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Designer vaginas: Why young women are searching for porn star perfection

Designer vaginas: Why young women are searching for porn star perfection

2014, The Telegraph


“I was about 15 when I first became unhappy with the way I looked 'down there’. Then when you become sexually active, you get more image-conscious. It was eating me up. The years went on and I tortured myself over it. Relationships went down the tube – I just switched off.”

Harriet is now 24 years old, in a long-term relationship, and works as a graphic designer in Northern Ireland. After years of hating the way her genitalia looked, she finally took action earlier this year and underwent labiaplasty, a procedure which involves shortening, or ”tidying up”, the labia – the 'lips’ located at the opening of the vagina.

“Designer vagina” surgery, as it is sometimes known, is becoming increasingly common in the UK: figures suggest that the number of labial reduction procedures has risen fivefold in the NHS in the past ten years, with something like 2,000 operations being performed in 2010. The NHS only carries out the operation where there is an obvious abnormality or pain and discomfort involved. Figures from the private sector are harder to come by, but many cosmetic clinics report a surge of interest from young women, with one clinic saying it had around 1,200 requests for labiaplasty over the last four years.

The rise in this type of surgery has been attributed by many to pornography and its unrealistic representations of the female body, with a report last year from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) arguing that the “modified images” of female genitalia in porn is changing women’s perceptions of what is normal and causing them anxiety over the appearance of their own genitals.

“We can safely say that there might be some influence because the after-effects of labiaplasty are so similar to the pornesque vulva,” says Dr Lih-Mei Liao, a consultant psychiatrist at University College London Hospital who co-wrote the report.

Harriet’s biggest fear was of malicious rumours spread by sexual partners via social media, and bullying, especially from other other girls. She recounts an incident where a girl was bullied about her genitalia on Facebook. “I just thought, that could’ve been me,” says Harriet. “And if a rumour like that spread about me, I would just die.”

It’s why she finally asked her parents for financial help to have the surgery in June; the total cost including flights to London and accommodation was £4,000. A week afterwards, she was back at work and after two months, able to cycle and horse-ride again. Five months on, she says it has made a big difference to her self-esteem.

“I’m a lot more confident,” she says. “There is a big physical difference. I did feel like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

Dr Angelica Kavouni, the cosmetic surgeon who performed Harriet’s procedure, says:

“Labiaplasty is very popular – there’s no question about that. For cosmetic reasons, women do get bothered by the length of the [inner] labia. They want to make them smaller so they don’t show outside the bigger lips. That’s the main concern.”

She says she screens women who come to her for suitability, to ensure they do not need psychological counselling rather than surgery.

“My opening statement to a young woman is: 'I want you to know you’re normal and there’s nothing wrong with you’,” she says. “They have to have the right attitude about this.”

Dr Kavouni agrees that pornographic images can be a factor in women deciding to have the procedure, but adds that this assumption often means that women feel guilty when they come to see her. They say: “I don’t want you to think it’s because of Playboy – actually, it’s when I’m in the shower I feel this way, or as a child it bothered me, or you can see it through my bikini.”

Jenny, 33, a marketing professional from Surrey, had been bothered by her labia ever since her teens. “It was something I’d always been quite self-conscious about,” she says. “I went and saw my doctor, to ask if I was normal. I was told I was bigger than most but still defined as normal.

“But it still affected me, especially my sex life. I wanted to stop feeling paranoid.” She was anxious that her sexual partners would judge her. “I think porn played a part. I was aware that probably they’re seeing this type of stuff and have a view on what perfection looks like.”

It’s why she had the procedure carried out privately earlier this year, at a cost of £3,800. “I haven’t been involved with anyone since, but I feel a lot more confident,” she says. “It was an awful lot of money but I don’t regret it.”

Dr Nick Morris, a consultant gynaecologist who performs labiaplasty at The Cadogan Clinic, says: “Young women are more likely to have a partner who’ll have watched awful porn where the labia have been distorted or removed. It makes them feel they’re not normal.” However, an important reason for some women wanting surgery, he says, is discomfort or soreness when cycling or taking part in sport.

He feels that labiaplasty should be freely available on the NHS to those who suffer a loss to their quality of life, and are psychologically affected by the size of their labia. “Why should women feel victims of their own anatomy?” he says.

NHS Choices, however, says it is natural for the labia to vary in appearance and also warns there’s “no guarantee you’ll get the result you expected” from an operation.

Dr Liao argues that women considering the surgery need to be aware of the risks – including possible lack of sensitivity in the area – and be given accurate information about what normal genitalia look like. “Women should also be told that the research on the effects of this procedure hasn’t been done. Everything is based on claims that haven’t been scientifically validated.”

She explains that there is a particular risk for young women having the surgery, as their genital organs are still developing; the procedure should not be performed on girls younger than 18 years unless it is “strictly necessary”, says the NHS.

Dr Liao also thinks there is a danger that some young women may focus on their genitalia as the reason for their basic insecurity. “There’s a psychological risk they could feel dissatisfied: 'I thought it would make feel better’, but realising, 'actually now I feel bad again’. That’s the nature of body dissatisfaction: it doesn’t just stop.”

Harriet and Jenny both insist that the surgery has improved their quality of life. The only downside is when they hear people constantly critiquing 'designer vagina’ surgery.

“I think there’s a view you should be happy with what you have,” says Jenny. “But it’s the same as everything in life. Everyone has those insecurities and if they’re causing you emotional upset or aren’t allowing you to live a normal life, it’s best do something about it.”

The Facts:

The Telegraph