For my Design for Discomfort class, we were challenged to create a memorial, preferably to "an issue we believe is overlooked." I'm opposed to circumcision, as I consider it to be a form of genital mutilation, and I think it's an issue that's generally overlooked - it is rarely talked about openly.

While circumcision is common worldwide as a religious practice, the United States has an odd history with regards to the practice. It is more common in the States than in any other Western nation, even though religious groups that require it are in the vast minority. This is due to persistent myths regarding the medical benefits. Many believe that circumcision is necessary to prevent hygienic and medical problems, but this is not true. This myth persists from Victorian times, when doctors promoted circumcision out of a belief that it would reduce masturbation. I remember being told some version of this myth as a child, something about how it prevented diseases and made the penis easier to keep clean. I find it extremely reprehensible that medical professionals would continue to recommend such a procedure based on outdated medical ideas.

I wanted something viscerally evocative, so the image immediately occurred to me to show a medical implement with fake blood. I believe there are specific instruments used for circumcision, and I initially considered one of those. However, I figured most people wouldn't recognize one of them, and I wasn't sure I could emotionally handle looking at one. So I chose a scalpel instead, as a universally recognized symbol of surgery. I wanted a juxtaposition of medical instrument - immediately recognizable and striking at a distance - with a subdued explanatory plaque. I imagined the viewer being drawn to the plaque by the striking motif of the bloodied scalpel, only to come closer, read the plaque, and then understand its significance. I hope that by evoking a visceral response first, then providing context, those who might have a knee-jerk reaction against anti-circumcision activism would find themselves feeling more sympathetic. It is certainly an uncomfortable piece to look at, but I believe that discomfort is worthwhile for my purposes.

I bought a real scalpel from a medical supply store, along with a medical instrument tray. I bought some fake blood, of the thick gel type, at a Halloween store. Finally, I arranged the scalpel and blood as if it had been freshly used and then placed on the tray. I did not think to buy any adhesive that can bond metal, so the scalpel is only held in place by a small loop of gaffer tape. Thus, the installation is fragile, but this is okay, since it was only used as a temporary setup. Perhaps sometime later I will glue or solder the scalpel in place.

The scalpel, blood, and tray.

Next, I laser-etched a plaque from a piece of glossy black acrylic. I had originally envisioned a metal plaque, as that is the normal material for memorials, and I wanted that air of seriousness. However, I did not have ready access to a laser powerful enough to etch metal. This obstacle worked out well in the end, though. I actually like how the etching is difficult to read from a distance or from the wrong angle (due to light glaring off the glossy surface), as it forces the viewer to lean in closer to the plaque. It works well for the intended juxtaposition in which the scalpel is noticed first.

The plaque.

I chose my wording carefully. While I am also opposed to circumcision on religious grounds, such a stance would be more controversial, and I wanted to focus on the United States case. However, I did not mention the United States in particular, as similar myths persisted for a while in the UK and parts of Europe, and I wanted to express solidarity with all those affected by this misguided medical practice. I specifically mentioned the common practice of lack of anesthesia, and emphasized the pain ("agony of infants"). It is a common myth in current circumcision practice that infants do not feel pain during the procedure, or else that mere sugar is sufficient to ease their pain. In reality, all evidence suggests the pain is unsurprisingly excruciating, and most infants display behavioral changes afterwards. I have heard of studies suggesting that males who are circumcised as infants have higher rates of anxiety disorders as adults - this information was particularly emotionally distressing to me when I learned of it, as it suggests a form of trauma even if one cannot consciously remember.

The memorial in its completed form.
A close-up of the scalpel blade.
The memorial with the plaque legible. The plaque did not rest on the side of the instrument tray in this way - I arranged it like that for the photo.

I am very proud of myself for completing this memorial and presenting it in class. For me, producing this memorial was a process of strong discomfort that I believe led to some growth. I had to sit with a lot of difficult feelings about my own circumcision. More difficult than thoughts about my circumcision itself, though, was my anxiety of the reactions from the class, or the discussion that might be started. I feared a negative reaction, as the topic can be controversial.

There is a specific history here for me: when I first learned to question circumcision, as opposed to accepting the myth I was told as a child, it was in a feminist discussion group talking about female genital mutilation. But most of the feminists in the group were not sympathetic to the anti-circumcision cause - the general message was that opposition to circumcision was a distraction from the bigger problem of female genital mutilation, and that the two should never be compared since men are privileged, whereas women are sexually oppressed and FGM is part of their historical and current oppression. I was deeply hurt by this attitude, and internalized a fear of bringing up the topic. (A related trend, and a frustration of mine, is the unfortunate association of anti-circumcision activism with extremist men's groups. Since these groups are loudly demonized by feminism, I developed the impression - true in certain circles - that to be concerned with circumcision was to risk being labeled as anti-feminist trash.)

Instead, my classmates were very supportive. Moreover, all feedback indicated that the memorial was successful in evoking a visceral reaction of discomfort. In a reversal of my feminism-related fears, one classmate had to look away because the memorial evoked thoughts of FGM for her, and she later expressed solidarity with me and with the cause. I am happy to have had the opportunity to undergo this process with mature and supportive people. And I'm very happy to be mature and secure enough in myself to have tried it. I believe that as a result, I will be more comfortable in the future with owning and voicing my opposition to circumcision.