Why One Artist Is Making Paper Replicas Of Dozens Of Vaginas
By Stephanie Hallett
No More Cutting uses paper vulvas to address female genital mutilation.
When Salamatou Fofanah was 13 years old, her mother and aunts told her it was time for her to join Bundu society. In her native Sierra Leone, that meant she and 31 other girls would be taken to a cutter to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) as part of their initiation into one of the country’s many secret women’s societies.
“I went there unwillingly,” she says. “They tied me up and stuffed my mouth so that I could not shout. That day was hell for me. Each time I remember the pain I went through, I remember hell. Nothing good comes out of that place — all that comes out of that place is pain and suffering.”
Fofanah was never given an explanation for why she had to endure the cutting of her genitals — her mother simply told her it was part of her culture. While FGM is recognized as a human rights violation by the U.N., recent estimates suggest that around 88% of girls in Sierra Leone are subjected to the practice; FGM can include the cutting or full removal of the clitoris and/or its hood, and the cutting of the labia.
Now 25, Fofanah still experiences vaginal and stomach pain from the procedure, and cannot feel sexual pleasure. “[I ask] my fellow women why all the women in this country have to go through that pain,” she says.
The experiences of women like Fofanah are what motivated British paper artist Mandy Smith to launch her latest project, No More Cutting, along with fellow paper artist Oksana Valentelis, production company Random Studio, and photographer Kyla Elaine.
Using anonymously submitted photos of real women’s vulvas, Smith created 81 paper replicas of female genitalia. The paper vulvas are being sold to raise money for Equality Now, a nonprofit that’s working to end FGM in a generation.
Smith’s idea for the project formed last summer after reading a series of articles about FGM, which is widespread in 28 African nations, in The Guardian newspaper. She first learned about FGM more than a decade ago, but “I didn’t want to have another year where I was just reading about things and not trying to help with something,” she explains.
She was conscious, however, of the fact that she’s a white, British woman who has not survived FGM, and wanted to find a way to tie the issue of genital cutting back to her own experience and cultural context. So she began to consider the ways in which women and girls in the West alter their genitalia to fit a certain standard, and discovered that labiaplasty — the practice of trimming the inner labia — is on the rise among girls in the U.S. and the U.K. That’s when she decided to build a website showcasing the diversity of real women’s bodies using her paper vulvas.
Her goal is to send a message to the mostly Western audience who will see her work: “You might be thinking of cutting or trimming yourself, but think of the other girls who don’t have a choice in that matter [FGM survivors] and have been forced or pinned down to have that done.”
While there are very valid reasons — gender affirmation surgery or health/medical purposes, for example — that someone might choose to undergo this type of surgery, No More Cutting is geared toward empowering women and, specifically, girls who feel pressured to look a certain way, while raising awareness about those who are forced to have these types of surgeries.
Labiaplasty is becoming increasingly popular among teenage girls in the West. According to research from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 400 U.S. girls under age 18 underwent labiaplasty in 2015, an 80% rise from the previous year (experts say the actual number of procedures is likely higher, since that survey doesn’t account for surgeries performed by gynecologists). And while girls under the age of 18 make up just 2% of all cosmetic surgeries, they account for 5% of labiaplasties.
Labiaplasty is becoming increasingly popular among teenage girls in the West.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has discouraged the practice of labiaplasty on adolescent girls, calling for doctors to offer nonsurgical alternatives, provide reassurance that genital variation is healthy and normal, and encourage further counseling for girls who suffer from body dysmorphia.
Dr. Julie Strickland, chair of ACOG’s adolescent health committee, told The New York Times that labiaplasty “should not be entertained until growth and development is complete.” She added, “The big thing I tell patients about labiaplasty is that there are a lot of unknowns. The labia have a lot of nerve endings in them, so there could be diminishment of sexual sensation after surgery, or numbness, or pain, or scarring.”
Smith points to the rapid rise of accessible internet porn as one of the reasons girls are going under the knife at such a young age.
“A lot of people are getting sexual education from porn, and that’s quite a harsh teaching for young girls. If you just see all these designer vaginas out there while your body’s going through these changes, they might start to think there’s something wrong with them. The internet is great for finding out information, but all the genitals that [girls] are presented with are these perfect, trimmed versions and no one’s talking about how genitals come in a whole range.”
Smith’s handcrafted genitalia are all made from the same color paper, and they’re presented on her website without identifying details, such as race, ethnicity, or age, to avoid having viewers assign certain qualities to specific races or ethnicities. To showcase diversity and promote unity among women, says Smith, a variety of skin tones appear in the background behind the paper vulvas.
Below the artwork is information about the side effects of FGM — which can range from infections and infertility to complications during childbirth that can lead to newborn death — and a discussion of the links between genital cutting by choice, in the West, and genital cutting by force.
“Some women choose to cut themselves to fit a distorted image of normality, when in reality normality comes in many shapes and forms,” reads the website. “In stark contrast, 3 million girls and women are subjected to female genital mutilation each year against their will and without proper understanding of what is happening to them.”
Smith hopes that if girls who are feeling insecure about their bodies visit the website and see images of paper genitalia — in a non-school, non-porn context — the will realize that vulvas come in a huge range of sizes, colors, and shapes, and that they might then reconsider labiaplasty. She also hopes that once they’ve learned about what girls in non-Western countries endure, they might instead make a donation to help end FGM.
Some women choose to cut themselves to fit a distorted image of normality.
Ultimately, Smith would like to get school teachers to use the No More Cutting website as a classroom resource so that young people of all genders can see the diversity of female genitalia in a more realistic form than what’s presented in porn or even sex-ed textbooks, which tend to be more clinical than lifelike.
“Kids nowadays are submerged in so much easily accessible sexual content,” she says. “Looking at the No More Cutting website, I don’t find it sexual, I find it really educational. . . . So to showcase it in schools would be really [beneficial].”
She’d also like to mount a gallery show in February 2018, timed with her birthday and the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation — both of which serendipitously fall on February 6. In the meantime, supporters of the No More Cutting project can purchase artwork from the website and submit anonymous photos of their own vulvas through this Dropbox account.
For Sierra Leonean FGM survivor Fofanah, who answered my questions through local women’s rights activist Diaka Koroma, the pain she endures from having her genitals cut will last a lifetime. To Western women who can decide whether or not to undergo genital cutting, she offers this message:
“They have to change their mind — nothing good comes out of this. Once you go [through this], you have to suffer so much pain. If there are any women out there in Western countries who want to do the same thing . . . I don’t want [them] to do that. [And] if there’s anyone who can stand on our behalf in Africa to stop this procedure, it will be the best for women in Africa.”