Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


JUNE 6, 2010 1:34AM

Yay! Labia! (NSFW)

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My dear friend, NattyB, suggested a discussion about female genital mutilation and the American Academy of Pediatrics recent position paper (and it's subsequent retraction) on female "nicking."  I think this is a very important topic, but I'm wildly underinformed.  I need to do some more reading and have a few conversations with people who are smarter than I am before I can launch into it in a future post. Now that I've raised the topic of female mutilation, here's a related disturbing cultural trend.

The intersection of culture and epidemiology is absolutely fascinating. I saw this on She Thought.  (Be warned that the video over at She Thought is disturbing and definitely NSFW.)  Australian pornographers are required to censor the amount of female genital detail they publish.  They can show full frontal nudity, but they have to obscure the reality.  Imagine drawing a line on an unclothed Barbie to represent the cleft of the labia majora, and you get the idea. Graphic designers photoshop out any protruding structures, like the clitoral hood or labia minora.  

Australian women, informed by the photoshopped "ideal," are seeking labiaplasty surgery in increasing numbers.  Seriously.  They are having their labia minora surgically reduced or removed to look like the photoshopped artificial vulvae they see in pornography.  

I have previously written about prettying up the female genitalia.  I do not believe that female genitalia require modification beyond grooming, hygiene, and corrective surgery for injury or disease.  It's unfortunate that women aren't more familiar with the wide scope of "normal" female genital variants.  It's unfortunate that the social parameters of beauty are so narrow.  When I re-read my previous post, I was reminded of our complex relationship with hidden estrus:

Humans evolved hidden estrus. This means that females don't exhibit obvious biological signs of fertility (or its attendant sexual receptivity), and this keeps the males guessing about the best time to mate (assuming the goal is to produce offspring). Hidden estrus may have fostered pair bonding and other monogamous mating patterns, increasing the odds that the male was the biological father of the offspring. I saw one source that claims that while human males initiate sexual intercourse throughout a woman's cycle, females tend to initiate more frequently during ovulation. This makes perfect sense in the hidden estrus paradigm.  

Engorged labia minora can be an indicator of arousal and sexual receptivity.  Photoshopping that out of porn seems counterintuitive to me, but it does make a certain kind of sense in a twisted patriarchal misogynistic way.  It conceals the existence of women's sexuality except as objects for men to use.  It really is another form of female genital mutilation. 

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medicine, culture, gender

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The trend of eliminating hair was the beginning of a waxed, slippery slope.

This seemingly idiotic practice has its own irrefutable logic that is much deeper than superficial rationality.
Thanks for the comment Nick! I was thinking in the shower that I need to strike out "grooming" because by including it, I am narrowing the social parameters of beauty.
I'm not sure who to point finger at here. Being a woman, I know how compelling the pornographic ideal can be. But truthfully, buying a corset is one thing, instructing a plastic surgeon to stick cantaloupe sized bags in your chest and removing your pleasure center is ever so slightly nuts. Those little lumps and petals are precisely what feels good. Same with your breasts. How many women's breasts and nipples have become less sensitive because of surgical enhancements?

So we're paying a dear price for all this neatening and enhancing and what have you. I wonder why we do it? We don't have to, you know.

I don't think I agree with Nick though, about the eliminating of's not permanent and it can actually be a fun day in the bathroom with your favorite barber. My point is we women subject ourselves to bullshit because we buy it. We do this to ourselves. Men/lovers may encourage this lunacy, but really, why are we buying it?

This is akin to that guy who has spent years injecting silicone or steroids directly into his penis. Why? He can't feel a damned thing but there it is, he has a giant doorknocker for a sexual organ. So clearly, this self mutilation isn't for sexual doesn't enhance the act. In fact, it's very curious.

Just some thoughts.

PS. I skipped the film but looked at the before and after. The women went from having outrageously beautiful woman vaginas to generic openings.
Foolish Monkey: Great and thoughtful comment! Thank you!

I did enjoy Nick's slippery slope pun, but I do agree with you that hair removal (or not) is a personal (or shared) decision which is easily reversed if the outcome is not what one (or more) wanted. It's a far cry from permanent surgical modification.
I'm with foolish monkey. Not one of those vulvas looked better after surgery. It struck me that the "after" pictures looked like those of post-op M to F transsexuals. Not that I have anything against the latter group (a couple of friends fall into that category) but do you really want your vagina to look like one made from male genitalia?