I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa. I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.
Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa. That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.
One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.
She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting. She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so. To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”
You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:
Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs. I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway. If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds. Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.
Sociologists like to say that gender identities are socially constructed. That just means that what it is, and what it means, to be male or female is at least partly the outcome of social interaction between people – visible through the rules, attitudes, media, or ideals in the social world.
And that process sometimes involves constructing people’s bodies physically as well. And in today’s high-intensity parenting, in which gender plays a big part, this includes constructing – or at least tinkering with – the bodies of children.
Today’s example: braces. In my Google image search for “child with braces,” the first 100 images yielded about 75 girls.
Why so many girls braced for beauty? More girls than boys want braces, and more parents of girls want their kids to have them, even though girls’ teeth are no more crooked or misplaced than boys’. This is just one manifestation of the greater tendency to value appearance for girls and women more than for boys and men. But because braces are expensive, this is also tied up with social class, so that richer people are more likely to get their kids’ teeth straightened, and as a result richer girls are more likely to meet (and set) beauty standards.
Hard numbers on how many kids get braces are surprisingly hard to come by. However, the government’s medical expenditure survey shows that 17 percent of children ages 11-17 saw an orthodontist in the last year, which means the number getting braces at some point in their lives is higher than that. The numbers are rising, and girls are wearing most of hardware.
A study of Michigan public school students showed that although boys and girls had equal treatment needs (orthodontists have developed sophisticated tools for measuring this need, which everyone agrees is usually aesthetic), girls’ attitudes about their own teeth were quite different:
Clearly, braces are popular among American kids, with about half in this study saying they want them, but that sentiment is more common among girls, who are twice as likely as boys to say they don’t like their teeth.
The same pattern is found in Germany, where 38 percent of girls versus 30 percent of boys ages 11-14 have braces, and in Britain – both countries where braces are covered by state health insurance if they are needed, but parents can pay for them if they aren’t.
Among American adults, women are also more likely to get braces, leading the way in the adult orthodontic trend. (Google “mother daughter braces” and you get mothers and daughters getting braces together; “father son braces” brings you to orthodontic practices run by father-son teams.)
Teeth and consequences
Caption: The teeth of TV anchors Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Robin Roberts, Suzanne Malveaux, Don Lemon, George Stephanopolous, David Gregory, Ashley Banfield, and Diane Sawyer.
Today’s rich and famous people – at least the one whose faces we see a lot – usually have straight white teeth, and most people don’t get that way without some intervention. And lots of people get that.
Girls are held to a higher beauty standard and feel the pressure – from media, peers or parents – to get their teeth straightened. They want braces, and for good reason. Unfortunately, this subjects them to needless medical procedures and reinforces the over-valuing of appearance. However, it also shows one way that parents invest more in their girls, perhaps thinking they need to prepare them for successful careers and relationships by spending more on their looks.
When they’re grown up, of course, women get a lot more cosmetic surgery than men do – 87 percent of all surgical procedures, and 94% of Botox-type procedures – and that gap is growing over time.
As is the case with lots of cosmetic procedures, people from wealthier families generally are less likely to need braces but more likely to get them. But add this to the gender pattern, and what emerges is a system in which richer girls (voluntarily or not) and their parents set the standard for beauty – and then reap the rewards (as well as harms) of reaching it.
If the past few months in the music industry have left you demoralized — what with the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and all — Lily Allen might make you feel better, emphasis on might. Her single, with the sarcastic refrain “It’s hard out here for a bitch,” satirizes all of it and takes some ugly missteps along the way. In doing so, she reinvigorates an important conversation about satire, race politics, and feminism.
2. She points to the extreme standards of beauty for pop stars, singing the lyrics “You should probably lose some weight/’Cause we can’t see your bones” and beginning the video in surgery alongside a discussion about her “terrifying” post-baby body:
Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?
This is a retort to Thicke’s line, “I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two.”
4. She refers to the Sinead O’Connor/Amanda Palmer debate about whether women in the music industry have agency. Breaking the fourth wall, the video features a middle-aged, white male executive in a suit telling her to treat a banana like a penis and showing her and her dancers how to twerk.
5. Finally, she goes after materialism and product placement:
Her final lines:
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay Always trust injustice/in justice ’cause it’s not goin’ away
Interestingly, I’m not sure if the lyric is “injustice” or “in justice.” Or both!
What to Make of It All?
Not everyone is loving this video. Some are arguing that she is using her race and class privilege to take advantage of the debate; her use of women of color as props, for example, is no different than Cyrus’. Even if the frame is satire, the visual is the same.
Some of her lyrics mock rap and hip hop generally, making it a racialized scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in the world, which happens. She sings, “I won’t be bragging about my cars/Or talking about my chains.” In one scene she washes rims surrounded by champagne, in another she mocks the car culture associated with hip hop.
