benefits of the practice may view genital cutting as being in the child’s best interest. Furthermore, the idea of consent is contested in regards to both practices because they both derive from external forces to conform (Shell-Duncan, 2008: 232).

The environment in which the practices are performed, as well as who performs them is another important area of divergence between FGC and FGCS. FGCS is performed by cosmetic surgeons or obstetricians/gynecologists in sterile environments and although according to WHO, there is a trend of medical practitioners performing FGC, it is most commonly performed by women in the communities in often non-sterile environments with dangerous and non-sterile tools and equipment. Significantly, it is these very differences which some current popular and mainstream feminist representations emphasize while ignoring important similarities.

This ignorance of similarities is problematic in the creation of cross-cultural dialogue. Lambe et al. (2002) writes that effective cross-cultural dialogue means “to minimize misunderstanding and diminish miscommunication between people” (425). It allows for engagement in conversations about the historical, political, social, and cultural contexts in which cultural practices such as FGC and FGCS are practiced within. Sullivan (2007) writes that the distinction that is made between “us” and “them” in representations of genital modification practices “homogeniz[es] diverse procedures whose meanings and effects are specific to the historico-cultural location in which they develop and are practiced and modified over time” (400). That is, these representations do not account for the diversity and complexity of women’s experiences with FGC and FGCS, and ignore the unique social, historical and global contexts in which the practices occur. This enriched knowledge of contexts however, offers a starting point for cross-cultural collaboration that does not involve the imposition of one culture’s ideals over another or intervention by countries that possess more political and economic power. Effective cross-cultural dialogue is the key to beneficial cross-cultural collaboration that has the potential to expand the bodies of knowledge of all cultures.

These same contrasting representations further threaten the creation of effective cross-cultural dialogue by creating a dichotomy between the two practices. These representations present FGCS as an empowering practice thus portraying the women who undergo the procedures as “liberated”. Conversely, FGC is represented as a barbaric, backwards, and tortuous practice, thus depicting the women who undergo the procedure as “oppressed”, regardless of the agency that they may have over their lives and their bodies. This dichotomy obscures the experiences and contexts of the women undergoing these practices, thus rendering the creation of effective cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration nearly impossible. Davis (2002) writes that “the motivations that impel African-rooted FGOs [female genital operations] and American labiaplasties should not be envisioned as radically distinct” and that the oversimplification of such similarities “leaves the feminist with dull tools for analysis of either phenomenon” (24). Therefore, the dichotomous representations of the practices must be extensively analyzed in order to sharpen tools and to see through to women’s lived experiences and to the benefits that those bodies of knowledge hold.

Brooks (2007) writes that “[b]y coming together and sharing unique experiences and perspectives, women can build alliances, develop a common position, and take a stand on a particular issue without compromising their differences. Achieving a shared position […] on a particular issue promotes the most promising course of action for social change – a solid base from which to fight” (76). By only acknowledging the differences between FGC and FGCS, such as issues of consent and prevalence, and ignoring similarities like social and cultural pressures to conform to beauty ideals, representations of FGC and FGCS deny the ability to create this solid base. Only when the current representations of FGC and FGCS are critically analyzed can the similarities between the two practices be utilized for social change.

V. Alternative Approaches and Solutions

Viewing female genital operations (FGOSs) on a continuum rather than dichotomously can help to improve the ability to engage in dialogue, collaboration, deeper understandings, and thusly social justice and activism. Davis (2002) writes that rather than measuring FGC and FGCS with “two different yardsticks”, a less dichotomous analysis would allow for a “deeper understanding of core issues like the nature of consent, of bodily aesthetics and social control, and of cross-cultural activist collaboration”’ (Davis, 2002: 22). Rather than analyze FGC and FGCS as separate and competing practices (one that offers liberation and the other oppression), a continuum would account for areas of both convergence and divergence.

In order to represent FGOs in a way that is beneficial to cross-cultural engagement, FGCS and FGCS must be viewed beyond the idea of “right” and “wrong”. What would be most beneficial would be to see the meanings of these practices within their own specific contexts as well as the contestation of those meanings within the cultures examined. If one wants to engage in a deeper understanding of cultural practices and particularly be active in cross-cultural engagement that extends beyond global boundaries, one must be willing to practice, to a certain extent, cultural relativism11 if only to serve as a reminder that what is reality in some cultures may not be in others. Burn (2005) however does caution against the practice of cultural relativism in that if taken too far, dangerous and harmful practices can be condoned solely based on its cultural rootedness (i.e. domestic violence)12 and that a cultural relativist’s position implies the existence of a homogenous culture upon which there is agreement. However, Baron et al. (2006) reminds us that “Notions of cultural pluralism and relativism are not in place to condone FGM [or other cultural practices], but to minimize cultural superiority and encourage a broadened understanding of the practice’s sociopolitical significance” (349). In other words, cultural relativism can be utilized strategically as a tool to look beyond social definitions and cultural interpretations and try to understand the diversity of the lives of women who undergo both FGC and FGCS.


The implications of current representations of female genital cutting and female genital cosmetic surgery are problematic. These representations do not allow us to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of women’s experiences with FGOs. Effective cross-cultural dialogue involves the acknowledgement and utilization of this diversity in order to better understand each other’s cultures. The practice of reflexivity is crucial to both examining current representations as well as in engaging in cross-cultural dialogue in order to be cognizant of one’s own location and complexity as well as others’ location and complexity. By critically examining the current representations within their specific contexts, this type of dialogue and engagement can occur.

In conclusion, a couple aspects of this topic merit further research and exploration. The most important is research about FGCS, especially in regards to its prevalence, outcomes, and demographics. As the practice becomes more mainstream more research will be needed. Research about cross-cultural dialogue in direct relation to FGC and FGCS would be very helpful in showing the danger of the current representations of the practices. Furthermore, reflexivity should be utilized in both research and activism in order to interrogate preconceived notions.

The first step toward changing the current state of how FGC and FGCS are represented is to view the practices on a continuum, rather than a binary and to concentrate less on whether FGC and FGCS are “right” or “wrong” and more on the ways they are represented. These small strides could set the stage for the creation of effective and meaningful cross-cultural dialogue. Furthermore, this endeavor is not simply about the representations of practices, but more importantly it is about the women who those representations effect. Taking these steps toward critically examining representations and seeking alternative ways to approach FGOs will positively impact women because there is potential to create solid cross-cultural bases for social justice and change that does not favor one cause or group of people over another. Instead, the diversity and complexity of women’s lives will be located and enriched knowledge can be created and utilized in cross-cultural efforts.

Althaus, Frances. "Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage Or Violation of Rights?" International Family Planning Perspectives 23.3 (1997): 130-33. Academic Search Complete. Web.

American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "2000/2005/2006 National Plastic Surgery Statistics: Cosmetic and Reconstructive Procedure Trends." American Society of Plastic Surgeons. American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Web.

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