The Deeply Rooted Parallels Between Female Genital Mutilation and Breast Implantation

Last week, a UK government review of the French breast implants that have caused panic from Australia to Uruguay concluded that there is no evidence the implants should be removed. The Australian Medical Association thinks women should at least get their implants checked out. But neither the reviews nor the media coverage of the implant panic has dealt with the real question at stake: what makes women voluntarily cut open their bodies to permanently implant foreign objects to the potential detriment of their health?

The answer to this question is potentially uncomfortable. I have often asked the students in my health rights seminars to articulate the principles that make us distinguish between voluntary female genital mutilation in adult women and voluntary breast augmentation surgery. Apart from the fact that the former makes us queasy and the second doesn’t, there really is none.

To be sure, female genital mutilation (FGM) is often performed on girls who are unable to consent to—or, indeed, understand—the violence asserted on their bodies. And, because FGM is prevalent mostly in places where health infrastructure is weak or non-existent, the intervention is often unsanitary and ultimately can be deadly.

But even if FGM were carried out in the best of clinical conditions on a consenting adult woman, we call it a human rights violation. Why? Because it is an intervention which is carried out solely to satisfy stereotyped notions of what a women could or should be, and which has:

  1. no discernible health benefits;
  2. a negative impact on women’s sexual health; and
  3. permanent effects on women’s health more generally.

FGM is often justified with direct reference to fixed gender roles, in particular in the sexual realm. Women “should be” sexually passive and “should not” experience sexual pleasure. Or women who have not undergone FGM are “unclean” and cannot properly serve their husbands. In countries where many see marriage as a woman’s only real possibility for financial security, the intervention is less of a choice, even when performed on adult women with their outward consent.

Breast augmentation surgery is carried out for similar reasons with similar risks and results. The intervention carries no discernible health benefits and potentially has a negative impact on women’s sexual health, as well as a number of other potential serious health effects. As the panic in December 2011 has shown, it is, in fact, not entirely clear how great the chances for complications are. Moreover, breast augmentation surgery is carried out solely to satisfy stereotyped notions of what women could or should be: sexually available and attractive to men. And as with FGM, for some women the intervention might be linked to financial benefits: well-endowed women win out in dating (and marriage), and waitresses with larger breasts generally get better tips than those less well-endowed.

I am not suggesting that we deem breast implants and other selective nipping and tucking as exclusively cosmetically motivated human rights violations. I am suggesting, however, that we question the underlying stereotypes that lead to unprecedented growth in cosmetic surgery procedures in the United States during the worst depression since the 1930s. If the only reason for an intervention is that others think that’s what we “should” look like, and if the intervention is both semi-permanent and potentially damaging to our health, maybe what we “should” do is reconsider.

Of course, social motives and stereotypes are incredibly hard to both identify and change. When I was in Iraqi Kurdistan a couple of years back as part of a research team looking into the practice of FGM, I was struck by the individual sense of responsibility felt by the mothers, aunts, and sisters who had subjected their relatives to the practice. They were aware of the social connotations, but felt personally responsible for the consequences of the intervention on the girls in their charge. One mother said to us after her interview: “You must think we are monsters.”

Not long after, I had to physically restrain my own daughter while her dentist extracted a rotten tooth. As I was holding down my scared child, both of us crying, I felt connected to that woman through the same absolute belief that what I was doing was for the best of my child, even if it hurt her.

And so I know that nothing is solved by directing guilt or shame at those who, in a specific social context, feel that FGM (or breast implants) is for the best of their child (or themselves) because it is the only way to be accepted by their group or society.

The government, however, can help to change such perceptions. In the case of FGM, much has been said about supporting criminal prosecutions with community action for change. In the case of breast augmentation surgery, the road might be less clear though it is discernible. Research has shown that where girls enjoy and like their bodies, they are more likely to postpone their sexual debut and less likely to be in abusive relationships. Presumably, when these self-aware girls grow into women they would also be less likely to want to alter their bodies, in particular in a way that would affect their sexual health.

