When Courtney Smith described breast implants to Senegalese people, they were horrified and called it disgusting, unnatural and "against God."
Just as Smith suspected, they responded to this western practice similarly to the way in which Americans she interviewed had reacted to a common practice in their country: female genital cutting. While Smith said she would never equate breast augmentation with genital cutting, she hopes her research will help people understand the reasoning behind the two procedures.
"I'm studying why we do all these things to women's bodies," said Smith, who is earning a Ph.D. in political science, but whose work draws on many social sciences disciplines, such as anthropology, women's studies and sociology.
For her field work, Smith spent seven months in Senegal gathering information about female genital cutting through more than 80 open-ended interviews with women (cut and uncut), men, mothers, doctors, village chiefs and religious leaders. She found that cutting is indeed a deeply imbedded cultural practice.
"I think they were more likely to open up to me and talk about cutting because I was also asking them about implants," she said. "But what they really wanted to talk about was irrigation or getting a well."
She then conducted more than 60 interviews with Americans about genital cutting and breast augmentation. Through her research, Smith found that on both sides of this cultural divide women held the right to choose above the problems inherent in the practices of genital cutting and breast augmentation.
Smith hopes the results of her research will reduce the western bias that often accompanies efforts to combat female genital cutting. Over the past year, she has been invited to speak before World Health Organization and European government officials. Later this year The Finnish Journal of Ethnicity and Migration will publish an article she wrote on the topic.
Smith has become a fast-rising expert in this unique field and has been teaching the UO's first courses in feminist political theory and politics of sex and the body. Smith will defend her dissertation in October and will continue teaching at the UO through the 2008-2009 school year
- Katie Campbell