Labiaplasty is on the rise.
That’s vaginal cosmetic surgery.
It came up during a question and answer after Beth Pentney’s Monday lecture —representation of women’s bodies on makeover reality TV.
It’s disturbing stuff.
Shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover feature constants undergoing dental surgery, facelifts, nose jobs, breast augmentation and harsh diet and exercise regimes to become “beautiful.”
“But what does that tell us about beauty, health and cultural beliefs about our bodies?” said Pentney.
At this point, the visiting Women’s Studies PhD student from BC’s Simon Fraser University could have launched into the standard diatribe — why do people do this to their bodies, it’s superficial and dangerous, etc.
But she didn’t.
“That’s the wrong focus,” said Pentney.
The goal is not to say these women are “stupid, vain, wrong or have misguided beliefs.
“Instead, it is interesting to think about how much time and money is invested into worrying about the weight, size and shape of one’s body parts.
“I want to look at the broader context in which it’s all occurring.”
Body image is created by the way it’s represented in the media, she said.
“We’re immersed in a culture awash in cosmetic surgery through celebrity culture and advertising.
“And that’s nothing new.”
However, the growing prevalence of the thin, white, young Barbie-doll image is creating a standard that is difficult to achieve.
It takes time and money, said Pentney.
And even when women do achieve this image of “beauty,” it doesn’t necessarily create happiness.
Interviews with women who were contestants on makeover TV shows are revealing, said Pentney.
“The majority of women say, ‘Yah, I look great, but I still can’t get a good job, there are still bills to pay or my relationship still isn’t working.’”
Others are happy, she added.
So it’s not black and white.
“We can’t just blame patriarchy and the media because women often take part in this cycle enthusiastically.”
In 2005, a bar in Penticton, BC, held a contest called Sextreme Makeover. The winner got a free boob job.
There was public outcry.
“And the bar owner justified it by using language housed in feminist discourse saying, ‘It’s a women’s right to choose,’ whether to enter the contest or not.”
Many women who undergo cosmetic surgery also talk about choice.
“Over and over you hear women say, ‘I’m doing it for me,’” said Pentney.
“But ‘me’ is not in a vacuum. It suggests we aren’t affected by the media that’s out there.”
In 2005, there were 11.5 million cosmetic surgery procedures done in the US, and women underwent 91 per cent of them.
It made the industry $12.4 billion.
And it’s growing, said Pentney.
The latest marketing is aimed at women in their 20s and 30s.
“The focus is now preventative facelifts,” she said.
“You get one when you’re young, so that at 50 you just get a touch up instead of a major overhaul.”
Pentney’s interest in perceptions of women’s bodies started at her all-girl high school in small-town northern Ontario.
“I remember feeling comfy with my body as a teen,” she said.
“And I knew that was not the case for a lot of the girls around me.
“But being a healthy, white, thin, middle-class kid, I guess I was in the best position not to feel shitty about myself.”
After getting a master’s degree in English, Pentney started teaching at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario.
“And I started working shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover into my lectures,” she said.
One thing led to another and after some encouragement from professors at Nipissing, Pentney went on to do her grad work on the subject, learning a great deal about cosmetic surgery in the process.
There are references to it as far back as the 15th century, she said.
It started off as a means to repair noses eroded by syphilis.
And it took off after the First World War, because of all the soldiers disfigured in battle.
“Plastic surgeons were training in the trenches,” said Pentney.
“And they were testing out all sorts of different techniques.”
Early plastic surgery saw paraffin wax, goose grease and nut oils injected into noses to repair, or reshape them.
Trouble is, when these people spent too long in the sun, the wax would melt and move around the body causing tumours and growths.
By the early 20th century, they also began experimenting with breast enlargements, using plastic sponge implants.
But during the healing process, breast tissue grew into the sponge causing extreme pain, said Pentney.
Even today, breast tissue will often grow around silicone implants and has to be pummeled loose to stop the pain.
The long-term dangers of silicone and other surgery techniques including Botox are still unknown, she said.
The prevalence of cosmetic surgery has made it more widely accepted than it was in the past, added Pentney.
“The imperfect body has become pathologized into something that can be treated medically.”
And aging is treated as a deformity or a disease — “a failure to keep up,” she said.
Pentney, who works with youth and is part of a feminist women’s organization in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, has only one piece of advice — “we need to think critically about the things around us,” she said.
“We shouldn’t just let it wash over us.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at firstname.lastname@example.org