So if a government wanted to avoid another silicone implant panic, mandating comprehensive sex education in all schools would be a good start. That, and ensuring that women don’t depend on tips, dates, and marriage for their financial wellbeing. We are not there yet.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • soraya-chemaly

    Hi, I agree with you entirely. I wrote about Muff Marches and female genital mutilation for the Huffington Post and the response was extraordinary and in many cases vitriolic.  Thanks so much for posting this. Will share!

  • view2

    I agree with much of what you’ve said and I too appreciate your comments. I would like to add however that I do see a difference that for me, makes it very difficult for me to automatically think of these as the same. (another reason that your insight is important and serves as a reminder for me to think outside of the obvious) Genital mutulation, complete with infibulation takes away a woman’s ability to have a clitorial orgasm. We aren’t just talking about health. We understand how important this issue can be for a women’s health. We also understand how misogynistic the reasons are underlying these procedures as a means to control women. The more subtle but just as important issue for me seems to be about pleasure for women. Breast implants aren’t taking away a woman’s pleasure, even if they are misguided. One of my best friends is Somali and has lived her entire adult life without the ability to have a clitoral orgasm.

  • halli620

    To compare these two is outrageous and would be nearly comical if it was not so disturbing, and basically serves to belittle FGM, even if your point was to attempt to bring breast implants down to that level, which they cannot be. I have issues with much of what you have written, but I’ll note a few main points here.

    1) FGM is NOT only “carried out solely to satisfy stereotyped notions of what a women could or should be,” which, as you appear to have intended, could be applied to breast implants; rather, FGM is often carried out solely to create “a negative impact on women’s sexual health,” rather than this being a side effect of the procedure, as you attempted to indicate.


    2) “Outward consent” in a society whose social pressures basically force a woman to conform is ENTIRELY DIFFERENT, and CANNOT BE COMPARED TO, women who seek out, on their own initiative, to have an “enhancement” procedure performed. To pretend that these situations could ever even be remotely similar are absurd. The closest you could possibly come is if a woman’s significant other pushes her to get implants and threatens to leave or treat her badly if she does not. Any such situation would be extremely rare.


    3) While it shows deficits in our culture, most women who receive implants (which they had to ACTIVELY SEEK OUT, remember, not just “outwardly consent” to in a society that would otherwise reject them) do so for the mental health benefits of being happier and raising their self-esteem. While this certainly shows that our culture is lacking in that it convinces relatively large numbers of women that they are not as desirable without such enhancements, the mental health benefits should not be ignored. Any argument that FGM raises self-esteem because the girl or woman feels more marriageable would be preposterous.


    4) Society pressures to conform are NOT RELATED TO and are NOT ALIKE medical procedures such as removing a “rotten tooth” that could otherwise cause infection and serious medical problems. Nothing is physically wrong with girls or women that will be dangerous to their physical health if FGM is not performed. Sure, you can make arguments that if she does not undergo FGM, she will not have a husband, and will not be able to support herself, and her physical health will suffer, but this is still due to societal pressures, as you stated, not at all like removing a tooth that will cause medical problems if not taken out. (As a side note, was no anesthetic used? I had a tooth likewise taken out as a child, as well as two additional teeth that my dentist believed would prevent the “grown-up” teeth from coming in [though later it appeared she was mistaken], and while neither of these experiences were pleasant or comfortable, with regular anesthesia I did not come close to having to be physically restrained other than my mother holding my hand.)


    I cannot imagine ever wishing to enhance my body in such a way and I do wish that our culture would cease portraying well-endowed women as more desirable than lesser-endowed, yet I am rather shocked that a writer on this site would ever attempt to compare the extreme societal pressures forcing girls to undergo, and adult women to “outwardly consent” to, a procedure specifically designed to reduce sexual pleasure, with a procedure ACTIVELY SOUGHT OUT BY women, not just “consented to,” who, due to the deficits in our culture, want the self-esteem and mental-health boost of a fuller figure.

  • ravengeary

    I’ve re-read this three or four times now and I remain completely baffled and, quite honestly, offended by the comparisons you’ve made here. 

  • grammaragious

    There is very little to sustain this comparison, and it’s offensive. I won’t repeat Halli620; she pretty much covered it all.

  • dak8


    I think this is right on. I also want to talk about some of the critiques here.

