Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Feeling OK About Ourselves: Feminism, Abortion, "Cosmetic" Genital Surgery and Roots.

Flashback: it's the 70s/80s. Imagine a group of strong, like-minded, bell-bottom wearing women gathering around kitchen tables, sharing jobs they hate, talking about sex and politics, wanting things to change. Imagine a group of women, fired-up about feminism, deciding they're going to do something to make a difference in women's lives, such as fight for equality economically, socially, and physically. Imagine these small groups of women, scattered across different parts of the United States, creating self help groups (see here) which helped women have control over their bodies.

Thankfully, this did happen and from these platform shoe wearing sisters, our feminist abortion providers took root. Many of these self-help groups eventually provided Menstrual Extraction, something very similar to what is now called Manual Vacuum Aspiration (MVA). It wasn't much of a leap to then establish women run and operated abortion clinics, based in feminist ideals that all women will be trusted and treated with the same dignity, respect, compassion, and non-judgmental way; regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, size, physical ability, socio-economic background, religion, etc. This may sound fluffy, nice, and sweet; but these ideals were real and held onto tightly.

There aren't many feminist abortion clinics in the country, but there is a coalition called the Feminist Abortion Network. The network seems to collaborate and support one another to continue the mission of specializing in abortion care, but from a feminist perspective. Feminist abortion providers trust women to know what's best for themselves. They do not think they already know what the "best decision" is for a client; they simply provide accurate and complete information, and allow her to make her own choices. Without judgment.

Why am I talking about all this? Because I think it's time we go back to our feminist roots. It seems to me that we've taken two steps forwards, ten steps back in many areas. Young women seem not to understand how much their reproductive rights and freedoms are at risk, even though one in three women will have an abortion by the time they're 45. And if you follow anything on sexual health, you'll know that there's a scary trend occurring: women seem to have a lack of knowledge about their bodies, and as a result, there is an increase in female cosmetic genital surgeries, like labiaplasty (where the outter and inner labias are "trimmed"). Rebecca Chalker, author of "The Clitoral Truth" (must read!), recently wrote a brilliant, yet disturbing, article called "The 'Perfect' Porn Vulva: More Women Demanding Cosmetic Genital Surgery."

Women increasingly seem to be worried that their vulvas, especially labias, are deformed, or not quite right, or ugly, or nasty, or whatever; websites like Scarleteen are inundated with questions from young women about their vulvas, expressing disgust with their own bodies.

I am grateful to Rebecca Chalker for highlighting that all the labiaplasty, hymen restorations (sometimes done a "Valentines Day" presents to partners to look like a so-called-virgin), vaginoplasty (tighten the vaginal muscles) fit squarely within the UN's joint definition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In 2008, 10 UN agencies released a 48 page joint declaration to end FGM, so obviously, there are concerns about it all from a global perspective. In the "developed" world, where women are requesting these procedures, the reasons stem from aesthetics and this belief that women's bodies are somehow disgusting and dirty and ugly.

This infuriates me and makes me so sad, too! Women, especially young women, are inundated with negative images of women and their bodies and what they should/shouldn't look like. This doesn't just relate to what shape they should be or what color their hair or eyes should be. They now think their vulvas should look a certain way - like how they look in porn, or how their friends' vulvas look. Recently, I overheard one of our doctors explain to a young woman that everyone's vulva is completely different, after the client - who was being seen for an abortion - asked the doctor why her "parts" didn't look like her friends' "parts." It's always about the "should." And the should = not good enough. As women, we carry this on our shoulders and it's enough already. Seriously.

I say we need to go back to our feminist roots, dig in deeper, and start sharing more info about vulvas. Betty Dodson has drawn some fabulous illustrations to give just a sample of how different and magnificent our bodies really are. And if we can't accept that we're all unique, all special, all amazing (and that every single vulva is completely different from another!), then I don't think we'll ever get rid of these "shoulds" that society/men/ourselves/ourselves/whoever throws upon us...

What does this have to do with abortion? Everything. It has everything to do with feminism and its true tenets: that we're beautiful women. That we're full of potential. That we're able and capable to do anything we set our minds to. That we are perfectly fine just.the.way.we.are. Seriously. That's what feminism is all about. And it's what feminist abortion clinics are all about: You are wonderful. You are powerful. You are capable. You can make any choice, given accurate and complete information. You have opportunities. You are strong.

We're not going to change any of this, though, unless we share more information and feel comfortable demystifying our bodies. Knowledge = power. So, I think we all need to tell our friends/daughters/sisters/cousins/mothers/lovers/whoever about all the information that really IS out there and start turning back the tide. We need to go back to our roots. Give everyone a copy of A New View of a Woman's Body (purchase here), make it required reading, along with Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues and Heather Corinna's S.E.X, plus a lot of others. What would you add?

A huge thanks to all you feminist abortion providers and feminist sex ed providers out there who continually try to remind us that: We Are Ok...just.the.way.we.are!


  1. Yes! I once spent a good hour on a labioplasty website looking at before/after images. Was bizarre. But I guess it's the same theory as changing your hair or your style or your weight; you're influenced by what other people like to see or what's perceived as attractive. Also, since sex is one of those instances during which you try to make yourself as appealing as possible (even knowing that sex is rarely a pretty sight), I can see how self-consciousness about one's labia might come into play. But then again, it's kind of a silly thing to worry about in the grand scheme of things.

  2. I figure if someone is at the point of seeing my crotch up close we are most likely gonna Do It already (at least some form of It!), but if something happens and we don't, it won't be related to whether my labia are pink or purple, short or long, etc etc.


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