Labiaplasty is a plastic surgery procedure for altering the labia minora (inner labia) and the labia majora (outer labia), the folds of skin surrounding the human vulva. It’s often called the ‘Barbie’ surgery because it makes your down there, look like, well Barbie’s. If you’re still confused, there are before and after pictures of operations here. This week I read a BBC news article saying that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have warned that labiaplasty should not be carried out on the NHS.
The popularity of these operations has exploded in recent years and according to the BBC the numbers have increased fivefold in the last decade. Sometimes there’s a real need for this surgery and you only have to read these posts on Mumsnet to see why. But in recent years there’s been a trend for ‘designer vaginas’; vaginas that fit an ideal introduced by porn. And with porn now freely available through the internet, it’s become a standard that many men and women seem to expect.
We’ve seen the same thing happen with the removal of pubic hair – women in porn are bare down there and so many of the female public has followed suit. But shaving or waxing is reversible; it grows back and without any serious long-term side effects. Labiaplasty can leave women with pain, scarring, less sensitivity and a host of other problems, and once it’s been done, it’s irreversible. You only have to read these heart-wrenching stories to realise that for many women having a ‘designer vagina’ left them feeling butchered, scarred and violated.
Personally I’ve always felt uneasy about cosmetic surgery. While it’s obviously a personal choice, it’s always seemed a great shame to me that women (and men) feel the need to nip here and tuck there to fit a body ideal that doesn’t exist; that people feel so unhappy in their skin that they’re prepared to undergo major surgery with all the risks that come with it. For so many people to be running to the operating table to change how they look I think says more about the problems of our society, than any problems with our bodies… but that’s another blog post for another day.
What I find incredibly ironic about labiaplasty is that while some women are desperate to go under the knife to have their vagina altered, others are fighting a long hard battle against female genital mutilation (FGM). What’s FGM?
Here’s the World Health Organisation’s description:
Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises 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.
Sound familiar? Yes, to me that sounds a hell of a lot like cosmetic labiaplasty and FGM has been illegal in the UK for 28 years (although there are yet to be any prosecutions). FGM is understood to predominantly take place in African and Asian communities, and is performed both in the UK and abroad. Some 20,000 girls living in the UK are thought to be at risk and 140 million women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM.
You may think it’s crass to make comparisons between the two procedures. FGM is most often performed on children who have no choice. It often takes place in unsanitary conditions and carries far more health risks (including death) than labiaplasty. The point of FGM is to ensure women do not experience sexual pleasure so that they are virgins before marriage and remain faithful afterwards. I assume that women seeking a labiaplasty want to make themselves more sexually desirable, rather than remove their own feelings of pleasure. And women in a position to have a labiaplasty presumably know the risks and give their full, informed consent, which cannot be said for the frightened women and girls who suffer FGM.
Like all cosmetic surgery, to have a labiaplasty is a women’s free choice, and I would always defend a women’s right to make her own choices about her own body above everything else. But I hope these women consider the irony of their choices in a world where so many other women are fighting to keep knives away from their vaginas.
I’ve often wondered which social practices, that today are considered completely normal, will be exposed as being discriminatory and abusive in the next fifty years. What is it that we’re doing now that in 2063 will be viewed on a footing with unequal pay and marital rape?
I pick these examples because it was only in 1970 that it became illegal to pay a woman less than a man, and it was just 22 years ago (in 1991) that it became illegal to rape your wife. During the last century both of these things were viewed as widely acceptable, but in recent decades the tide of public opinion turned and now we have legislation to protect women facing these issues. So what are we doing today, that could be blindly causing harm and pain to others, which in the future will be deemed unacceptable?
At the LSE (where I did a Masters in gender theory) I remember spending hours in the library struggling to make sense of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble… and that was just the first chapter. I remember trying to wrap my head around new concepts of gender that had never occurred to me, because I’d never bothered to question the status quo. I remember struggling to articulate those concepts to those around me and trying to imagine what a better world might look like.
