Cosmetic surgery is becoming more and more common in today's society and the latest figures from the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) reveal that there was over a 16% increase in procedures for both men and women in 2013, compared to 2012. The rise in popularity of cosmetic surgery could be due to a number of factors including a greater access to procedures, an increase in celebrity cosmetic surgery and a greater acceptance of procedures in general. Some types of cosmetic surgery are now seen as normal, and in fact are increasing in popularity year on year. For example, since 2012, breast augmentation procedures and face/neck lifts have risen 13% and eyelid surgery 14% when compared to 2012's figures.
One area of cosmetic surgery which is growing in popularity, but which is little talked about, is surgery to women's intimate areas to create the so-called 'designer vagina'. Female genital cosmetic surgery divides opinion and is one of the most controversial types of cosmetic surgery. The term 'designer vagina' is actually misleading as it covers a spectrum of procedures which include everything from labiaplasty, a reduction in the size of the labia, to hymenoplasty, which involves restoring the hymen, to vaginal rejuvenation, involving tightening the vaginal muscles post childbirth.
Labiaplasty is one of the most popular of the 'designer vagina' procedures. According to the annual Review of the Regulation of Cosmetic Interventions from the Department of Health, the popularity of the procedure is "driven in part by a combination of the influence of pornography but also by the lack of people's awareness of the normal range of size and shape of genitalia."
According to leading cosmetic surgeon Stephen McCulley MBChB, FCS(SA)Plast, FRCS(Plast), labiaplasty is a worthwhile change when the anxiety and discomfort caused by large labia negatively affects women's lives. He says, "Women often notice their labia may look different or seem 'too large' in their teenage years and if a young woman develops anxiety about this then that anxiety will stay with her forever.
"If it is an issue to a woman, then telling her it shouldn't be an issue is not going to make any difference and it can cause the anxiety to become quite debilitating in some cases. As the labiaplasty procedure is actually very safe, when done correctly, it's a very simple operation and can actually be a great release to these women."
Unlike other parts of the body, female genitalia is obviously hidden and this can fuel the anxieties some women have about whether theirs is 'normal' or not.
Mr McCulley believes in many cases, a lack of awareness of what the labia can look like is the cause for many women to come to him with concerns. He says, "There's no norm when it comes to labia as they can vary greatly in size. Therefore I concentrate more on the anxiety it's creating rather than trying to create a social norm as to what a vagina or a labia should look like. Patients don't come to me saying 'I look abnormal', they say 'I feel anxious about this, I don't like this; it affects me'. You can talk through that and sometimes, just saying that it looks normal and showing them some pictures helps them and that's enough, which is great."
Although procedures to female genitalia are still a taboo, for some women surgery is the desired action, especially if the size of their labia affects them physically as well as psychologically. In other cases, just seeing how female genitalia differs from woman to woman can do a lot to diminish anxieties.