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13.04.2011 Health

Reflecting On FGM And Genital Cosmetic Surgery

I received my subscription of Reproductive Health Matters (RHM) last week. The theme of Volume 18 of RHM is ‘Cosmetic surgery, Body image and Sexuality’. I have decided to focus on this theme in this article based on the articles I have read. It’s all about whether or not there is a scientific difference between female genital mutilation (FGM) and female genital cosmetic surgery.

I do not know whether cosmetic surgery procedures are being practised by surgeons in Ghana, but it is a big thing in the Western world. According to an article written by Marge Berer, who is incidentally the editor of RHM, in 2007 BUPA in the United Kingdom was charging women from £1,700 to £3,900 to have their labia (inner genital lips) reduced.

Women can change the size of their labia and reshape it through surgery. This involves the cutting away of unwanted labia tissue with a laser, instead of a scalpel, to reduce bleeding to produce the desired shape.

According to Marge, a growing number of women, many of whom were very young, had been led to believe that there was something wrong with their genitals. A French study she quoted stated that demand for those procedures was becoming common among very young patients who appeared to have nurtured a complex since their early adolescent years, disturbing their love life.

Even in Iran, where the veil is mandatory, cosmetic surgery is common. In the same RHM volume, there is an article on cosmetic surgery in Iran. One clinic has carried out 500 breast operations in a year and one woman has had her stomach, breasts, legs and feet redone through cosmetic surgery.

The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported that its members carried out 10,738 procedures in 2003 and 32,453 in 2007. For these procedures, female patients outnumber male patients by a ratio of 9:1.

Genital cosmetic surgery includes vaginal tightening, hymen ‘reconstruction’, clitoral lifts, liposuction of the mons veneris (fatty tissue over the pubic bone), clitoral hood reductions, clitoral repositioning, labiaplasty, vaginal narrowing, vaginal rejuvenation, breast lifting and G-spot augmentation.

According to research by Sara Johnsdotter and Birgitta Essen, two Swedish researchers, the trend of genital shaving and genital cosmetic surgery might be due to a new genital aesthetic ideal of many young women that nothing should protrude in their genital area, and that might have originated from mainstream pornography.

As far as I am concerned, it’s so vain, it’s a non-starter. It flies in the face of feminism and the liberated woman. Why is the ‘liberated’ Western woman going to all this length and altering her natural human form? What is the purpose of these surgical alterations? Is it to attract the male or female sex? Where should the lines be drawn? Facelifts, nose jobs, breast reduction and breast implants may be acceptable for the sake of appearance, but when it goes beyond the publicly visible to the private invisible to alter thighs, buttocks, vulvas and vaginas, and for men, penises, where should we draw the line?

Should we rely exclusively on jewellery, fabric, love potions and cosmetics to enhance our sexual attractiveness or we should extend this to altering our human bodies?

According to Iv Pitanguy, the father of reconstructive surgery in Brazil, there is a right to beauty.

In her book, Feminism, Jane Freedman argues that women’s lack of control over their bodies and their sexuality is, for feminists, a part of men’s domination of women. If this is the case, how do we explain away women’s desire to pluck at, cut off flesh and add chemicals such as silicone in pouches to enhance their sexuality and feminine sexual attraction?

Who are they enhancing it for? Why are these surgeries being done primarily by the most liberated women on earth who have the best laws and institutions to protect their rights?

Even of more concern is the position of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and governments of many developed and developing countries on FGM, cutting or excision (whatever you may call it). Female genital cutting is carried out on the same female body part as genital cosmetic surgery. It also involves the total or partial removal of the external female genital organs, but it is not for cosmetic purposes; it is for religious or cultural purposes.

According to Marge, in 2007 the BUPA cosmetic surgery website said this, “All women are different and labia come in different shapes and sizes. However, some women feel their labia are too large and request surgery to reduce their size.”

What, then, is the difference between this procedure and FGM and why should one reduction be criminalised and the other not criminalised? Is it all about no consent by a girl child in the case of FGM? If an adult African woman decides to consent to the FGM procedure, will it still be criminalised and could we not equate it to genital cosmetic surgery? Or is it about criminalising a procedure that seeks to control female sexuality?

Why are the similarities between female genital cutting and genital cosmetic surgery being ignored? Why are developed countries providing grants for campaign against female genital cutting in other countries but are allowing medical practitioners in their countries to charge women hefty sums of money for genital cosmetic surgery which is more or less the same medical procedure? Should they not campaign against genital cosmetic surgery also?

These questions are to be answered by the governments of Britain, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy and Spain which have all criminalised female genital cutting but allow genital cosmetic surgery to be carried out in their countries.

So to the Ambassadors of the United Kingdom, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy and Spain in Ghana, what answers do you have for us? Or should we conclude this amounts to ethnic discrimination?

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