Female genital mutilation (FGM) is brutal. It’s estimated that around 200 million women and girls around the world have had to endure the practice, which involves the labia being cut and the clitoris and/or its hood being cut or fully removed.
Contrary to popular belief, FGM is not rooted in religious belief; it has traditionally been performed in countries with cultures as diverse as Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Rather, it stems from traditional ideas of modesty and purity, and a desire to control women’s sexuality. In its most extreme form, genital cutting is designed to make sex so painful that women will never become promiscuous.
FGM is recognised as a human rights violation by the UN, and was outlawed in the UK in 1985 – but it still goes on. Between January and March in 2016 alone, more than 1,200 cases of FGM were newly recorded in England.
Now, a group of artists have created a project to raise awareness of FGM, with the aim of ending the practice within a generation.
No More Cutting is the brainchild of Mandy Smith, director of the Papersmith studio in Amsterdam. Working with paper artist Oksana Valentelis, photographer Kyla Elaine and interactive production company Random Studio, Smith has curated a collection of paper vaginas of all shapes and sizes, with the intention of highlighting the “diversity and uniqueness” of the natural female body.
“FGM was a topic I've been extremely interested in since I stumbled across it whilst researching another project for university 10 years ago,” Smith tells Stylist.co.uk. “I was completely shocked and it has always stayed with me as something I wanted to do something to try to raise money for, and make more people aware of to open up discussions on.”
No More Cutting features 81 small, delicate artworks, each modelled on a real vagina. Paper was chosen as a medium to “signify fragility” – as well as being a way of alluding to cutting without actually showing cut genitals.
While researching the project, it occurred to Smith that there was a parallel between the issue of FGM and the rise of labiaplasties – known colloquially as “designer vagina” surgery – in Western culture.
The most recent available NHS figures on labiaplasties showed that some 2,000 operations were performed on women in the UK in 2010, representing a fivefold increase on the previous decade. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that when repeatedly exposed to images of modified female genitalia – the kind one might see in pornography – women’s perceptions of what constituted “normal and desirable” genitals changed. This, they warned, could encourage women to seek unnecessary surgery.
Smith tells Stylist.co.uk that she finds the rise of labiaplasties, especially among younger women, upsetting for different reasons to FGM.
“[I am concerned about] the over-sexualisation of younger people so they feel their body is more of an object to look a certain way for a certain audience, instead of realising they are completely normal and having the inner peace and confidence that comes from that,” she says.
“With female genitals being a taboo subject of sorts, I also wanted to educate people in general on the sheer volume of how unique the female genitals are – and how they should be celebrated and kept as nature intended.”
Smith hopes to bring the No More Cutting exhibition to London in the future. In the meantime, women over the age of 18 are invited to submit images of their vaginas anonymously through the No More Cutting website, to be turned into paper art. Supporters can also buy individually crafted ‘vagina badges’ and commission custom artwork, with all profits going to women’s rights organisation Equality Now.