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.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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.

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.

This lines up with other studies that have shown girls want braces more at a given level of need, and they are more likely than boys to get orthodontic treatment after being referred to a specialist. Among those getting braces, there are more girls whose need is low or borderline. A study of 12-19 year-oldsgetting braces at a university clinic found 56 percent of the girls, compared with 47 percent of the boys, had “little need” for them on the aesthetic scale.

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.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality, Adios Barbie, and Jezebel.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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.


The incidence of these surgeries is strongly related to everything from the gender binary to global power dynamics.  In 2008 we reported that male breast reductions were the most common cosmetic surgery for 13-19 year olds (boys and girls combined). You would be shocked at what counts as excess breast tissue and how little the before and after photos look.  Boys and men getting breast reductions, alongside women getting augmentations, is obviously about our desire for men and women to be different, not naturally-occurring difference.  See The Story of My Man-Boobs for more.

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.

The Economist summarizes some other trends:

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.

Image at The Economist; via Global Sociology.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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.

Follow Dr. Heldman at her blog or on Facebook or Twitter.  Or read all of her SocImages posts here.

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.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College.  She frequently delivers public lectures about female genital cutting. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Cross-posted at Ms. and Jezebel.

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.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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 — eyelash extensions, breast implants, hair extensions — revealing them as undeniably artificial.


Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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.”

Men’s Health magazine (USA) hasn‘t had a hairy chest on it’s cover since 1995.”  

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.