Female Genital Mutilation, Body Shaming, and The Secrets Women Carry

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  • Disclaimer: This post is me getting real – more than normal – REALER.  But, I will warn that I will be talking about some topics that might make you uncomfortable, so if you don’t like talking about sex, or anatomy, or women being cruelly mutilated in their nether regions, then you should probably just hold out for my next post and skip this one.

I’m currently wrapping up a graduate course at Duquesne University in Criminal Law and the Courts, especially in relation to sexual assault and sexual assault nurse examiner training. We’ve been hitting up the hard topics on this subject…rape, erotic strangulation, rape kits, and sexual assault exams…alot of conversations that would have at one time made me really, really uncomfortable.  I’ve got my final paper coming due in a few weeks, and I decided to write on a topic that I read about years ago in college, but am more horrified by now as a fully adult woman: female genital mutilation (FGM). This horrible practice still takes place in pockets around the world, and it has traveled to new locations as specific immigrant populations from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia continue to move to the West.  FGM in itself is a terrible and very culturally complicated practice, and studying it has caused me to think of similar constructs we have in the West, that while not nearly as physically or maybe psychologically excruciating, can cause microtraumas to build up within women that can be very painful emotionally. This post is me trying to work out my thoughts on this topic, and explore how body shaming in women has affected my own life, and the lives of women I know.

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When I was growing up, I accumulated so much shame around my female-ness.  There are some specific reasons that I can put my finger on for why this happened, but I don’t understand them all.  Suffice it to say that I would turn crimson with shame in even the most superficial conversations regarding intimacy, that time of the month, etc, and changing in the gym locker rooms even among my peers was horrible for me.  I think the main reason that I was embedded in shame until even my late twenties was the lack of conversations going on in my world about female development, sex, relationships, and what a normal and healthy body is supposed to look like.  I don’t blame anyone for these lapses; they just happened.  But that silence did some deep damage to me.  I’ve recognized over the years that I am not alone in this.  I’ve talked to woman after woman who have revealed their own shame to me, and shared alongside them the incredible relief to find out that we weren’t alone with our feelings of not being “right”.  I’m now convinced, as uncomfortable as certain subjects may still make me, that we need to have big, broad open conversations to help heal the women of the world of our collective shame, and to work to create serious societal change for the little girls now growing up into women.

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Let’s start with a brief primer on female genital mutilation, from now on referred to as FGM.  It involves the mutilation of the female genital areas and usually takes place in a ritualistic manner on girls from infancy to early teenage years.  I will spare you from pictures, but it probably wouldn’t hurt anyone to take a look at what is being done to girls to feel the full gravity of the issue.  Better a little nausea and horror than to let such a practice continue.

The World Health Organization separates FGM into categories based on the severity of mutilation:

  1. Type 1 (Clitoridectomy): this involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, or removal of the prepuce (a skin fold surround the clitoris similar to the foreskin on a penis)
  2. Type 2: (Excisions): this involves removal of the clitoris and labia minora (the inner labial folds of the vulva); the outer labia majora may or may not be removed.
  3. Type 3: (Infibulation): this involves sewing together the labia minor (and sometimes labia majora) to create a smaller vaginal opening.  The clitoris may or may not be removed.
  4. Type 4: this includes all other types of mutilation to the genital area for non-medical reasons, including piercing, pricking, cutting, cauterizing, or scraping out of tissue.

Are you cringing yet?  Maybe if you aren’t it would help to know that sometimes these practices are done with sterile, sharp knives, but not always.  Traditional cutters in some regions of the world, who also serve functions like midwives, may use pieces of glass, razors,  or other sharp instruments that happen to be available.  And anesthesia….well……..

While FGM is frequently referred to as female circumcision, nothing could be farther from the truth.  I now completely regret giving into the social norm of having my boys circumcised as babies and wish I could go back and undo it.  But, I will emphatically say, that FGM is nothing like cutting the foreskin off an infant boy’s penis. Furthermore, the longterm ramifications of FGM can be horrendous for women.

