Articles on Shifting Sands
The narcissism of female genital enhancement
The lecture, Narcissism and identity-determinism helped explain why we’ve become so absorbed with changing our bodies and why young, western women are increasingly opting for genital enhancements.It was delivered by Claire Fox, Director of The Institute of Ideas at The Academy.
In the allocated 40 minutes she attempted to explain what narcissism is and the extent in which the concept is useful in understanding contemporary society.
While the accusation of narcissism has been widely levelled at Donald Trump, there is a broader problem in modern-day society, brilliantly identified by Christopher Lasch in his much-discussed but often misinterpreted book, The Culture of Narcissism (1979).
In it, he explained that every age develops its own form of pathology. The 70’s for example represented a time of fragmentation in response to social change. Until then, the individual had understood the importance of social ties to take them beyond their limited, individual experiences. The world had been something the individual was expected to shape and impact on. It didn’t revolve around us. But society, in losing its sense of historical continuity impacted the sense of self, leading to a concentration on the moment, a search for self-improvement, of finding the ‘real me’.
Lasch described narcissists as lacking an inner life and experiencing a sense of emptiness. They didn’t like themselves particularly and needed constant affirmation of their worth. This contrasted with the widespread misinterpretation of narcissism as self-love. People were searching for experiences to fill an inner void and became increasingly dependent on others to recognise, acknowledge and confirm their self-worth.
While Fox believed that young people were not satisfied with the options and models available to them and yearned for more, their efforts took the form of constructing a new ‘them’, focussing on the physical body. It became the locus for moral enhancement and involved e.g. losing weight, make-up, looking good – things we can all relate to provided they’re not the be-all-and-end-all.
Today, the focus has become dissatisfaction with the physical body, leading to the desire to appropriate somebody else’s ideal one in order to construct a new us. So bodily augmentation is on the increase and requests for body surgery, be it cosmetic dentistry, breast, bottom or genital enhancement is de rigeur. And the age at which people request surgery is getting younger.
But solutions to problems like lack of confidence and low self-esteem, things that these procedures and enhancements are supposed to address, are not working. So more are sought. The trend towards gender reassignment is an aspect of this. It’s as though the body’s physical form represents the real person while discussions about inner lives have almost disappeared.
The tendency towards self-harm be it physical cutting or anorexia is also part of this trend. But instead of undertaking what was once a secret and private act, it is now carried out on social media. Showing the scars is as important as the creation of ‘safe spaces’ to facilitate the public act of cutting.
And the search for affirmation is growing. Because we are all told that we’re special, people are encouraged to take about their identities before they’ve even acquired one.
The days when ordinary people didn’t consider themselves special and were happy to live their lives, often unnoticed, have gone. It seems almost unbelievable now that extraordinary people like Edmund Hillary who climbed Mount Everest, refused to be photographed on top. He’d achieved his aim and simply wanted to see and admire the world from the pinnacle. Now our ambitions is for the world to see and admire us wherever we go and whatever we do. To be affirmed for just being there.
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About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia.
She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still.
She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.