One of the things that really struck me was how to imagine gender. I’d always thought of male and female as secure categories, which were easy to define and articulate. It had never occurred to me to think of gender in any other way. But the more I read, the more I learnt. One of the things I realised was that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are born without without clear male or female genitalia, and so our obsession when a child is born about whether it’s a boy or a girl, whether to buy baby blue or baby pink, is actually incredibly unhelpful to a large number of parents.
Parents are often pressured into decisions about surgery and gender assignment just days after their child comes into this world. One of things contributing to that pressure is that when you register a birth you have to register the child’s sex, and you have to do this within the first 42 days of life. Operating on a healthy newborn baby, to fit society’s idea of male and female seems fairly extreme, particularly in a culture which also places a high value on individualism and self-determination.
Having given all this stuff a lot of thought, I was fascinated to discover on Friday that Germany is to allow parents to leave the box for sex blank when registering children. The reason is to remove pressure from parents for assigning a sex to their child where they display both male and female genitalia. It’s a means for parents to register the birth of their baby, without forcing them into a box they just don’t tick.
There are some who say the new law doesn’t go far enough, that rather than leaving the box blank, parents should have a third box marked intersex that they can tick. I happen to agree, but I also think we should applaud Germany for being the first to make this landmark change. It’s easy to criticise reformers for not going far enough, but in a world where I find myself having to tick a box marked female at least every few weeks, I think Germany’s doing a pretty radical thing.
In 2063 I hope that being intersex is no longer a taboo, that gendered identities aside from male and female are not just acknowledged, but embraced. I hope that people realise that not everyone fits into the boxes marked male and female, and that that’s ok. At the moment we’re causing hurt without even realising it, and I hope that in fifty years’ time that’s changed.
On the sixth of August I went on a cycle ride in the beautiful Kent sunshine with my boyfriend, Alby. We stopped off at a vineyard to taste some local wine where we bought a bottle of ‘Canterbury Choice’. The vineyard owner had started making wine as a retirement project, but the project had got too successful and he was running out of wine so he asked us not to tell our friends about the place – so I won’t advertise his business here (!) despite the fact that he does make an excellent dry white.
Anyway, we continued on our cycle ride, found a lovely picnic spot near the sea, opened our bottle of Canterbury Choice and tucked into a blue cheese and pearl barley salad we’d had for dinner the night before. I lay down with my head in Alby’s lap and he told me to close my eyes. When he said to open them again there was a small box on my tummy, and I was pretty sure I knew what was inside.
I am absolutely thrilled to be engaged to Alby. We got together when we were just teenagers and I don’t think either of us imagined we’d end up marrying each other. But I feel proud that we’ve carried each other through these past 11 years and I have no doubt he’s the one for me.
So, what’s the problem? Getting married has made me think very hard about my feminism. In fact, it was before Alby popped the question that I began contemplating what marriage means. I did a Masters in Gender at the LSE so it’s not like the issue hasn’t cropped up before, but it was during the campaign in the USA against Proposition 8 that I really got thinking. I have always been a strong supporter of gay marriage, and I thought most people I knew were too. So I was a bit shocked when some of my friends were questioning whether gay marriage is a good thing.
The argument rests on the fact that marriage as an institution has perpetuated inequality, so in the words of Dean Spade and Craig Willse ‘Expanding marriage to include a narrow band of same-sex couples only strengthens that system of marginalization and supports the idea that the state should pick which types of families to reward and recognize and which to punish and endanger.’
It’s a strong argument, but for those (like me and Alby) that want to publicly declare their love for each other, make a promise to be there for each other until the end of our days, and cash in on the £200 Tory tax break (only joking!), it’s not particularly helpful. Our decision to marry is about love and emotion and this argument is somehow devoid of that.
I have to say, for those young feminists who are seriously contemplating marriage, there’s not much advice out there. Wedding magazines steer clear of this thorny issue, in fact wedding magazines inspire a whole kind of other anxiety. Their pages are filled with ‘To do lists’ that start 18 months before your wedding. We decided to organise our wedding in six months, so technically I’m a year behind!
