Are people coming under pressure to modify their bodies because of sexualization?

A number of claims have been made about growing pressures on people to modify their bodies because of sexualization. For example it is claimed that women are now removing pubic hair because of the influence of pornography. However, removing body hair including pubic hair was practiced in much earlier societies such as Rome and Egypt[123], and female bodies have often been depicted without pubic hair in art and literature of the past[124].

It may be that women have become more likely to remove hair since the 1990s when waxing services became more widespread, hairlessness became more fashionable in a range of media, and more revealing underwear and swimwear became available – hence the ‘bikini wax’. Brazilian waxing which involves removing hair from the vulva, perineum, anus, buttocks and mons – originated on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro where very skimpy bikinis were worn. Brazilian waxing salons began to open outside of Brazil from the late 1980s onwards.

In countries such as the UK it appears that more than 80% of women may remove body hair. One study in the UK[125] found that over 90% of participants removed hair from their underarms and legs, and over 80% from their pubic area. The most common form of pubic grooming was the maintenance of a ‘bikini line’.

Some researchers have speculated that there may be a correlation between removing body hair and media images, but have not been able to establish this. Most women who remove their body hair say they do so for reasons of aesthetics and hygiene and do not identify social pressures as reasons for removing body hair[126]. In America, studies are showing a trend towards body hair removal for gay, bisexual and heterosexual men[127].

Another claim is that women are seeking to have genital surgery such as labiaplasty because of the influence of pornography. This is a procedure in which the inner lips of the vulva are modified in order to ‘improve’ the appearance of the labia. It has been claimed that a ‘tucked-in look’[128] achieved through labiaplasty is ‘associated with, and derived from, the “unreal” vulvas displayed in heterosexual male-oriented pornography’[129]. There is no clear evidence of a link with pornography; and indeed pornography is more likely to feature more variety in bodily aesthetics than other types of media. However it is believed that there have been increases in the number of labiaplasties being performed[130], and for some women surgery may be viewed as providing a way of appearing more ‘feminine’ and ‘attractive’[131]. This suggests an involvement of cultural norms about gender and beauty.

As with other aspects of – particularly women’s – body image, it is important to consider the wider cultural context within which pornography and other forms of ‘sexualized media’ exist. Narrow ideals of female attractiveness (mostly young, thin, white, middle class, etc.) can be found across advertising, fashion, women’s and men’s magazines, makeover television programmes, and Hollywood movies[132], as well as in everyday conversation around dieting practices and parts of the body which are experienced as problematic[133]. Some have argued that it is important to situate even this within the general (Western) tendency to separate ourselves from our bodies and to treat them as objects, for example to perform, to beautify, or to enable us to be productive[134].

Also many common types of body modification which are currently undertaken are not associated with sexualization – for example circumcision, surgery carried out on children who are born with intersex anatomies, and surgery which is undertaken by some trans* people[135]. In such areas information on NHS diagnoses and operations are available[136] but we know very little about operations that are being carried out privately. In addition, it is impossible to know which of these operations are ‘cosmetic’, partly because they may be described as necessary or important for functional reasons and partly because it is not possible to distinguish between operations carried out for the sake of altering appearance and operations carried out for other reasons, for example to remove cancerous tissue.

Information about operations performed on the NHS on people aged 0-14 years suggests that there were 27 instances of clitoral surgery, mostly clitoral reduction, during 2011-2012 for this age group. It would be reasonable to assume that most of these would have been carried out in the first months of life and would have related to DSD (diversity of sex development, or disorders of sex development). It is also possible to see that 2283 children aged 0-14 years underwent ‘hypospadias repair’ operations on the NHS over the same time period. Some would describe this as cosmetic surgery to the penis, others would describe it as a necessary reconstructive intervention to allow the child to urinate in an optimal flow, direction, and position, and others still would describe it as a common form of surgery to alter intersex bodies.

Section 3: Sex, Gender and Media

123. Basow, S.A. (1991). The Hairless Ideal: Women and their Body Hair. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15, 83-96.
124. Rosenthal, A. (2004). Raising Hair. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 38, 1-16.
125. Toerien, M., Wilkinson, S. & Choi, P. (2005). Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity. Sex Roles, 52, 399-406.
126. Tiggemann, M. & Hodgson, S. (2008). The Hairlessness Norm Extended: Reasons for and Predictors of Women’s Body Hair Removal at Different Body Sites. Sex Roles, 59, 889-897; Toerien, M., Wilkinson, S. & Choi, P. (2005). Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity. Sex Roles, 52, 399-406.
127. Martins, Y., Tiggemann, M. & Churchett, L. (2008). Hair today, gone tomorrow: A comparison of body hair removal practices in gay and heterosexual men. Body Image, 5, 312-316.
128. Schick, V.R., Brandi, N.R. & Calabrese, S.K. (2011). Evulvalution: The Portrayal of Women’s External Genitalia and Physique across Time and the Current Barbie Doll Ideals. Journal of Sex Research, 48(10), 74-81.
129. Braun, V. (2005). In Search of (Better) Sexual Pleasure: Female Genital ‘Cosmetic’ Surgery. Sexualities, 8(4), 407-424.
130. Liao L-M., Michala, L. & Creighton S. (2010). Labial surgery for well women: a review of the literature. British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 117, 20-25; Crouch, N., Deans, R., Michala L., Liao, L-M. & Creighton, S. (2011). Clinical characteristics of well women seeking labial reduction surgery: a prospective study. British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 118, 1507–1510.
131. Bramwell, R., Morland, C. & Garden, A. (2007). Expectations and Experience of Labial Reduction: A Qualitative Study. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 114(12), 1493-9.
132. Gill, R. & Scharff, C. (Eds.) (2011). New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
133. Carey, R., Donaghue, N. & Broderick, P. (2011). ‘What you look like is such a big factor’: Girls’ Own Reflections about the Appearance Culture in an All-girls’ School. Feminism & Psychology, 21(3), 299-316.
134. Barker, M. (2013). Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships. London: Routledge.
135.See for example, Zeiler, K. (2013). Special Section on Sex and Surgery: Doing Sex and Feminist Theory, Feminist Theory, 14(1), 57-63.
136. Hospital Episode Statistics, http://www.hscic.gov.uk/hes

Section 3: Sex, Gender and Media

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