Let’s talk about infibulation for a moment.  A woman has her own vulvar skin folds sewn together so tightly that there is barely enough of a hole for urine to come out.  In many cases, she has to be cut open again for intercourse or to be able to deliver a baby.  And then, she is frequently just sewn right back up.   It’s fucking chastity suturing.   And the consequences of this:  tissue infections, urinary tract infections, severe chronic pain, development of cysts, shock, hemorrhaging, urinary retention, and PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA.  Recent research has also shown a connection between infibulation and the development of obstetric fistulas.  This is where a woman is trying really hard to birth a baby but the prolonged obstruction causes a hole in her birth canal leading to the constant leaking of urine and feces.  Doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to you?  Check this documentary out: Furthermore, if the woman’s clitoris has been scraped off as well, she’s deprived of her human right to sexual pleasure.

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I didn’t go to the gynecologist until I was 25.  Sorry if this is way too much information for the world, but it’s true.  I really needed to go years before then because of problems I was having, but I was too horrified and embarrassed to go.  I couldn’t even talk to my mom about any of this. I was CERTAIN that I was not like other women…that I was a gross anomaly and that even a female gynie would be horrified to examine me.  But, I eventually had to go see a doctor to get birth control, and to my surprise….REALLY, to my surprise…my gynie displayed no overt incredulity toward me at all.  Like, she acted as though she saw people like me EVERY SINGLE DAY!

That first visit began the gradual breakdown of my shame walls surrounding my body.  Alot more of my extreme modesty crumbled when I gave birth to my three kids and there I was displayed for hours on end in all of my butt naked glory, and neither the doctors nor nurses ever flinched.   As I think about my angst about all of that now, I have to laugh.   But at the time….oh my word…..it was a really difficult growing process for me.

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I’ve gotten to the point that I am really angry at how much control men have exerted over women’s sexuality and bodies for…basically forever.   FGM is practiced largely because it is a social norm in certain places around the world and helps ensure a woman’s marriageability.  I understand why families would feel pressured to continue with the practice for those reasons, even though I don’t agree. Either way, it needs to be fully eradicated and so much work is still needed to ensure this happens.

But, we do the same things in societies where FGM isn’t practiced, just in different ways. We women are controlled through our own social norms…not through physical mutilation but through small emotional cuts.  I HATE how women in the hospital feel like they have to apologize to me for their unshaven legs when I go in to examine them. Geez!  I”m not even a man and they still feel shame for having hairy legs! I think in the majority of the cases women are more ashamed in the hospital of having hairy legs than having a bushy Va-J-J. How did this happen?! We have hair on our legs for a reason, and it’s not dirty or unclean.  But I fall subject to it as well….I’ve also been the woman apologizing to health care providers for having Christmas tree legs.

Or, women are too ashamed to wear a swimsuit that is bikini cut because God forbid some hairs might poke out and they will be seen as “unclean” or something like that. But, on the flip side, if they wear a swim skirt or swim shorts they are often accused of being prudes.

Infibulation is used to control a woman’s libido….cut off her clit and sew her up and that will prevent her from having premarital and extramarital affairs.  Scrape out her vagina and she’ll be nice and clean and tight for her man.   That’s the external way to control.  But there are also internal, subtle ways to do the same thing: make women feel slutty if they don’t adhere to a certain version of femininity or if  they don’t maintain their bodies in certain ways, make rape and rape culture the woman’s problem to solve, designate the woman’s status in society based on whether or not she is married, etc etc.  Or how about….no one blinks an eye if a man has sex on a first or second date, but OMG…if a woman does that….she’s just a bona fide harlot.

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We women are taught to believe that our sexuality is not as important as men’s. I’ve met woman after woman who, in hushed tones and red faces, admit to me that they’ve never had an orgasm…and they’re well into their twenties and thirties.  Not for lack of trying on their part, but very frequently because of lack of any legitimate concern or effort from their partners.  And unlike men who are encouraged to say what they want and need, women are frequently terrified to express more than a few muffled suggestions….or they’re too ashamed and embarrassed to try to ask for anything at all.

Western women might not be literally sewn up, but our minds very often are.

