If you’re not familiar with Brandi Glanville, consider yourself lucky. The one-time model and current star of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” rose to a mediocre level of celebrity as the woman scorned by established B-lister Eddie Cibrian. In 2008, Cibrian, after nine years of marriage, jilted Glanville for country singer Leann Rimes.
And the two haven’t stopped fighting since, airing their grievances in TV interviews, Twitter feuds, and in Glanville’s case, a recently-released tell-all book, Drinking and Tweeting: And Other Brandi Blunders. Although Glanville isn’t the first woman scorned to turn her heartbreak into a scathing exposé, what sets her creative diatribe apart is a publicized excerpt from her book where she brags about using Cibrian’s credit card to pay for a vaginoplasty.
That’s one poetic way for getting back at Cibrian’s philandering, I suppose.
As easy as it would be to target this criticism solely at Glanville (especially after the excerpts where she criticizes Rimes’ body and breast size) who has publically defended the procedure, “the new boob job; everyone’s going in to tighten up,” the real problem goes beyond the torrid triangle.
Unfortunately for those of us watching at home, Glanville is right. According to Dana Hunsinger Benbow in a report for The Indy Star, the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery estimates that nearly 60,000 surgeries are performed annually, a rate that has spiked over the last five years. A decade ago, vaginoplasties, also referred to as vaginal rejuvenation surgeries, were a rarity.
These ideas are actually a reflection of the changing culture at large. As Benbow writes,
It started with a nice shave. Then the Brazilian wax. Today, you can get vajazzled, a treatment where pretty beads are glued to the labia. There is a dye on the market called My New Pink Button, aimed at bringing the vagina back to its youthful color. And there are vulvacials. Think a facial for the vagina. Surgery was just the next logical step in a society where women are really sprucing up.
In other words, devaluing what happens down south isn’t news to anyone at the forefront of the body empowerment movement. At Adios Barbie, we’ve debunked the cultural expectations that something is so inherently wrong with our genitals, we have to prune our plumbing, vilify our vulvas, and honor the hymen humbug. Plenty of other awesome sites, authors, and publications have addressed the dangers of douching, the lies of labiaplasty, and the importance of valuing our vaginas.
The critique reaches another level altogether when discussing the radical act of submitting to a completely voluntary and unnecessary medical procedure to correct something that isn’t a problem to begin with.
In fact, the evidence suggests that the majority of women seeking cosmetic procedures for their genitals are pressured to do so by partners. In her blog entry, “Can Vaginoplasty Get Your Sexy Back?” Michelle Jones Singer, a cosmetic surgeon in Indianapolis, reasons that if making your vagina tighter improves sex for your unhappy partner, everyone comes out a winner. Of course, by her own admission, “Some women aren’t even aware that their vagina is much different until their partner brings it up.” That these vaginas may be normal and in no need of a scalpel solution apparently hasn’t occurred to her.
Adding insult to injury, the information about the procedures is frequently misleading, failing to specify the work involved or downplaying the risks. More shockingly, a 2011 report in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that clinics offering cosmetic surgery for the vagina and surrounding tissues “preyed on women’s unfounded fears about appearance or cleanliness of the vagina,” reinforcing negative feelings towards the vagina also known as “pudendal disgust.” The report went on to discuss the “promises” of the various surgeries, including a “more youthful, appealing appearance.”
This “pudendal disgust” seems to be supercharged after women have faced a particularly vulnerable point in their lives, such as childbirth. It’s a particularly bitter pill for many women to swallow, as our culture tells women that their inherent worth is linked to motherhood and then devalues the bodies created through the experience of giving birth. Jones herself addresses the need for a “Mommy Makeover” writing, “It’s never too late to think about restoring your body! Although babies are wonderful, they can certainly wreak havoc on a woman’s body: stretch marks, sagging belly, breasts that hang, are too big or that shrank after breastfeeding.”
As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, I can certainly sympathize with the feeling of alienation in your changing skin that comes from being pregnant. Of course, a woman doesn’t need to be eating disordered to experience the disconnect that often accompanies a pregnant changing body. Just as we have media outlets selling us an idea of what the perfect leg, breast, or nose looks like, so too are we bombarded with images of designer vaginas. So, wanting to change your vagina following the experience of giving birth is almost a cultural expectation, especially when you’re convinced there’s something wrong with yours.
When I delivered my daughter in 2010, she was in fetal distress, courtesy of the umbilical cord doubled around her neck. The cord caused shoulder dystocia, a condition defined by a birthing newborn getting stuck in the mother’s pelvis. As a result, her path through the birth canal caused the cord to tighten around her small throat and strangle her so that she was unresponsive. By the time the doctors figured out what was wrong, they had no choice but to literally rip her out of my body, roughly destroying my dream for a peaceful birth to welcome my daughter into the world. It was a move that saved her life, but ultimately did permanent nerve damage to me. Two and a half years later, I routinely suffer bouts of genital pain so debilitating, I am forced to get down on all fours just to focus on my breathing until it passes. It’s the reoccurring, physical reminder of how my carefully arranged, peaceful water birth deviated horribly from the plan, and turned into one of pain and scarring.
As an anti-rape and pro-birth activist, I was already aware that women who have been raped as adults are more likely to have complications during the birth of their first child. Some part of me had accepted that my background as a sexual violence survivor put me at a greater risk for needing interventions. Despite this acceptance, I had an intense period of grief, wondering if the same vagina that had made me a victim had also almost killed my child. With the help of friends, a great therapist, and a supportive birth community, I’ve come to understand I earned my stretch marks, the shape of my post-breastfeeding boobs, and even the injury that still causes me pain. I didn’t fail at anything, except appreciating that my body prevailed despite terrible odds.
And this is where I really empathize with the women who are lining up to have a vaginoplasty performed, especially post-childbirth. My tendency to vilify my vagina may come from a place of wounding due to psychological trauma rather than a desire to sport a designer vulva, but they are fueled by the same patriarchal conclusion that the vagina is some utterly flawed nuisance in need of constant makeover.
Even if mothers can’t believe what’s beneath the waist is best left alone, they would do well to think about the message they are sending to the children. We live in a culture that gleefully promotes shaming children as a matter of punishment that we don’t need to go back even further to make it a requirement for parenting. Which brings us back to Glanville—her decision to get vaginoplasty resulted from the belief that bearing her children with Cibrian had apparently “ruined” her.
Since Glanville puts forth an extensive effort to document what an amazing sex life she shared with Cibrian before Rimes came along, it’s safe to assume that Cibrian didn’t create their two children without some assistance from Glanville. So how Glanville comes to reason that Cibrian is singularly responsible for the state of her post-childbirth body is a real head scratcher. There’s also a very real possibility that her children will learn that their mother feels the process of bringing them into the world was an experience warranting reconstructive surgery, and their very creation, something their father needs to atone for.
Is that really the message we want to be sending to women about what they can do with their bodies, and the children that may come from them?
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“Uterus Art” image by Hey Paul Studios via Flickr shared under a Creative Commons license.