Anyway, I digress, there are a couple of good blog posts out there and this one titled ‘Who wants to marry a feminist?’ is full of helpful insights. Lisa Miya-Jervis concludes ‘Marriage, is now, potentially what we make it.’ We intend our marriage to be a partnership and I hope we will be able, in our own small way to redefine an institution, which hasn’t always been a good thing for women. Obviously, where the removal of dead rodents is concerned, responsibility lies squarely with Alby, but apart from that we intend to share the responsibilities of home and work and ask ourselves tough questions if that ever stops happening.
I’m acutely aware that women have a long way to go before we live in anything close to an equal world but I don’t believe marriage needs to be a retrograde step in that journey. Any celebration of love should be cherished, because for anyone who’s been to a wedding or civil partnership, they’ll know it truly is a beautiful thing. Marriage is what we make it and it’s only by getting married, we can make marriage better.
I owe a lot to Nigella Lawson – she’s been there for me on some pretty big occasions. She was there for me last week when I baked her Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake for the work ‘bake-off’ competition. She was there for me when I baked my first Christmas cake about 5 or 6 years ago, and she was there for me last Christmas when for the first time I hosted the festivities for my family at my flat. Although like most Christmas chefs I was anxious about the moistness of the bird sitting in my oven, I knew I could afford a quiet confidence because I had followed Nigella’s recipe (in fact, her entire Christmas countdown) to the letter.
Like me, Nigella is also a Godolphin girl, and when I went to a book signing of hers at John Lewis a couple of years ago she laughed as she named a list of teachers, working out which ones we had in common. Therefore, when I saw the pictures of her husband, Charles Saatchi, grasping her by the neck in a London restaurant a couple of days ago I strangely felt as though someone I knew had been hurt.
Sadly what Nigella experienced is far from unusual; there are 12.9 million incidences of domestic violence every year in the UK alone, but mostly these incidents occur behind closed doors so there is no audience there to witness the abuse. In this case there was a whole restaurant and a photographer viewing the incident, so what I find most shocking about it is that not a single one of them got up and told Saatchi that what he was doing was completely unacceptable. Were the audience frozen by shock to see a professional, successful woman treated this way? Were they paralysed, embarassed to be gawping at a celebrity couple? I have no idea why no one intervened, but it’s a poor state of affairs when a man can assault a woman in public without reproach.
Charles Saatchi has accepted a police caution for the incident, but has shown no remorse and described the whole thing as a ‘playful tiff’, but the photographs, the comments of the paralysed witnesses, and the fact that Nigella has so far stayed silent and moved out of the family home, suggest otherwise.
I wish Nigella Lawson and her children all the strength and support they need to get through this. As many commentators have pointed out, Nigella certainly has the financial resources to go her own way, but even with all the resources in the world, walking away from a violent relationship is never easy.
I’m not a football fan. The ‘beautiful game’ is supposed to unite the nation, but I just can’t get excited about it. I’ve been to two football matches and I left the first watery eyed after being sprayed the with tear gas; I left the second wanting to cry tears of boredom. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the sport I did see today’s story about the footballer that bit one of his opponents. Luis Suarez, who plays for Liverpool, dug his pearly whites into Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic.
After seeing the news report on television I naturally assumed the footballer would be sacked. If I sunk my teeth into a colleague, I assume the consequences would be grave. If, during a meeting where a competitor company was present, I lunged across the table and decided to make lunch meat out of their employee I assume I’d find myself not only unemployed, but also in police custody.
After reading the online news reports this afternoon I realised my assumptions could not have been more wrong. Suarez’s bosses are clearly much more lenient than mine. Liverpool Managing Director Ian Ayre said that Suarez could stay at the club, but that they needed “to work with him on his discipline.” To my mind, that’s one very understanding employer.
