All in a Flap

Bodies are political things, whether we like it or not. Maybe you’re already aware of this, think about the way words like “fat” “thin” “fit” “un-fit” “male” “female” are used; it’s naïve to claim that they are only descriptive. Think about the terms fat and thin, the way they are used is equivocal with the terms healthy and un-healthy. But in reality people of all health levels live in almost every different body type you can imagine; people who are living a life affected by disease can be thin, and healthy energetic people can live in bodies society calls fat. The fact is there are as many different bodies as people living on this earth, and people with those bodies are participating in all different sorts of activities every day. This is particularly concerning to some people who see the body as the ultimate arbiter of whom can (read: who is allowed to) participate in certain activities. During the Victorian age misinformation about women’s bodies was used to prevent middle class women from participating in nearly every activity both intellectual and physical. Doctors believed that women’s bodies were weaker than men’s and that physical activity could dislodge the organs and cause them to float around the body causing havoc. If a woman’s uterus became dislodged this was caused Hysteria – a nice catch-all phrase for nearly any sort of unruliness you can imagine. When the science that describes and defines our bodies becomes politicised it can leave us in big trouble.

Women’s bodies, particularly their vulvas, have been on the front page recently. Sydney University student rag Honi Soit caused a flap when they showcased 18 student’s vulvas on the front page to protest unrealistic depictions of the organ in pornography. Ironically, the cover was deemed pornographic and immediately censored. Canadian artist Petra Collins and the all-woman art collective The Arduous designed a T-shirt with a line drawing of a menstruating woman’s vagina being masturbated for American Apparel. These are both bold statements. What are these groups really rebelling against: superficial social mores or deeply prejudicial views which affect women’s mental and physical health?

Until recently there was only one surgeon in the whole world performing restorative surgery on victims of female genital mutilation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that there are 140 million women currently living with the consequences of the unnecessary procedure which involves removing some or all of a female’s external genitals including the clitoris, labia minora, and sometimes creating a seal over the vagina. Meanwhile surgery on the penis and a wide variety of pills to enhance or enable penile erection has been a medical routine for years. The WHO also claims that an increasing number of these procedures are being carried out by medical professionals rather than unqualified traditional practitioners. Cosmetic labiaplasty, which is the surgical reduction of the inner folds of skin of the vulva, has increased dramatically in Australia. The surgery has increased despite carrying risks of damaged sensation, haemorrhage, and infection and no medical benefit. The growing rates are blamed on unrealistic perceptions of normalcy created by pornography.

Female sexuality and pleasure is often clouded in mystery and taboo; even the basic anatomy is mysterious to most. The clitoris is notoriously enigmatic, and its anatomy wasn’t even fully understood until 1998. The clitoris is not only, as is commonly thought (if it is thought about at all), a small sensitive bud of flesh at the top of the vulva. The clitoris is also a largely internal organ which can be up to 9cms long and 6cms wide. As far as scientists know the clitoris has one function; pleasure. This has led to some pretty sexist science. It was widely thought that the female orgasm piggy-backed the evolutionary process into existence on the male orgasm which is necessary for reproduction whilst the former is not. These ideas led to pervasive views of female orgasms being superfluous, irrelevant, or even perverted.

It is surely a strange world we live in where an organ belonging to 50% of the population is deemed to be pornographic almost by default and can thus only be seen from an obscene or clinical perspective. If you think this is a modern phenomena look at neo-classical art where the subjects are frequently nude; penises are frequently depicted but vulvas are demurely hidden between crossed legs so that not a flap, fold, or curl of hair is visible.

The projection of political or moral prejudices onto how we understand and talk about our bodies has deep effects on our health and well-being. Not just for women but for men as well. It’s time we all reclaimed the middle ground for our bodies.

Female Sex Organs - FYI

• The vulva is the external part of a female’s genitals comprising the glans clitoris (the external part of the clitoris) the Labia Majora (the larger fold of skin) and the Labia Minora (the smaller folds of skin inside the Labia Majora)

• The Labia Minora, which are removed or reduced during cosmetic labiaplasty, usually get bigger or begin to protrude from the outer folds during puberty.

• There is large variation between women in all measurements of the different parts of the vulva and vagina, they really do come in all different shapes, sizes and colours.

• The vagina is the tube that leads towards the cervix and uterus.

• Due to censorship laws in Australia the labia minora is often photoshopped out of pornography sold at service stations and newsagents.

- Beatrice Spilsbury

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Student Activism