Costuming for Change

I have a new costume project that I am very excited about; creating another vulva costume, this time for Khadija Gbla, speaker, advocate, cross-cultural facilitator and consultant.

Her Ted talk (see link below) is change-making at its greatest, shifting from humour to powerful narrative about the realities of female genital mutilation (FGM).  Upon just looking at the title of this talk, the audience awaits a journey they were not expecting to make. Khadija makes the conversation accessible to many who wouldn’t normally be brave enough to listen. I strongly recommend you take a deep breath and watch it before you read on.

We were lucky enough to meet at a work function recently and a colleague brought us together and mentioned I wear a costume I call the “four-foot velvet vulva” on stage. Khadija and I chatted and she asked me to make a version of it for her to physically demonstrate the types of FGM.

I feel very honoured to be able to create this costume. I found myself seated in the comfort of my home the night of that conversation, shedding quiet tears.

I do social justice comedy. I mock systems of oppression. To be asked to make this for Khadija will forever remain a highlight of my life.

The new costume will be more anatomically accurate with some “cartoon” aspects – bright colours to represent the fact that vulvas comes in a huge range of colours, shapes and sizes and all could be subjected to FGM.

Most representations of vulva’s and vaginas typically restrict the viewer’s choices for thought beyond clinical or sexualised ideas. Most representations enforce arbitrary social ideas about what is desirable, acceptable or appropriate for the female body.  Female bodies are the objects and targets of oppression of which FGM is an example. *Please, before anyone yells sexism, I am aware of the issues around topics like circumcision for men, but this post is not about that. I am sure there are great posts about that, so please, “what about” somewhere else. Or even better, write me a strong post about it and I will re-share it on social media.

I want to take a moment to explain how I came to wear my costume and what my interactions with the awesome Khadija mean to me.

I wear my costume because it starts conversations about bodies and how old-world ideas about bodies hurt people (to all of us, regardless of our background). For me, the vulva is no more offensive than an ear lobe.

Centuries of old ideas about female bodies have taught us to apply layers of “controversy” upon representations of reproductive anatomy. You can cause outrage by casually featuring a vulva costume as just another body part; because by doing so you feature how morally and ethically obscure that old controversy is.

When I wear the vulva costume, I am talking about gendered double standards, not sex. I am talking about the ridiculous and non-sensical ideas applied to those of us who have vulva’s through time and how we can work to change those ideas.

I made my first vulva costume in 2016 after a student I had once taught at university sent me a topic idea for an essay they wanted my comment on. It contained references to what was becoming the world’s fastest growing plastic surgery.

Labiaplasty. Sometimes called “the designer vagina” (despite the inaccuracies of the label). Regarding my reference to ear lobes as neutral, we do modify ear lobes, but that’s more like decoration and a visible expression of self and not as gendered or forced in application.  *Another disclaimer about necessary nuance: There’s an argument that this is for the psychological well-being and medical surgical interventions can be an exception. I also support trans women’s right to access reassignment surgical outcomes.  But there are also arguments about trans people feeling forced, coerced or denied reassignment surgery with associated threats about not being considered “real” women that cause harm.  That is another example of gendered oppression. The issue I’m discussing here is not one of genuine surgical choice or need, it’s to what extent the definition of FGM is considered a choice for some and not for others and how this benefits oppression, not change.

Vulva’s and vaginas are racialized in most FGM arguments.

While white liberal feminism has jumped up and down about FGM in women of colour, when white women buy (literally a billion-dollar industry) into designer vaginas – there’s virtual silence. In an intersectional feminist view, we are not jumping up and down as much as we should be, because some of us like to think that white culture wouldn’t be capable of FGM, but I beg to differ.

In the white western cultural context, when you discover females as young as nine are concerned their vulvas are ugly and wanting labiaplasty, that’s not anything resembling choice. White culture has gone from being afraid to look between a female bodies legs to not looking unless it’s “pretty” to look at, but it’s misogynistic pendulum either way.

It’s almost ignored that FGM has a similar white cultural history across the globe (take Victorian England for example) and still occurs in some white fundamentalist Christian families.  Add to this long traditions of post-childbirth “Daddy stitching” practices and brutal “cures” for women’s health issues. But still racialized arguments about modification vs. mutilation prevail.

My mother had a vaginal prolapse repaired in the 1980’s by a surgeon who made comments about tightening her vagina for her husband’s pleasure (but definitely not hers, he made it clear sex would be painful as a “side effect”).  By the way, the all too common side effects of labiaplasty are very similar to FGM including painful sex and scarring.

Body modification for the west, mutilation for the rest? There’s a whole new level of bizarre privilege right there in the thinking that FGM is just an issue for women of colour. FGM is an issue across the globe.  Plastic surgery can be more like mutilation for conforming to gendered sexual and social pressures, co-opting body modification empowerment language to make it more acceptable.

The double, and racially vilifying, standards are all too present. White folk, we are not more civilised, we’ve simply hidden it or made an industry out of FGM.

Who benefits? Not women, that’s for sure. But it sure seems to be promoted and supported largely by white male (and wealthy) plastic surgeons. Do a google search.

The idea that because you paid a lot for it, that it is then a choice, is utterly terrifying and, simultaneously a twisted privileged concept. In the designer vagina example, “empowering” woman under the age of 16 to seek plastic surgery, because a plastic surgeon says there are psychological and social benefits, is no better.

I will bring this back to Khadija discussing her mother’s generation and the idea an empowered woman was made through the forced mutilation of Khadija’s body.

Some like to argue a degrees of choice argument or the old patriarchal bargain spin.  But whether forced when very young or convinced by plastic surgeons; when something is done to you because of an expectation that you can’t be socially and/or sexually acceptable without it, that is not choice.  Pretending that it is choice, because you paid for it, is neither choice nor empowered and certainly isn’t a bargain either.

Learning to be okay with however your body is and proud of it, even when things are done to it by others without our consent – can be an act of resistance and empowering. Sometimes carrying our scars as testimonies to our survival is the one choice, the one choice we may be able to make.

If you come from a position of privilege where you may still choose to modify your body,  choices from that position are fundamentally different and can be acts of expression of self (like a tattoo or ear lobe stretching).   They will be your choice, not someone else’s choice inflicted upon you to reduce you to only a sexually acceptable object.

That is why I am so honoured to be able to make this costume for Khadija. These conversations need to be public, honest, forthright.

Keep watching for posts – I’ll update here as the costume progresses.