Shoes which require surgery to wear are a harmful cultural practise

The UN has been discussing gendered violence and harmful cultural practices for years. I like this definition:

By harmful practices, we mean all practices done deliberately by men on the body or the psyche of other human beings for no therapeutic purpose, but rather for cultural or socio-conventional motives and which have harmful consequences on the health and the rights of the victims. As such, these practices do negatively impact often irreversibly on the life of the girl, the spouse, the mother, the husband or their family members; it is therefore a societal phenomenon.

There are very obvious forms of gendered violence which are internationally recognised such as forced marriage, FGM, forced feeding, corrective rape, foot-binding, and breast ironing, yet the two biggest forms of gendered violence aren’t generally written about as harmful cultural practices. We discuss FGM as a harmful cultural practise with ease because it happens “over there”*. Yet, we ignore the reality of vaginoplasty being undertaken by young women here in the UK despite their being no medical need. We other the victims and perpetrators of FGM so that we don’t need to examine the fact that domestic and sexual violence and abuse are harmful cultural practises which occur in the “West” by “educated” people on a daily basis. We don’t talk about the brutal murder to two women a week by an abusive current or former partner as a harmful cultural practise despite the fact that it clearly is.

Gendered violence by men against women and girls, in all its forms, are cultural practises. They do not exist outside of our culture and they are not ‘anomalies” or “isolated incidents”. We focus on practises committed elsewhere because we do not want to acknowledge the reality of misogyny, racism, classism, and homophobia. We live in a white supremacist culture which defines violence against women in “non-Western” as cultural, yet we refuse to acknowledge the same violence within our own culture in a similar manner.

This week, the New York Times published an article on the increase in foot surgery among wealthy women in New York so the women can wear shoes created by Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik. We know that high heels cause permanent damage to women’s bodies, which are exactly the same as the damage caused by foot-binding. We know this, yet we pretend that having surgery to be able to wear designer shoes is a “choice” women make – that women do so out with any cultural pressure.

If we are serious about ending violence against women and girls across the world, we need to stop pretending that harmful cultural practises are things which only happen to “other” women from “over there”. We need to start examining the rise in plastic surgery in the “West” as a harmful cultural practise. We need to start examining the fashion-beauty complex as part of these practises: from shoes to make-up to surgery to fit an idealised version of female beauty which is young, white, thin, and utterly unattainable.

We need to recognise that gendered violence does not exist in isolation. We need to recognise that domestic and sexual violence and abuse are harmful cultural practises regardless of where they occur. And, we need to recognise that a culture which bases women’s value on their physical body and ability to pass the patriarchal fuckability test is harmful.


* All of the terms in quotation marks are clearly problematic and inherently racist.

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