Should We Be Concerned By the Rise of Labia Surgery In the UK?

An advert offering vag surgery has been banned because it suggests the average labia is not "natural" – is this indicative of our wider view?

by Hannah Ewens
11 May 2016, 12:00pm

Vag-ish flower via pixabay

An advert offering vag surgery has been banned from the Metro newspaper because it could make women feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Five readers complained over the ad for labia reshaping at the London Bridge Plastic Surgery clinic – and the wording of the ad makes it clear why. It suggested that the surgery would "relieve discomfort" but also claimed to give women the chance to "achieve a more natural appearance".

The Advertising Standards Authority called the ad "irresponsible" and "considered the claim risked encouraging women to view their labia as abnormal". This backed up the complaints which suggested the ad was pushing women towards unnecessary surgery. The ASA ruled that in its current form, the ad must not appear again.

This ad has been placed at a time when labiaplasty is on the sharp rise in the UK. Paul Banwell, a plastic surgeon who specialises in performing labial reduction, told VICE: "There is no doubt that enquiries for labiaplasty surgery are increasing and we have seen a huge upswing over the last few years. Increasing awareness due to media discussion and more openness has contributed to this." The rise in surgeries has occurred across all age groups.

Linda Cardozo, professor of urogynaecology at King's College Hospital, has spoken out about her concerns over "designer vagina" trends in the past. She lists digital manipulation of images and the internet, aka the usual suspects, as some of the reasons for this trend, but holds society's obsession with minimising and shrinking our bodies as women accountable too. "We'll blot out normal female genitalia and make them look like those of a pubertal girl," she says. "We want to have air between our legs when we stand, and of course, there's the removal of public hair. Now we see everything that's underneath."

According to US data carried out by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, more young girls than ever are seeking cosmetic genital surgery to address perceived problems with the appearance of their labia. In 2015, 4.6 percent of those having labiaplasty were under 18 (400 girls in 2015, compared to 222 the previous year). Thankfully both Cardozo and Banwell say they haven't seen much evidence of that being the case here in the UK; however, the general upward trend could change that.

Cardozo also noted that many of these procedures are done in the private sector and very rarely on the NHS, so it'd be difficult for anyone to be certain what age these women are. Of the ten private clinics I approached, none wanted to comment. If consultations or surgeries with young women are on the rise, it's very unlikely that clinics would want to draw attention to or associate themselves with that.

So should we be concerned? "Doing anything unnecessary surgically to your body is not a good idea," explains Cardozo. "Surgery creates scar tissue, it causes pain, it doesn't always work and so it's not sensible to remove healthy areas of the body. Labiaplasty is the removal of usually normal labia tissue and the problems with that is that any form of tissue can cause scarring or pain and some say it can remove the nerve endings at the end of the labia which are sexually stimulating."

If someone is doing the surgery because they suffer from body dysmorphia, then having the surgery is unlikely to solve any underlying issues. "There's a chance that dysmorphia associated with genitalia might improve if they're pleased with the surgery but you can't ever tell what the outcome will be beforehand," Cardozo said. "You don't know whether a woman will like what she sees. If someone has body dysphoric disorder they should go and have counselling to explore the reason. In fact, we had one particular patient who was absolutely obsessed with the size of her labia, and once she'd had her labia trimmed, she became obsessed with the size of her nose."

This, of course, is a concern, along with the denormalising of women's genitalia. It's a very separate thing from the other reasons people may be getting the surgery done, for example, if you're a cyclist and your labia are causing discomfort when you're riding.

When Broadly spoke to Dr. Amanda Tozer, a consultant gynecologist at the London Clinic, she gave them advice for young women concerned by the size of their labia. "If you're worried there's a medical abnormality, certainly go to your doctor and get it checked out. Maybe there is a congenital problem. But if there's not, at least you can be reassured medically. This is what you're born with. This is normal for you." Whatever size your labia are, they're normal and natural, despite what the London Bridge Plastic Surgery clinic might suggest.


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