Even if her satire were straight on, there’s always the risk that people won’t get it, despite the fact that she refers to it directly. This is a serious risk as indicated by the fact that a significant proportion of politically conservative viewers of The Colbert Reportdon’ t know he’s kidding.
I’ll be interested to see the conversation about the song and video as it plays out. In the meantime, I’m pleased for the reminder that the music industry isn’t monolithic.
First, there are people in the industry that object to racism, sexism, and materialism: Lily Allen, I think, but also likely many of the people who worked with her to make this song and video happen.
Second, there’s money in fighting back. This highly produced single and video would not be here if executives didn’t think it would be profitable. They think there are people out there who are sick of exploitation in the music industry… and they’re right.
Alternatively, this is just a modified version of the same exploitation that Cyrus is guilty of: a feminism that serves white women well, but continues to marginalize women of color.
The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons has released new data on the incidence of invasive and non-invasive cosmetic procedures. The U.S. leads in sheer numbers of procedures but, accounting for population, we fall into 4th place. South Korea leads for the number of procedures per person, followed by Greece and Italy.
By far the most common kinds of surgical cosmetic procedures are lipoplasty and breast augmentation. Along with fat, breasts seem to be a particular concern: breast lifts and breast reductions for both men and women are also in the top ten. Abdominoplasty, nose jobs, eyelid surgeries, and facelifts are as well.
Likewise, we’ve posted about surgeries that create an epithelial fold, a fold of skin in the eyelid more common in people with White than Asian ethnic backgrounds. This surgery is a trend among Asians and Asian-Americans, as colonization has left us with an association between Whiteness, attractiveness, and power.
Breast augmentation, the second biggest surgical procedure, is most commonly performed in America and Brazil. Buttock implants are also a Brazilian specialty, as is vaginal rejuvenation. Asia is keen on nose jobs: China, Japan and South Korea are among the top five nations for rhinoplasty.
More on where and how many procedures are being performed, but nothing on why, at the ISAPS report.
While I’m most well-known for my work on hook up culture, I’ve written extensively on a different topic altogether: how Americans talk about female genital cutting practices (FGCs), better known as female genital “mutilation.” While FGCs are passionately opposed by essentially all Americans who learn about them, our understanding of the practices is, in fact, skewed by misinformation, ethnocentrism, and a history of portraying Africa as naively “backwards” or cruelly “barbaric.”
The main source of distortion has been the mass media. Aiming to encourage journalists to think twice when covering the topic, the Hastings Center has released a report by the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa. In the rest of this post, I briefly discuss some of the things they want journalists — and the rest of us — to know and add a couple of my own:
Using the word “mutilation” is counterproductive.
People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is a more aesthetically pleasing one. The term “mutilation” may appeal to certain Westerners, but people in communities where cutting occurs largely find the term confusing or offensive.
Media coverage usually focuses on one of the more rare types of genital cutting: infibulation.
Infibulation involves trimming and fusing the labia so as to close the vulva, leaving an opening in the back for intercourse, urination, and menses. In fact, 10% of the procedures involve infibulation. The remainder involve trimming, cutting, or scarification of the clitoris, clitoral hood (prepuce), or labia minora or majora. While none of these procedures likely sound appealing, some are more extensive than others.
Research has shown that women with cutting are sexually responsive.
Women who have undergone genital surgeries report “rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction…” This is true among women who have experienced clitoral reductions and undergone infibulation, as well as women who’ve undergone lesser forms of cutting.
Health complications of genital cutting “represent the exception rather than the rule.”
News reports often include long lists of acute and long-term negative medical consequences of FGCs, and these may feel intuitively true, but efforts to document their incidence suggest that health problems are, for the most part, no more common in cut than uncut women. The Report concludes: “…from a public health point of view, the vast majority of genital surgeries in Africa are safe, even with current procedures and under current conditions.”
Girls are not generally cut in response to the influence of cruel patriarchs.
Most societies that cut girls also cut boys; some groups that engage in cutting have relatively permissive sexual rules for women, some do not; and female genital cutting practices are typically controlled and organized by women (correspondingly, men control male genital surgeries).
FGCs are not an “African practice.”
The procedures we label “female genital mutilation” occur only in some parts of Africa and occur outside of the continent as well (source):
Moreover, cosmetic genital surgeries in the U.S. are among the fastest growing procedures. These include clitoral reduction, circumcision of the clitoral foreskin, labia trimming, and vaginal tightening, not to mention mons liposuction, collagen injected into the g-spot, color correction of the vulva, and anal bleaching. While it would be simplistic to say that these are the same as the procedures we typically call “mutilation,” they are not totally different either.
