The number of women and teenagers undertaking genital cosmetic surgery in Australia and worldwide is increasing at an alarming rate with them turning to health providers to pursue "designer vaginas".
The most popular procedure is labiaplasty which is covered by Medicare. Although parental permission is required this procedure has been performed on girls as young as 14 years old.
Women's Health Victoria published a paper in February on female genital cosmetic surgery, which it hopes will help generate debate among health professionals and advocates about how to respond to the emergence of these controversial procedures.
Many people think the external genitals of a woman are called the vagina. But this is wrong: the vagina is the tube or passage inside, which is not really visible from the outside. What you can see from the outside is the vulva, and it is the vulva that so many women would like to have surgically altered. The main features of the vulva are the four labia or lips. There are two outer labia, which are called the 'labia majora' and two smaller labia the 'labia minora'. The entry to the vagina lies between the two inner lips.
Some women are unhappy with the appearance of their labia. They may particularly complain about the labia minora saying that they are 'too long' or 'too irregular' or just 'ugly' and they should not protrude. Some women have had their labia change in appearance after giving birth naturally. Some believe that labiaplasty, the surgical reduction of the size of their labia, will make them look normal again.
But what is normal? During the last decade, images of female genitals have become widely available on the internet, adult magazines and in some women's publications. But many of these images are totally unrealistic and don't depict normal variations.
Why? The people who produce these pictures or films use models with 'tidy' genitals, not particularly because they want to but they have to. As far as the Australian Classification Board is concerned, if the vulva is protruding to much it's "too rude" to show.
Cosmetic surgeons and other health professionals (who are allowed to perform surgery) playing on the insecurities of women. There is a lot of money to be made in this business. Just look at all the advertisements on the internet. Medical experts have warned that some young women who approach cosmetic surgery companies are depressed or on medication, and are being sold operations without preliminary access to alternative psychological therapies.
Labiaplasty surgery can have damaging after effects, such as infection, scarring and painful sex. Sometimes labiaplasty results in painful or uncomfortable labia –if the surgeon makes the labia too short or sculpts the tissue in a way that can cause discomfort or pain.
I am not sure that the surgeons who are happily cutting off pieces of labia realise the additional problems that can occur with this procedure. Frances D'Arcy-Tehan, a psychologist and clinical sexologist in Geelong, Victoria, became aware of women's genital anxieties and their impact on self-esteem through her private practice work. She asked women to take part in an online survey for her PhD topic The Effects of Genital Image and Body Image on Sexual Functioning in Women and hopes the research will contribute to improving women's sexual health and well-being. In her research she found that to prevent unnecessary surgery it is important to educate health professionals and the public about the anatomy and physiology of the vulva. The labia minora is a highly sensitive sexual organ and plays an important role for sexual response. It is dense with nerve endings and sensory receptors, which are highly sensitive to light touch.
The main function of the vulva is to give pleasure and labiaplasty has the obvious potential to destroy an erogenous zone and can lead to lack of arousal and impede orgasmic responses.
My advice is to seriously think again before spending a fortune on an operation that cannot be reversed and may have lasting effects on your sex life.