Pop culture and the media has had a long-standing history of influencing the way people perceive their own bodies — especially women. According to a recent study, researchers from Australia's University of Queensland School of Psychology speculate that the perceptions of what women considered normal and beautiful in regard to female genitalia may have to do with the prevalence of modified images of genitalia to which they are exposed. The results also helped researchers better understand why there has been a rise in labiaplasty in the past few years.

Labiaplasty is a type of cosmetic plastic surgery that alters the labia minora and labia majora. Pornography might have influenced the rise in this type of surgery, but researchers are trying to figure out if it is just more than images or something else that have women ready to go under the knife.

"Our results showed that exposure to images of modified vulvas can significantly influence women's perceptions of what is considered a normal and desirable vulvar appearance,” said Claire Moran, postgraduate student at the University of Queensland School of Psychology, and lead researcher of the paper.

The study, published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, used a total of 97 women, ages 18 to 30 years old. The women used a four-point Likert scale with choices ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." The tests were broken up into two different screenings. The first screening exposed one group to a series of images of surgically modified vulvas, one group to a series of non-modified vulvas, and the third group viewed no images. During the second screening, all of the groups were given the same images and the women rated each image on “normality” and the “society’s ideal.”

The modified images were rated as more like society’s standards than the non-modified images in all three groups. And the women who had first viewed the modified images as ideal were 13 percent more likely to rate the modified vulvas as more society's ideal than the control group. The images were obtained from medical websites and research collections — similar to the ones that would be depicted in a medical textbook or website — not pornography.

While this study leans toward the idea that the ideal perception of female genitalia may have to do with vulva modification, there were some limitations in the study. It is possible that the women who participated in this study have “different attitudes to their bodies and sexuality than women who saw the advertising material and chose not to participate,” which is why further studies need to be conducted in order to substantially quantify the authors findings.

According to 2012 statistics for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 21 percent of board certified plastic surgeons currently perform vaginal rejuvenation procedures.  Last year, over 3,500 vaginal rejuvenation procedures were performed in the U.S., which is an increase of 64 percent from 2011. The surgery is becoming increasingly popular and can run patients upwards of thousands of dollars.

"This research is the first to document the extent to which exposure may impact women's genital dissatisfaction, and more needs to be done to promote awareness and education around genital diversity in our society,” Moran Said.

Source: Moran C, Lee C. Women's perceptions of 'normal' female genitalia may be influenced by exposure to modified images. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2013.