Western-led efforts to eliminate FGCs are largely ineffective and sometimes backfire.
It turns out that people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children. Benevolent strangers who try to stop cutting in communities, as well as top-down laws instituted by politicians (often in response to Western pressure), are very rarely successful. The most impressive interventions have involved giving communities resources to achieve whatever goals they desire and getting out of the way.
Of the many nicknames I’ve acquired over the years, there’s one I’m reminded of today. The name was given to me by a bully shortly after I entered the sixth grade. I had been a fat kid since elementary school, but as puberty began to kick in, parts of me started growing differently than expected. The doctors said I had gynecomastia. “Man boobs,” or “moobs” in the jeering parlance of our popular culture.
But my bully simply called them “tits.” And so this also became my name in the school hallways.
I was Tits.
He would pass me in the hall and catcall “Hey Tits!” and his buddies would laugh. Sometimes, if he was feeling extra bold, he might actually grab one of my breasts, and squeeze it in front of the other kids. Not everyone laughed. But many did.
As direct as this bullying was, growing up with gynecomastia was characterized by smaller insults. Most kids would just ask “Why don’t you wear a bra?” Even adults could be cruel. “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was often asked.
When wearing shirts, it was crucial that they be loose fitting. If a T-shirt had shrunk in the dryer, I would spend hours and days stretching it out, so that it didn’t cling to my body. You can see fat boys do this every day. Pulling at their shirts to hide the shape of their bodies, but particularly their breasts.
As a fat kid, and one who hated competition, I learned to loathe sports, and especially, physical education. The one form of exercise which I enjoyed from childhood was swimming. Unfortunately, as my breasts grew, so did my shame about removing my shirt. At summer camp, I never set foot in the swimming pool. I knew that taking off my shirt would bring ridicule, and that leaving it on while swimming would show that I felt ashamed of my body. So, I pretended that I was above swimming — that I was too cool for the pool.
By high school, I had developed remarkable powers of verbal self defense. I absorbed cruelty and learned how to mete it back out in sharp doses. There’s no doubt that this shaped the person I became, for better and for worse. In high school, I managed to carve out a social niche for myself. The bullying stopped. But the shirts stayed loose-fitting. I rarely went swimming.
The doctors thought that perhaps I suffered from low testosterone. I found this funny, since my sex drive had been in high gear since the time I was a sophomore. I assured them that this was not the case. Finally, the doctors said that my excess breast tissue was probably just a result of being fat. Lose the weight and the breasts will go away.
So I lost weight. I don’t remember how much. But by senior year, I was slender. Girls were starting to talk to me. I was more confident. And I still had breasts. After graduation, the doctors congratulated me on my thin body. Now it was time to get rid of my breasts.
In the first surgery, I was placed under general anesthesia. The doctor made a half moon incision under each nipple and cut out the excess breast tissue, finishing the job with some liposuction. Unfortunately the surgery wasn’t a complete success. My breasts were smaller, but lumpy, and my nipples were puckered. It took a second surgery to make everything look “normal.”
I was nineteen. On New Year’s Eve, I went to a party and got drunk for the first time in my life. There, I met a girl who took my virginity. She was too drunk to insist on taking my shirt off. This was a relief, because under my shirt was a sports bra, and under that layers of gauze. My chest was still healing from the second surgery. In many senses of the word, I was still becoming a man.
I’m reminded of this recently, oddly enough, after reading one of those “humorous” snarky news stories that pop up in the right column of The Huffington Post. Perhaps you’ve seen the photo making the rounds. It’s of Barney Frank’s “moobs.” The photo inspired similar stories at gay culture site Queerty, Gawker andSlate, which used the incident as the pretense for a scientific column.
While all of these nominally liberal sites pay lip service to the dignity of gay and transgender people, they miss one thing that is very clear to me. Aside from the obvious fat shaming in these stories, the fixation on “man boobs” reveals our culture’s obsession with binary gender. As I noted on The Huffington Post’s comment thread, before a moderator whisked my comment away, “the only breasts The Huffington Post approves of are those of thin, white female celebrities.”
It’s culturally ubiquitous. PETA, for example, is a habitual offender:
Men are supposed to have flat chests, hairy bodies and big penises. Women are supposed to have large breasts, thin hairless bodies and tidy labias. (If a woman’s labia are too big, it just might remind us that, with a little testosterone, the same tissue would make a penis.)
We have all the evidence we need that biological sex and gender are not as rigid or fixed as we imagine. There are intersexed people. There are transgender people and genderqueer people. There are millions of men and boys like me, who also have large breasts, or gynecomastia, a medically harmless (though socially lethal) condition that your insurance just might pay to correct. The prevalence of gynecomastia in adolescent boys is estimated to be as low as 4% and as high as 69% . As one article notes: “These differences probably result from variations in what is perceived to be normal.” You think?
