Why Are Young Women Seeking Vaginal Rejuvenation & Labiaplasty?
Surgery for form or function?
Vaginal surgery has been available to women for decades. There are procedures to correct involuntary urination, restore hymens, de-hood the clitoris, tighten the canal—the last, a popular request from women who have suffered loosening after giving birth—but ABC recently reported that experts are now encountering thousands of women in search of a cosmetic procedure to reconstruct their labia minora, the inner "lips" surrounding the vulva, and enhance the appearance of their genitalia. According to one doctor, interest in labiaplasty has even peaked in girls, some as young as 11 years old.
Dr. Cheryl B. Iglesia, a reconstructive pelvic surgeon said, "It's really concerning, because [the trend] is really reaching younger ages, in their teens. It's just not right."
In the June issue of the Obstetrics & Gynecology journal, Iglesia wrote, "None of these procedures have proven effectiveness, and there is potential for harm. Women are being misled or are confused about what is normal. There are great variations of 'normal.' Labia can be anywhere from 5 millimeters to 5 centimeters." In her studied opinion, women have been "duped."
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But who's to blame? After all, mainstream media, the usual delinquent assumed to be the catalyst behind all societal ills, doesn't make a habit of exposing "spread eagles" or full-frontal female genitalia, yet the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons has reported that over 5,000 women in the United States have vaginoplasty, a "tightening" of the birth canal, annually.
"Doctors should take some responsibility for feeding this," said author Edie Raether, a psychotherapist who specializes in body image issues, specifically anorexia. "The abnormality here is much more an internal issue of self image. Women say, 'Oh, I can pay a couple thousand bucks [for the surgery]' and then a greedy doctor takes a knife to it, and takes money from these people who have a mental issue. But it's really a Band-Aid approach to some serious psychological issues of self esteem."
Women seeking surgery often want their self diagnosed abnormal, enlarged labia reduced to a smaller size they believe is ideal, and they are willing to pay anywhere from $3,500 to $12,000—for vaginoplasty or labiaplasty (or a combination of the two)—to achieve it. Most of the surgeries are not covered by insurance if they are for aesthetic purposes, but Dr. Edward Jacobson of the Greenwich Center for Restorative Vaginal Surgery, a longtime vaginal surgeon and board certified gynecologist, claims many of his patients come with legitimate medical concerns (that insurance companies will, in fact, pay for).
"There's a general misunderstanding about this surgery," he said. "In my practice, well over 90 to 95 percent of the people I see come for functional issues, not cosmetic ones. I've seen competitive swimmers who can't get into a bathing suit, equestrians who are on the saddle for six to eight hours a day and have to ice themselves to get comfortable again. Some girls can't go to the gym, they're very uncomfortable, they have recurrent infections. This is something people don't address and it's no different than a woman who gets a breast reduction for her back and shoulder pain."
And for those who do have the surgery for cosmetic reasons, Jacobson insists that it can serve as a boost of confidence. He recalls one woman who refused to date for a year after her boyfriend commented on her enlarged labia, but post-op, she was positively a "different person." Plus, in his practice, he's seen little side effects, including tissue re-growth, scarring, change in sensation, bleeding or infections. And he won't treat anyone who appears to have a lot of "psychological problems."
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Still, if there is a finger to be pointed at one common culprit to for this increase in nether region insecurity, Iglesia believes it's the porn industry, for giving women unrealistic expectations about their bodies. Jacobson has seen it firsthand.
"If somebody comes in with a picture from Playboy and says, 'I wanna look like this,' I say, 'I don't do Photoshop, I can't do that.' These people get airbrushed on their pictures. It's not real."
A publication of an entirely different variety was specifically created to combat this exact issue. For artist Alexandra Jacoby, it started when a friend of hers asked if she liked the way her vagina looked. The friend wasn't happy with her own; in her mind, there was "something wrong" with it. So, Jacoby set out on what became an over decade long project that birthed—no pun intended—the book, "vagina vérité® — an unabashed exploration of the plain, ordinary, mysterious matter of vaginas," a compilation of vaginal close-ups and portraits, unstylized and unretouched.
"Having photographed over 100 vaginas, I have seen more vulvas than women typically do, unless you're a gynecologist or do bikini waxing," Jacoby said. "What I can tell you is that they are all different, each one interesting and beautiful. Generalizing is a useful tool, but it belongs in the background, as information. The pressure of should bes and norms can be overwhelming and can make you lose touch entirely with what is amazing, worthwhile and fundamentally precious about being a human body, as you are—strikingly unique."
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