    1.    Breast implants do affect sexual pleasure. Many many (if not all?) women include nipple play when having sex and many find it to play a pivotal role in sexual satisfaction. One major side effect of implants is that it effects nipple sensitivity. Some women say it makes their nipples almost dead while others say they are so sensitive it hurts to take a shower.

    2.    I think many posters here underestimate the social pressures of implants in the US in certain communities. I am from LA and many girls who want to work in entertainment (dancers, waitresses in certain parts of town, low end actors, porn, etc.) cannot make a living without implants. It is expected and because everyone in the industry has them, there is substantial pressure to get them.


  • cmarie

    You could also bring into the discussion, foot binding which was also practiced on children under the supervision of their mothers with the argument that a “loving” mother would make sure her daughter’s feet were properly bound (broken) she would have to be obedient (crippled and therefore helpless)….and therefore a desirable wife and daughter in law…. certainly there is a connection with FGM there.  And to a certain extent eating disorders compare with the breast implant surgery as well… you could do a whole series on both those issues as they relate to the modeling industry.

  • crowepps

    It was my understanding that the most common occurence was that the long bones in the foot were broken and the feet were bound by the grandmothers, because mothers were thought like to be “too soft” to deliberately inflict pain on their babies.  In the United States today, of course, women voluntarily achieve an identical effect by wearing four to six inch heels.

  • basiorana

    Come on now, don’t be hyperbolic. High heels are not good for the health, but they are not comparable to foot binding, which caused permanent excruciating mutilation and most importantly could NOT be reversed once it began; I can wear high heels and decide I hate them and cast them aside, but once I started binding my feet they would be permanently maimed without serious surgical intervention. And no one ever got sepsis from heels.

    Besides, the goal of high heels is to create an aesthetic illusion of long legs and a high, firm butt to appeal to a male gaze; the goal of foot binding was to make walking and standing painful and difficult so men could claim high status by having a disabled wife who didn’t need to do labor. It’s like the difference between shaving the genitals to look younger and appeal to men, vs excising the clitoral tissue to prevent cheating. Both may be patriarchal ideas, but one is fundamentally more dangerous than the other.

  • crowepps
  • mindy-mcindy

    I wholly disagree with the shaving thing. I shave everything bald because I feel unclean with hair. I’ve shaved it ever since I started getting it. It holds in odors, vaginal secretions get stuck in it when I get aroused, they’re itchy, they pop out of my cute undies and bathing suits, and I don’t want them getting stuck in my wife’s teeth during oral sex. I also think it looks better without hair, but that’s low on the list.

  • mindy-mcindy

    I wholly disagree with the shaving thing. I shave everything bald because I feel unclean with hair. I’ve shaved it ever since I started getting it. It holds in odors, vaginal secretions get stuck in it when I get aroused, they’re itchy, they pop out of my cute undies and bathing suits, and I don’t want them getting stuck in my wife’s teeth during oral sex. I also think it looks better without hair, but that’s low on the list.

  • mindy-mcindy

    I wholly disagree with the shaving thing. I shave everything bald because I feel unclean with hair. I’ve shaved it ever since I started getting it. It holds in odors, vaginal secretions get stuck in it when I get aroused, they’re itchy, they pop out of my cute undies and bathing suits, and I don’t want them getting stuck in my wife’s teeth during oral sex. I also think it looks better without hair, but that’s low on the list.

  • basiorana

    Yeah, you’re insane if you think that’s comparable to footbinding. I don’t see folds of necrotic tissue; they don’t have to wash their feet in special solutions to prevent foul odors because most of the skin is dead. They are putting too much pressure on the ball of the foot but that’s hardly the same thing as putting all their weight on the TOP of the toes because the foot is broken and curled under. They don’t have to conceal their feet under special footwear because the actual sight of it is so vile that even those who supposedly fetishize it are revolted. Most importantly, most fundamentally, when a woman’s feet hurt from wearing heels she can take them off. You can’t undo footbinding.

    I speak as a woman who almost never wears heels and never when she has to stand or walk much. I dislike them and think they are pointlessly uncomfortable. However I would gladly wear high heels every day of my life rather than force any woman to ever have her feet bound. They simply are not comparable in the damage done, the pain and suffering caused.

  • basiorana

    Sure, but you can’t deny that many women do shave to appeal to men.