Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Private Hurt

In the past few days, I’ve watched a little more TV than usual. Either the swine flu is in my house, or every one of the lesser viruses that are circulating vigorously in the unseasonably mild weather have attacked us. There was the seemingly neverending cough, which is a particular treat for my older son and me who have asthma. Naturally those symptoms developed into sinus infections. That’s finally clearing up but yesterday morning, the poor Bunny was up at 3:30 with the first of several bouts of vomiting. Meanwhile, all I want to do is stay in bed, head under the covers, and sleep.

After sleeping as much as possible on Sunday, I was looking for something worth watching. There wasn’t much to qualify, but I found myself watching a documentary on BBC America: “Perfect Private Parts” (www.bbcamerica.com/content/367/index.jsp, available for purchase from iTunes). Now, if there was one part of my body that I had not worried was somehow inadequate, well, it would be the private part.

According to the program, more and more women, even young women in their teens, are opting for cosmetic surgery for the vagina and surrounding area. I’m still trying to process that. We are so open about the media’s effect on our self-images: the eating disorders, preoccupation with imperfect features and skin, holding ourselves up to a distorted and impossible standard of beauty, botox and plastic surgery for the face (that was another show in the next hour). But, really, the vagina? Good Lord, to what are women comparing themselves? I am no fan of porn but I’ve seen a little and nothing there ever led me to believe that there’s a particular aesthetic to achieve or that some women have something over the rest. There's the choice of whether or how much to shave, but that's about it.

The example that was easiest for me to understand was that some young Muslim women seek hymen reattachment before marriage, literally fearing that they would be killed or at least disowned by their families if it is discovered that they are not virgins. While I find it barbaric, it is the reality of their lives and doing what they can to protect themselves makes sense. The results are less permanent and rather less tragic than female genital mutilation, but the reasons for subjecting oneself to the procedure are generally the same: to maintain connection to the community in which one lives and on which one is to some degree dependent.

Other women were unhappy with the natural state of affairs, such as having longer, “flappy” labia. In some cases, the partner or the medical practitioner for the woman laughed at her. Some were concerned about the perceived effects of childbirth. Personally, I had not noticed any big change of that kind after having my two kids, but now I admit to wondering if there’s something I missed. At present I’m single again and there’s no one to ask, ‘hey, is everything normal down there?’ and I’m not sure I would want to ask. (It was a mantra of my mother’s that if you can’t accept no for an answer, then you shouldn’t ask.)

One woman was considering some sort of surgery to improve things, but attended a women’s center which actually coaches women through taking a look at themselves and accepting who they are and what they look like. It seemed strange to me, but really, in what other context can a woman learn that there’s nothing wrong with how she looks? She decided against the surgery.

I'm reminded of one time, when I was 18 and at my personal thinnest, a guy who worked in the same store at the mall that I did told me I was looking great but "now you just need to lose your ass." That was in my head for years, until a man said to me "he didn't know what he was talking about." Too big for some is perfect for others. The point is that none of us looks like a model, and if there is such a thing as a perfect private part, probably nobody has it or if she does, she has other personal imperfections she can obsess over.

The end result is that I’m a little sadder after seeing the piece, but glad to be informed. It is appalling, the lengths to which we’ll go in torturing ourselves with comparisons to some artificial ideal. Without naming the problem, though, there is no way to combat it, no way to know that we need to teach our children and each other that all the different varieties of normal are good.

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