I thought it was interesting that on the same day this story hit the media the Daily Mail led with the headline: ‘A GENERATION OF UNRULY TODDLERS’. Liz Truss MP, Minister for Schools, has spoken out about the need for greater discipline and better-skilled staff in nurseries. Now, the Daily Mail headline ticked all the boxes of a Daily Mail headline; inflammatory, controversial and inaccurate. But it did make me think about the example Luis Suarez is setting to the thousands of youngsters who all dream of being footballers. Through my research for this blog post I’ve discovered that this isn’t the first time Suarez has been abusive; he’s been accused of racist and violent behaviour on a number of occasions. Maybe he went to a bad nursery school, or maybe he just needs to do a bit more ‘work on his discipline’, either way he’s been lucky to keep his job.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about celebrity sports stars getting away with behaviour which would be considered completely unacceptable (not to mention illegal) for the rest of the public. What really bugs me about this situation though isn’t the double-standard, it’s the fact that the media doesn’t even question the double-standard. I actually agree with Liz Truss, I don’t think it’s ever too early to teach good manners. But children need to have that reinforced by the adult world, and when celebrities can repeatedly get away with despicable behaviour I worry about them ‘learning by example’.
It’s just been announced that Suarez has been charged by the FA. I hope they are prepared to instill the discipline that Liverpool hasn’t so far.
I had resolved to keep quiet about death of Thatcher; ‘discussions’ have flared up at work from time to time during the last week and I have (unusually) refrained from comment. As I’m normally the first one to volunteer my political opinions at work my manager has eyed me suspiciously. I certainly hadn’t planned to write a blog.
The truth is I feel a bit of a fraud commenting on Thatcher – I was just seven years old when she stepped down so I didn’t live it the way that so many people did. And it seems to me that most people’s opinions of her leadership come from a deeply personal place. It’s very difficult to argue with someone whose beliefs are based on experience, particularly when my own are based on media reports and history books, so keeping quiet has seemed like the best option.
However, there is one issue where I feel do qualified to wade in and which has been getting me VERY frustrated since her passing; the debate in the media about ‘what Thatcher did for women’. I personally think before anyone answers this question we need to take a step back and say ‘should Thatcher have supported women?’ The media are obsessed with what Thatcher did for women because Thatcher was a women, but there is no way the media would devote hours of news coverage and miles of column inches debating what James Callaghan did to support women. This isn’t to say I don’t think that women in powerful positions shouldn’t support other women climbing the ladder, far from it. I just think we need to recognise the double standard – if powerful men felt more pressure to increase the representation of women in politics and business we might be living in a very different world.
But it’s not just the double standard that narks me: I have also been disappointed at which pundits the media has called in to give their opinion; ITV News interviewed Kirstie Allsop and Janet Street Porter on the subject. I have to admit I have a guilty crush on Kirstie – I love watching her craft and property shows – but when did she become an expert on politics and feminism? I have no such fondness for Janet Street Porter who I had the misfortune of spending a day with on the campaign trail with Emily Thornberry MP. In her follow up article for The Independent she included a section entitled ‘Battle Dress’ detailing the outfits of Emily and the other candidates. It’s more than a little annoying that ITV chose to interview a woman who perpetuates the media focus on women’s appearance rather than their qualifications, when they could have asked the likes of Tory MP Liz Truss, or LSE feminist political theorist Anne Phillips, or businesswoman and equality champion Helena Morrissey, or any number of women with more relevant experience.
Many commentators have said that by simply being the first woman Prime Minister Thatcher helped other women, but the numbers don’t back this up. The only real increase in the number of Conservative women in Parliament took place in 2010 when the number more than doubled to an all-time hight of 49. In the five elections since Thatcher stepped down the numbers have sat stubbornly in the mid-teens. Clearly having a women in power does not automatically create a more equal world for women.
While I sincerely wish that Thatcher had used her position to encourage other women to get involved in politics, I think we need to hold our all our political leaders to the same standard, and ask the same questions of all Prime Ministers regardless of their gender.