Questioning The Ads For Below-The-Waist Surgery

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By Judy Foreman
Guest Contributor

Not surprisingly, the headline about “designer vagina” procedures in a press release this week from BMJ Open, an online publication of the esteemed BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) caught my eye — and stopped my coffee cup in midair.

It appears that women are flocking to surgeons for things like “vaginal rejuvenation,” “G-spot amplification,” “revirgination” and “labiaplasty.” According to the BMJ authors, a team from University College Hospital in London, vaginal cosmetic surgery is a growing thing for women who “simply don’t like the way their genitals look.”

Good Lord.

These women are apparently concerned about the visibility of vaginal labia through tight clothing (I must be getting old. Why not just wear looser clothing?). Or, as the BMJ authors put it, they want their labia to look “sleeker” and “more appealing.” The women in question seem to have an “awareness – courtesy of a partner or magazine pictures – of larger than normal labia.” (What kind of partners would say….oh, well.)

There is an actual point, beyond sheer prurient interest, to the authors’ concerns. They are worried, with good reason as I discovered, that Internet ads touting these vaginal cosmetic procedures are of “poor” quality. That is, they often contain inaccurate and misleading information. (Are we surprised?)

So, I put my coffee cup down and did what the authors did: I Googled their search term, female genital cosmetic surgery, and sure enough, up popped endless ads shamelessly appealing to, or dare I say, “creating,” female genital insecurities. For the record, I get that some older women who’ve had multiple babies may have urinary incontinence or other legitimate complications of childbirth – or even plain aging – and might want to have things tightened up a bit. Vaginas, like the rest of our bodies, can get droopy with time.

But young women and girls worried that they don’t look right? First, it was that women’s breasts were too small – or too big. Now, it’s genitals, too? In truth, there’s as much variation in labia length as in many other physical characteristics.

What really gets me about all this is that these made-up genital insecurities make a mockery of the real, and serious, issue of female genital mutilation in developing countries. In our supposedly modern societies, women are persuaded that they don’t “look” right and are choosing surgery they probably don’t need, while girls in Africa are still forced into genital mutilation.

It doesn’t take a genius to question the wisdom of all this unnecessary female genital cosmetic surgery, but I called one anyway.

In reality, “Designer vaginoplasty” and “G-spot amplification” are, as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists put it in a 2007 statement, “not medically indicated, and the safety and effectiveness of these procedures have not been documented.”

Which is pretty much what the British researchers concluded.

It doesn’t take a genius to question the wisdom of all this unnecessary female genital cosmetic surgery, but I called one anyway, Dr. Nawal Nour, director of the Ambulatory Obstetrics Practice at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Nour won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 2003 for her work on repairing the surgical and emotional damage done to women through female genital mutilation. In fact, she has devoted her entire life to treating the medical complications and legal issues surrounding female genital mutilation and founded the African Women’s Health Center in Boston.

She feels that female genital surgeries, with proper counseling, may make sense if women “have truly physiological complications after childbirth” or when there are other “medical indications to perform some of these surgeries.”

But she is appalled that “more and more girls and women are thinking that they are abnormal,” and that the definition of what is considered “normal” for the length of labia has been getting smaller and smaller.

In the U.S., Nour said, it has been illegal since 1996 for surgeons to knowingly excise, that is, to surgically remove, all or part of the labia in someone under 18. As part of a survey, she called a number of surgeons and asked if they would do it anyway in girls this young. Many said yes, she said, “even though under the law that is considered genital mutilation.”

“Genital mutilation” or “female genital cosmetic surgery.” It’s a fine line, indeed. And tragic, by whatever name you call it.

Judy Foreman, a health reporter in Boston, just completed a book about chronic pain: “A Nation in Pain: Healing Our Biggest Health Problem.”

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  • VictoriaH

    How is this any different from what is done forcibly to baby boys – or how they are taunted as men for being different when they are in fact only intact and not mutilated? The law should also cover boys under 18. In fact, just as with boys, if female circumcision is done in a proper medical facility, there are no complications. Way less is removed in a standard female circ than in a male circ. Way less. And most of what is removed it relatively lacking in nerve endings. As a woman with labia, I can assure you that the labia doesn’t have much more feeling than the earlobes. I would get along just fine without most of it. On the other hand, males have a lot – a lot – of nerve endings in their foreskin, over a hundred babies die each year from hospital circs – many more are permanently maimed or damaged, for life. Where is the press on that outrage?

    I say circumcise baby girls. It helps to prevent AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (Google it – it is the reason Muslims and Africans do it – same reason we do it to boys), is cleaner, and prevents urinary tract infections, which, as we know, are so very common in baby girls (more so than with boys – fact). Without all that extemporaneous labia in the way, it would be so much easier to clean, too. And heck, babies don’t feel pain, so they don’t remember later anyway. It’s not like female circs prevent women from having normal sex and delivering babies.

    A good reporter would not continue to spread the fallacy that all female circs are like those done in backwoods Africa. Baby boys get the same treatment in backwoods Africa, by the way.

    And here in America? Where we are civilized? We are strapping babies onto a board, cutting and tearing off a huge part of their genitals without pain relief. Don’t believe it? Look it up on Google and watch a video of a baby circumcision.

    • NIghtshade FOxglove

      CiRCUMCISION DOES NOT PREVENT AIDS OR STDS!!!!!!!Secondly, babies do infact feel pain. Male circumcision was initially intended for bacteria prevention and as of recently in this country is drastically dropping (its at about 41% nationally) and becoming the less normal because we are not nomadic tribes running around naked. MaSecondly, female circ infact DOES prevent women from experiencing full arousal. FACT. It is chockful of nerve endings and mucosa that enables stimulation and lubrication. That “extemporaneous” labia is pretoecting your vagina from being completely infected with outside bacteria and pathogens, its presence is extrememly important. You would not get along just fine without it. And other cultures do it not for the same reasons we circumsize little boys …not even close. Other cultures either remove the cltoris because it resembles a penis and it is deemed symbolic to remove that connection to the male race and embrace womanhodd (awhile redcuing sexual arousal) or the other kind of female circumcision which is taking off the labia, clitoris and sewing up the labia minor to not have the vagina exposed to ensure virginity. This is procedures are done in some cases clean faciilites and others in a more traditional way. But, women in the case of this article are not aware of what exactly their vagina is “supposed” to look like because we are afraid of educating our young womne on thier own bodies. They don’t realize that labias can hang low and thats pretty normal etc. Instead of embracing this kinds of drastic moves driven by insecurity and the need for male “acceptance”, we should put our energy into having girls know what they have and how great it is.

  • lucia

    Please add gender dysphoria to the list of legitimate reasons to get vaginal surgery! Very important!

  • NIghtshade Foxglove

    I am sorry, I am a soon to be ob/gyn and I don’t know what a designer vagina is…and

    “Vaginal Rejuvenation?” maybe it needs “rejuvenating” because you are with the wrong partner? Or maybe try a different way of “maintenence?”

    Every single one I have seen looks very different, they are like snowflakes, they all have their own character. And by getting things altered down their you will lose stimulation. Homogenizing isn’t necessary here ladies…..embrace and honor yours!

  • http://www.facebook.com/sara.n.pratt Sara Nielson Pratt

    So sad!