A new Australian study has set out to investigate a reported spike in underaged females seeking vaginal reconstructive procedures, and according to the results, Aussie girls as young as 11 are interested in surgery.
The University of Melbourne has launched a new pilot study to discover more about young women wanting to go under the knife, often due to encouragement from a parent.
“From my research it is clear that young women and girls (and sometimes parents!) often won’t have an understanding of what the range of “normal” is for female genitals – that there really is no such thing as normal,” researcher Emma Barnard told ten daily.
Statistics from Medicare show claims for labiaplasties and vulvoplasties have more than doubled from 700+ claims in 2002-2003 to 1500+ in 2013-2014. Medicare rebates are no longer available for some cases, and since data for private surgery isn’t routinely collected, current statistics are estimated to be even higher.
In fact, a recent British Journal of Medicine study showed more than one third of Australian GPs reported females urged below 18 requesting genital surgery, with similar research suggesting it may be a growing trend around the world.
“[These] concerns are very real and can cause an enormous amount of distress for young women during their adolescence and should be taken seriously. Girls can often be reluctant to talk openly about their concerns due to a sense of embarrassment and shame, so it is very important to be able to access good information in a timely manner,” says Barnard.
The study is still in its early stages, but Barnard is interviewing a number of women that have sought vaginal procedures whilst under the age of 18. The group includes 41 girls and young women that were referred to Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital between 2000 and 2012. Among the candidates, the median age is just 14.5.
Modern culture is speculated to be the cause of the trend, promoting a ‘minimalistic’ vulva as ideal. According to participants’ interviews, tight clothing and personal grooming trends like Brazilian waxing had the most influence over genital appearance concerns. They also spoke of a lack of understanding about ‘normal’ female anatomy and exposure to this during teen development, their main sources being magazines, online and social media.
One of the girls taking part in the study expressed that was so concerned that her own vagina didn’t match her PE book illustrations, that she forced her mother to take her to a doctor to explore surgery at just 13 years old.
“For nearly all the women I spoke to, this experience of having concerns is happening from around 13 to 16. It is a very specific and fraught time when they are trying to figure out who they are and how their bodies work,” says Barnard. “There is a real lack of understanding about the real range of genital diversity.”
However, experienced Cosmetic Surgeon Dr Georgina Konrat expresses that the study may not in fact be an accurate representation of a ‘spike’ in demand.
“As one of the very few “female” (a necessary non-gender-neutral description) Cosmetic Surgeons in Australia, I found women preferred to see me rather than a male doctor, assuming that I would have a better insight into their concerns regarding the discomfort and aesthetic nature of having generous labia,” says Konrat.
“After consulting with, examining and treating thousands of women over the last decade, I can tell you from experience that it is extremely rare for a young woman of the age described in the research to attend for consultation. Three out of 1000 (0.3% ) patients who have presented over the last 10 years have been less than 18 yrs of age and have presented with their parent or parents. Two of these patients had most unusual presentations which required further medical investigation to rule out any other contributing factors. One of these was referred for a psychiatric opinion prior to proceeding with surgery. In my experience it is very, very, very rare for a younger person to request consultation and even more rare for one to request surgery. Of the 3 patients in 1000, one was asked if she could consider waiting until she turned 18, and she did so.
Konrat also stresses the need to provide solutions for those that may be suffering from physical discomfort, even if they still fall under the spectrum of ‘normal’.
“It is my experience that women who present for consultation for Labiaplasty do so because they have real concerns. Many of these concerns they have not discussed with relevant partners; some have discussed their concerns with other specialist Doctors who have told them to stop worrying about their concerns as they are “normal”. I agree with this. They are indeed all “normal”. However, just as very, very large breasts are also normal, it doesn’t mean that they are any easier to live with than very generous labia. Patients’ main concerns are discomfort, hygiene issues, repeated infections, inflammation, and grazes and tears associated with sexual intercourse. These are just a few of the complaints I receive on a daily basis. The surgery I perform, in all of these cases, is a 100% cure for their concerns, allowing the patient the ability to recover, heal, exercise, wear what they wish and enjoy intimacy as they should; and for all of them, never to have to worry or think about it again.”