We’re so entrenched in that snips ‘n snails bullshit, that we can’t accept bodies which don’t fall on either extreme of the gender continuum. Transgender men and women encounter these attitudes in direct, and sometimes life-threatening ways. And, given the misogyny that pervades our society, these pressures are even harder for women and girls, whether they’re cisgender or transgender. Their bodies are hated and desired in equal measure. When my bully grabbed my breasts and called me “Tits,” he was taking what he wanted. He was also reminding me that I was no better than a girl. I was beneath him.
With the explosion of social media and the surveillance society, body policing has gotten much more intense. We live in an age of crowdsourced bullying. I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up as a boy with breasts in 2011. I suppose I’d spend hours in Photoshop digitally sculpting my body, to remove fat from my face, belly and chest before uploading my profile photos. If I were a fat girl, I might become very skilled at using light and angles to disguise my less than ideal body, to avoid being dubbed a “SIF” or “secret internet fatty,” by my tech-savvy peers. I would probably become vigilant about removing tags from unflattering photos and obsess over remarks people made about me on comment threads.
Twenty years have gone by, and I miss my breasts. As a chubby adult male, I still have a small set of breasts, but not the ones I was born with. The two surgeries also deprived my nipples of their sensitivity.
I’ve often joked that if I knew I was going to become a performance artist, I would have kept my breasts. The breasts I have now are smaller, but still capable of stoking the body police. I once scandalized a fancy pool party in Las Vegas simply by taking off my shirt. I realize that, as a man, it is my privilege to do so. In most parts of our society, it is either illegal or strongly frowned upon for a woman to go topless. (Female breasts are either for maternity or for male sexual pleasure, not for baring at polite parties.) Perhaps my breasts, which remind people of this prohibition, invite a similar kind of censure.
I’ve performed naked enough in my adult life to know that the body police can always find a new area to target. I was recently stunned to hear porn actress Dana DeArmond describe me during a podcast interview as a “fat lady” while her host Joe Rogan openly theorized that my small penis was somehow connected to my feminism. Rogan’s view of gender is so restrictive that he can only conceive of male feminism if it is in a feminized body. (This is probably also why men who support feminism are often dubbed “manginas” by misogynists.)
There might actually be tens of thousands of words devoted to describing my fat body and small penis on the internet. It’s almost a point of pride. Now, I don’t just use my sharp tongue for self defense. I also use my body itself, as an argument, and as a provocation.
I am Tits. Got a problem with that?
Matt Cornell is an artist, performer and film programmer. From 2000 to 2004 he was a business consultant in San Francisco for outsider artist eXtreme Elvis. Matt lives and works in Los Angeles. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him @mattcornell.
Benjamin B. alerted us to a New York Times story about a new trend in Japan: yaeba. Some young Japanese women are now having dentists artificially enlarge their incisors canines so as to achieve a look associated with a small mouth crowded with teeth:
Here’s some dental work to that effect, borrowed from the “after” pictures on a dentist’s website:
Michelle Phan, who blogged about the trend, explained:
It’s not like here, where perfect, straight, picket-fence teeth are considered beautiful. In Japan, in fact, crooked teeth are actually endearing, and it shows that a girl is not perfect. And, in a way, men find that more approachable than someone who is too overly perfect.
Communication Studies professor Dr. Emilie Zaslow had something different to say. She argued that the trend represented a fixation with youth, the sexualization of girls, and pressure on women to infantilize themselves:
…the naturally occurring yaeba is because of delayed baby teeth, or a mouth that’s too small.
In other words, having a crowded mouth makes you look younger, like a girl instead of a woman. Now, it’s easy to judge Japan as being weird and sexually-suspect, but we have very practices with exactly the same effect here in the U.S. Consider the preponderance of bleach blonde hair in America. It’s a natural hair color in some children, very rare in adulthood, and adopted mostly by adult women, not men. Let’s add baby doll dresses and shaving our pubes to the list.
This is a disturbing transnational phenomenon, then, and what I like about the Yaeba example is that it’s unfamiliar enough to Americans that we can see it for what it is. And, if we can see it for what it is, we can turn our lens onto our own culture and see the things we do in a whole new light.
UPDATE: In the comments thread, Lori says:
This “trend” is definitely not “new”. If anything it’s old. I actually have (female Japanese) friends who, when asked, told me that that would be a “dead” trend from 10 years ago. Whether they are right or not, during my years in Japan I have noticed that there are fewer Yaeba and generally what I would consider “ugly” teeth, and more “straight, picket fence” teeth as more Japanese get their teeth corrected with braces.