The Triumph of the Cosmetic Surgery Industry

What Women Really Think
Jan. 13 2012 1:07 PM

Are Breast Implants and Genital Mutilation the Same Thing?

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Breast implants

AFP/Getty Images.

Amnesty International policy adviser Marianne Mollman has a provocative post examining the differences between female genital mutilation and elective cosmetic surgery. She poses a thought experiment: If genital mutilation were performed on consenting women in hygienic settings (and, it goes without saying, if it weren’t called “mutilation”), what would really set it apart from women who choose to get breast implants? Would we still find mutilation horrific, and if so, why don’t we think of implants the same way?

Mollman notes the parallels between genital mutilation in foreign countries and breast implants here – the very real possibility of health complications, the fact that both are “carried out solely to satisfy stereotyped notions of what a women could or should be.”

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Mollman’s overall point is a good one but the parallel has its limitations. The way we we view breast implants in the west is essentially opposite of the way we view genital mutilation. If mutilation in places like Iraqi Kurdistan is essential to a woman’s fitness for marriage – and thus financial security – because a woman with intact genitals is considered “unclean,” the conversation around cosmetic surgery here centers around female empowerment and self-esteem. That’s a triumph of the cosmetic surgery industry. “I did it for myself,” says a testimonial on one plastic surgery group’s website. “Dr. Gregory helps patients feel better, look better,” says an article, or possibly an ad, about a plastic surgeon in something called Lake Mary Health & Wellness magazine.

We resist the likenesses between genital mutilation and breast implants precisely because we see the former as oppressive and the latter as an empowering choice. It’s well past time to consider the cost of this particular kind of empowerment.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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