The 13-minute video below is a Ted Talk given by SocImages contributor Caroline Heldman. The aim is to define sexual objectification, refute the myth that it’s empowering, and offer strategies for navigating objectification culture.
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.
In sum, it’s high time Americans adopt a more balanced view of female genital cutting practices. Reading The Hastings Center Report is a good start. You might also pick up Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood by Stanlie James and Claire Robertson. Full text links to my papers on the topic, including a discourse analysis of 30 years of the academic conversation, can be found here.
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 and Slate, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Lori also found some Google Images pictures of men showing off the same look.
I know a guy, bless his heart, who is unendingly surprised to learn that women do things to themselves to try to be more conventionally attractive. Most recently he learned that bleach blondes are almost always, well, bleached. He thought it was a common natural hair color for adult women. LOL.
In any case, I thought the photographs below — by Zed Nelson, and sent along by zeynaparsel — were neat. They disembody the tools women use to enhance their beauty, revealing them as undeniably artificial.
Buy the book.
For more from Zed Nelson, see our post on cosmetic surgery and being normal.
In Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery, Kathy Davis upended the common sense view that people undergo plastic surgery because they want to be beautiful or handsome. Instead, she found that most people sought cosmetic correction because they felt ugly or strange. They didn’t want to be great-looking, or even good-looking, they wanted to be normal, unremarkable, to blend in with the crowd.
I thought of Davis’ book when I scrolled through Zed Nelson‘s photographic commentary on beauty, Love Me, sent in by zeynaparsel. There’s a lot to see there, but here I’ve pulled out some of the pictures that I think resonate with Davis’ findings.
“I’m competing with men 20 years younger than me”:
“To be honest I never thought that I needed it [labiaplasty]. But I read about the procedure in a magazine.”
Leg Lengthening Operation:
“Men’s Health magazine (USA) hasn‘t had a hairy chest on it’s cover since 1995.” Post-chest wax:
At his great blog, Work that Matters, Tom Megginson highlighted a pretty stunning commercial. In it, a woman in a dilapidated mansion looks disgustedly at a mildly repulsive carpet covering a giant room. She resigns herself to pulling it up, revealing a smooth hardwood floor beneath. And she hauls the mass of fibers to the street, only to return to a room newly covered again.
It’s a metaphor for the Sisyphean task of hair removal, of course. So what’s the solution? Well, it’s not rejecting the obviously unrealistic task of being female and hair-free. No. The solution is laser hair removal.
*I stole this fantastic title from Tom.
But that invasive surgeries are actually down, while “minimally invasive” surgeries are up:
Here are some details as to the changes in the top five procedures in 2009:
And here are the top five procedures by age:
For more interesting images about cosmetic surgery, see our posts on breast reduction for men, Asian eyelid surgery, botox and breast implants as empowerment, and the relationship between porn and genital cosmetic surgeries.