Much like a snowflake, no two vaginas look exactly alike; there's a wide range of variation in terms of the vulva's external appearance, and it's all totally normal. Unfortunately, most young women aren't taught about the diversity of vaginas in sex ed, which means that some might opt to go under the knife to get the perfect vagina.
The New York Times reported the number of teenagers seeking labiaplasties (a surgery that reduces the size or shape of the vulva) has gone up by 80%, with 400 young women under the age of 18 undergoing the procedure in 2015, as opposed to 222 in 2014. Last week, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a statement urging doctors to screen for disorders like body dysmorphia when young women request the procedure.
"When adolescents seek medical treatment, the first step is often education and reassurance regarding normal variation in anatomy, growth and development," the statement said.
Labiaplasty has become one of the country's fastest growing cosmetic surgeries, with the number of overall procedures rising 49% in 2014, according to a report from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Although young women age 18 or younger currently only make up 4.6% of all labiaplasty patients, the trend among young women is continuing to surge.
There are, however, some potential complications associated with the procedure.
"The big thing I tell patients about labiaplasty is that there are a lot of unknowns," Dr. Julie Strickland, chairwoman of ACOG's committee on adolescent health care, told the Times. "The labia have a lot of nerve endings in them, so there could be diminishment of sexual sensation after surgery, or numbness, or pain, or scarring."
On a broader cultural level, there's a need to educate young people about the natural diversity of vaginas. The prevalence of porn has led to many women believing that vulvas are supposed to be trim and compact, leaving them feeling inadequate if they fail to measure up.
A psychological study by Australian researchers published by Oxford University Press in February surveyed 351 women and found a direct correlation between media consumption and labiaplasty inquiries.
"Women seeking labiaplasty have been exposed to a greater volume of these idealized media images," the report said, "and display a stronger desire to resemble these images than women not seeking labiaplasty."
"They are doing it for themselves."
Yet not all medical experts are concerned about the growing popularity among young women.
Cosmetic surgeon Dr. Lara Devgan said in a phone interview that she regularly performs labiaplasty on patients between the ages of 17 and 19 and calls it a "very safe surgery with high satisfaction rates." She said she receives around five inquires about labiaplasty a week, between 20% to 25% of which are from women under the age of 25.
Most women, Devgan said, seek her services because they want to feel more comfortable with the way their genitals look. A small number of young women report experiencing constant discomfort as a result of having large labia.
"Some women tell me they have to adjust themselves several times a day," she said. "It [labiaplasty] changes their lives."
Devgan said it's a misconception that the rise in labiaplasty stems from the popularity of online porn or women feeling inadequate in the bedroom. "Most of my young patients come in with their mothers and aren't sexually active. They are doing it for themselves," she said.
While that might very well be the case for some young women, the surgery comes at a steep price. Devgan estimated it can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000, depending on the doctor and how many areas of the vulva are altered, although the national average is closer to $2,700.
But as long as the patient is past puberty and has parental consent, Devgan doesn't see any problem with young women seeking the surgery for purely cosmetic reasons. She said she believes the conversation surrounding labiaplasty has, for the most part, been beneficial for women.
"For so long there's been a stigma about women's bodies," Devgan said. "Finally people are able to talk about what's been bothering them for ages."
h/t New York Times