In the West, a specific ideal for female genitalia has emerged: one of absence, a "clean slit," attained through the removal of pubic hair and, increasingly, through female genital cosmetic surgery known as FGCS.
In The Perfect Vagina: Cosmetic Surgery in the Twenty-First Century, Lindy McDougall provides an ethnographic account of women who choose FGCS in Australia and the physicians who perform these procedures, both in Australia and globally, while also examining the environment in which surgeons and women come together. Physicians have a vested interest in establishing this surgery as valid medical intervention, despite majority medical opinion explicitly acknowledging that a wide range of genital variation is normal. McDougall offers a nuanced picture of why and how these procedures are performed and draws parallels between FGCS and anthropological discussions of female genital circumcision (cutting). Using the neologism biomagical, she argues that cosmetic surgery functions as both ritual and sacrifice due to its promise of transformation while simultaneously submitting the body to the risks and pain of surgery, thus exposing biomedicine as an increasingly cultural and commercial pursuit. The Perfect Vagina highlights the complexities involved with FGCS, its role in Western beauty culture, and the creation and control of body image in countries where self-care is valorized and medicine is increasingly harnessed for enhancement as well as health.
Prologue: Mandy's Story
Introduction: Vulnerable Vulvas
1. Melting Snowflakes: Toward a Clean Slit
2. Normativity and the Contradictory Nature of Normal
3. Seeking Vulval Perfection
4. Vulva Las Vegas: Science, Magic (a Gamble) or More of the Same?
5. Autonomy, Risk, Desire, and Magic
Lindy McDougall is Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
"Why are labiaplasties on the rise amongst women in a variety of Western countries? How do such cosmetic surgeries differ from other forms of genital cutting widely vilified as 'mutilation'? These are some of the important and uncomfortable questions McDougall explores in The Perfect Vagina. In a richly drawn account that seamlessly blends ethnographic portraits and theoretical landscapes, she takes us into the world of Australian women who seek out this controversial and intimate procedure and the surgeons who perform it. Resisting easy targets (the porn industry) and trite dichotomies (passive dopes vs. active agents), McDougall demonstrates that such fringe surgeries reveal deeply mainstream views of gender, sexuality and the female body. A must-read for anyone interested in body politics."—Kirsten Bell, University of Roehampton, London
"The Perfect Vagina focuses on a topic that is complex, intimate, challenging, and provocative. Drawing on extensive research, Dr. McDougall offers a nuanced and in-depth examination of the world of female genital cosmetic surgery and engages with the concept of the biomagical. This book will undoubtedly appeal to diverse and varied audiences, including those in anthropology, medical ethics, public health, and sociology, and provides a blueprint for how to conduct ethnographic research in the contemporary period."—Angel M. Foster, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa
"Lindy McDougall exposes the creative pursuit of the invisible intimate – labial reduction. In exploring the allure of the biomagical, McDougall theorizes how and why women's sexuality, desirability and happiness center on the idea of the perfect vagina. Brilliantly argued, in this compelling essay, she illustrates how the male gaze and the medical gaze converge under contemporary capitalism to promote vulval surgery as a technology of self-care and a project of self-improvement. The account is gripping, theoretically sophisticated, and inspired."—Lenore Manderson, Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown University
"The Perfect Vagina highlights the complexities involved with FGCS, its role in Western beauty culture, and the creation and control of body image in countries where self-care is valorized and medicine is increasingly harnessed for enhancement as well as health."—Jana Byars, New Books Network