According to The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), over 95,000 labiaplasties were done throughout the world in 2015.
Labiaplasty, also called nymphoplasty, is a surgical operation designed to reduce the size of the labia minora and/or labia majora – the inner and outer lips surrounding the vulva.
After gaining popularity about five years ago, the procedure is now the 19th most common operation in the world. In the United States, the number of young girls who wanted labiaplasty increased by 80% in a single calendar year between 2014 and 2015.
An unrealistic perception of female genitals
On July 3, the BBC published an article stating that between 2015 and 2016, over two hundred British youths under the age of 18 had labiaplasty. Even more surprising, over one hundred and fifty of the girls were under the age of 15, and one was only 9 years old.
Healthcare professionals do not recommend getting labiaplasty before the age of 18, however, because the genitals are not fully formed until then.
Speaking with the BBC, Paquita de Zulueta, who has practiced medicine for thirty years, explained that only in recent years have young girls been worried about the appearance of their vulvas.
Lately, she's noticed many girls between the ages of 11 and 13 think there is something wrong with their genitals, believing their vulva is the wrong shape or size, and they feel disgusted by their own bodies.
Experts say this generalized concern is largely due to the porn industry and images on social media that create an unrealistic perception of female genitalia, giving adolescent girls a complex. According to Paquita de Zulueta:
"Their perception is that the inner lips should be invisible, almost like a Barbie, but the reality is that there is a huge variation. It's very normal for the lips to protrude."
Many young girls do not realize that a normal vulva comes in many different shapes, sizes and colors. While it's illegal to perform the surgery on minors for aesthetic purposes, some claim their labia are causing sexual problems or affecting their athletic performance in order to get authorization for the procedure.
A lack of education about women's bodies
According to Paquita de Zulueta, it's critical that we provide better education about women's bodies and celebrate diversity:
"There isn't enough education and it should start really quite young, explaining that there is a range and that - just as we all look different in our faces - we all look different down there, and that's OK."
Doctor Gail Busby, a gynecologist for teens, also reminds us that the appearance of the vulva evolves throughout adolescence, and that the inner lips tend to grow before the outer lips.
Therefore, it's normal for the inner lips to protrude, and adolescents should not expect their vulva to look exactly like an adult's. Having labiaplasty before the age of 18, and before the vulva is done forming, could actually make the vulva more asymmetrical in adulthood, and could also cause scarring.
An operation with serious consequences
Specialists are also concerned about the side effects of the procedure. Some report a risk of chronic pain, bleeding and infection. Nicolas Berreni, an OB-GYN in France, also claims the results "don't age well."
Berreni says he's seen cases in which the tissues end up becoming fibrous, hardened or swollen over the years. The SOGC guide to female genital cosmetic surgery, published in 2013, states that there is no proof that labiaplasty improves sexual satisfaction or self esteem.
On the contrary, the operation might even diminish sexual pleasure for women. According to Slate:
"The development of the genitalia is not complete until after adolescence, and since many nerve endings are located in the labia, young people who get this surgery risk losing feeling in the area."
"Your vulva isn't 'weird' or 'embarrassing'"
To fight against the dangerous perception that the vulva should be smooth and uniform, some have taken the initiative to get lots of images of female genitalia out into the world.
One young girl started a Tumblr called the "Large Labia Project" where she encourages women to post photos (anonymously, if they wish) of their vulva to show how diverse they can be.
The many photos and stories on the site show how common it is for women to feel shame about this part of their bodies, and how important it is to talk about it.
On Instagram, you can also find detailed illustrations of female genitalia in "The Vulva Gallery." The account has over 911,000 followers and counting.
To all of you who worry about the size and shape of your labia; stop worrying - your vulva isn't "weird" or "embarrassing", but it's a normal vulva, with a shape that is way more common than you'd think. To all of you who haven't had good (or any) education about body diversity and believe there's only one kind of "pretty pussy" - let your beliefs go. Because there are as many vulva shapes as there are body shapes. We are part of the broad natural diversity in shapes Half of all vulvas have inner labia that are longer than the outer labia - this difference in length can vary from barely visible up to 5 inches (or even more). Labia can be wavy and curvy, flappy, and their colour often is different from the surrounding skin. Often, a vulva looks a bit messy - that's just nature! Human bodies (and genitals in particular) aren't designed to look "neat". Keep all these things in mind the next time you look in the mirror. Look differently; with a kinder eye. Educate yourself about your anatomy. This will give you way more personal growth (and self-appreciation) than those negative and critical thoughts about yourself. You are worthy and lovable. Your vulva is as awesome as anyone else's