And of course, I recognize that I don’t know every woman out there and that many are very uninhibited and free in the way they live and move in their bodies.  But I also know that I AM NOT an anomaly in this crazy shame carrying.

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A friend and I were talking the other day about how women’s health procedures are often suggested or pushed without any real education to discuss potential side effects down the road.  Women are still diagnosed as being hysterical over perceived health problems, even if nicer terms are used. And the unfortunate part is, women can unconsciously be complicit in perpetuating these behaviors.  We learn to accept things as normal (that are really not normal) and then we pass them on to our fellow women.

Here are a couple of examples:

After I had my third son, my monthly cycle never went back to normal.  It was dreadful and I was desperate. I met a nurse who told me that I should consider an endometrial ablation, and she painted a picture of a period free life, no worries of not having a spare tampon in your purse, no leaks or accidents….AND, insurance would cover it!  Sign me up, I immediately thought, and I had it done.  Looking back, other than the standard medical consent, my male gynecologist NEVER told me about the high rate of endometrial ablation failure that occurs, never told me that it was too good to be true.  And now, I’m dealing with the increasing physical pain and frustration that results from the mentality that “minor” procedures for women’s parts aren’t a big deal.  Yeah, whatever.  It appears that uteruses don’t like being cauterized, even for seemingly good reasons.

Or how about IUDs.  I know women who are told this is the best birth control option – just stick it in and no worries for years.  Oh, never mind that you might bleed through everything within five minutes for the next year as your body adjusts.  That’s a small price to pay for not getting pregnant right? Never mind that pill birth control might give you a blood clot or jack up your hormones…it’s the woman’s responsibility to give sex and avoid pregnancy, right?

Or, how about women who have cosmetic surgery to their labia because they are embarrassed about how they look and they are afraid their partners are judging them and thinking they are gross?  I think for me one of the absolute best things that has ever happened is that through working in a hospital setting I have literally seen just about everything genitalia-wise….nothing shocks me anymore.  And it makes me laugh at how afraid I was as a child that I was different down there than every other female.  The truth is….there is a HUGE AMOUNT of variability in anatomy both in men and women.  No one looks exactly the same and that’s the beauty of it.

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As you can tell by this post, I’m pretty angry.  But I want more people to get angry about these issues…I haven’t even covered anything to a significant depth here.  The point I want to make is that we need to keep questioning our cultural norms and the unspoken burdens we place on women.  Yeah, women in the West can generally vote, we can generally have credit, own property, get divorced, and a bunch of other meaningful things.  But our shame burden has not been delivered from us.

I want everyone to be horrified about the physical ways women are mutilated, and also the psychological ways we are mutilated. I want to be able to talk to my fellow women without seeing the shame and tears in their eyes as they reveal their pain to me.

So, as I write this paper on FGM, I’m committed to fighting against it and advocating for little girls here in the States that are still at risk for being mutilated because of cultural norms and peer pressure and the “that’s what we’ve always done” mentality.  But I also commit to teaching my three boys that there is nothing unclean or weird about the way girls and females naturally are. I will continue to impress upon them that girls are every bit as valuable as them, and their needs and wants are equally justified. And I will commit to teach them to question everything that has been done forever,  “just because”.

2 thoughts on “Female Genital Mutilation, Body Shaming, and The Secrets Women Carry

  1. Can I join you in your anger because I’m 100% raging at the physical and psychological harm done to women especially when it’s inflicted by other women. FGM is a practice that angers me so much words can’t begin to describe. I’d never really heard about it before I went to a talk given by a FGM survivor -amazing lady. It got me thinking about a conversation between my female GP and a male consultant, I was not involved in the discussion. I think we should try her on these pills GP said, no I don’t think she’ll take them surgery is the best option. And so I had my ovaries removed. Medical necessity or controlling man who had decided I would never be allowed a family? Women and men are tricked a lot by people usually men on power trips but it’s the female body and psyche that suffers the most. I maintain that FGM happens in western cultures but it’s easier to say it’s just those other countries that are barbaric to women. I don’t think this is true.

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