Body Politics: Governing Women’s Bodies

By: Isabel Pereira*


Women’s bodies are a battleground for the meanings vested in them, and for the social and cultural resources expected to be obtained by intervening them. Two bodily interventions exemplify this, and pose risks particularly to young girls: female genital mutilation (FGM) and cosmetic surgery. Both practices represent a specific vision of the female body, the purposes it should serve in the name of social or religious norms, and how to modify girls’ bodies in order to align them with the desired body. While the conditions on which they are performed do not serve well for a comparison, analyzing cosmetic surgery with the standards in mind we use to evaluate FGM,has the analytical purpose of highlighting the vulnerability young girls face, as well as furthering the state’s obligation to protect their rights.

Much attention has been placed from the international community to FGM, and rightly so, as this type of gendered bodily intervention takes place in unsanitary conditions, and is performed on underage girlswith dubious consent, ranging from 0 to 15 years old. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that there are 200 million girls and women alive today who have undergone FGM, and is performed mostly in African and Middle Eastern countries, but also in some indigenous communities across Asia and Latin America. The practicehas remained steady, despite global efforts against it, such as 2014’s General Assembly Resolution“Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilation”. FGM has been banned in 24 African countries, on the basis on the affectation for girls’ sexual and reproductive health, and the risks of long term consequences that range from infections, complications during childbirth, and even death.

Cosmetic surgery – with a total of 9 million procedures worldwide in 2015 alone – is mostly seen as a private matter, pertaining personal choice, but there is an emergent risk to young girls due to the unregulated conditions on which this type of bodily intervention is taking place. To exemplify these dangers, the Colombian case and recent media exposure helps to illustrate the vulnerable position where young girls stand, in a place where the voluptuous and slim body is glorified as a symbol and vehicle to a successful life. A consistent critique of FGM should also raise concerns for the young girls, who, as result of the social norms that pressure them to have a certain type of body, choose to undergo cosmetic surgery, but in places where there are insufficient controls on licensing of doctors and sanitary conditions for the procedures.

Here is an overview of the situation in Colombia: Every so often, a headline mentions disfigured faces or bodies, and even deaths, as a result of botched cosmetic surgeries. This set of tragic headlines provides a mirror to the country’s fascination with beauty, and with a specific set of codes regarding what the “beautiful female body”“ought” to look like. For example, by March of 2016, already three women had died in Medellínfrom complications of cosmetic surgery. As a result, the hashtag “Safe Surgery Now” has been traveling through social media, urging legislative authorities to take action on public health concern that so far has gone unattended. Just in 2016, 20 people in the department of Antioquia have been reported as victims of malpractice, six of them with fatal consequences.

There is also an emergent phenomenon in how cosmetic surgery is viewed: as a rite of passage, many underage girls receive cosmetic surgery as a 15th birthday present, instead of the traditional quinceañera party. There is no available data on how many young girls are undergoing cosmetic surgery, but doctors in Cali estimate that of 40 monthly visits to their office, two or three are underage girls. Surgeons also report stories of girls searching alone for low-cost unlicensed procedures, such as buttocks injections and liposuction.

While it can be said that teenage girls have a certain degree of agency in order to choose over their bodies and their health in an informed manner, it is also true that the extent of social pressure is so great, that choice generally disguises the anxiety to comply, whatever the cost, with beauty standards they are forced to believe in. In a society where mothers tell their daughters they will never be loved if they are fat, or if their breasts are too small or their hips too big, personal choice is often a disguise for compliance.

There is an argument to be made from a human rights perspective, recalling that the discourse called upon on the campaign against FGM speaks about the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls, including the right to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health. Additionally, the UNFPA highlightsthe right of every child to be protected from harm as one of the arguments to support the FGM ban.In the case of young girls undergoing cosmetic surgery, the same logic can be applied, recognizing the potential harms to physical and mental health from intervening young girls’ bodies where doctors are not trained to do so, and when it questions their self worth.While it is not a State’s responsibility or even within its reach to reshape the ideals of beauty, States do have the obligation to protect the life and integrity of its citizens, especially vulnerable populations, such as underage girls.

The lack of data is a reflection of weak institutional awareness on the matter, but policy makers are slowly waking up to the problem. The Colombian Congress has been working on two laws that specifically address these concerns, aiming at stricter regulation and oversight of cosmetic surgery, and also issuing age restrictions for these procedures. The first of these laws failed at Congress as there was little assigned time to its debate and insufficient interest to legislate on the matter.

But regulation is insufficient, for a worrisome situation that for long has been dismissed as mostly a private matter. Precisely due to the crossing point between personal choice and public health concerns, efforts in governing these types of bodily interventions must combine regulatory mechanisms along with advocacy and education strategies that respond to the anxieties young girls face in the search for the ideal body. There are lessons to be learned from the global campaign against FGM, for their ability at raising awareness, and for their capacity to reach not only to young girls and their mothers, but to larger scaled social dynamics without which FGM cannot be understood. Along the same vein, banning cosmetic surgery for underage girls can prevent some teenagers and their parents in seeking procedures for which their bodies and minds are not ready, but it poses the risk of girls turning to illegal and unsafe service providers. As long as these laws are not part of larger advocacy and education strategies that target girls, boys, and their families, overcoming body anxieties in silicone-obsessed places like Colombia, can become a double edged sword.


*Isabel Pereira is a researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).