One of the fastest growing cosmetic surgeries performed in the United States — actually the entire Western world — is labiaplasty, a procedure that alters, or in some cases entirely removes, the labia minora and/or the labia majora (labia are the vaginal lips). The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports 5,070 such procedures performed in the U.S. during 2013, a whopping 44 percent increase over the preceding year.

Some of these surgeries are done for medical reasons, but most are not. A 2011 study from the International Society of Sexual Medicine found that 87 percent of women who underwent vaginal rejuvenation surgery did so solely for cosmetic purposes. Vaginal rejuvenation generally consists of labiaplasty plus a pick-and-choose handful of other procedures, including reduction of the clitoris, tightening of the vaginal canal, de-pigmentation of the genitalia, and g-spot enhancement — a so-called "lunchtime procedure" that involves injecting a collagen-like filler into the vagina. One combination of procedures is even called "The Barbie."

Brainwashing And Genital Mutilation 

Many people, including Alice Boyd and Afshan Jahar, point out that female genital cosmetic surgeries sound an awful lot like female genital mutilation. As defined by the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation is any procedure involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia (or other injury to the genital organs) for non-medical reasons. 

Other critics of labiaplasty go so far as to say the doctors who create "designer vaginas" on behalf of their paying customers may be violating the human rights of girls and women in the same way as those who cut up young girls in the 27 African countries where mutilations occur. While it’s hard to imagine a Western doctor, who has taken an oath to "do no harm," supporting these practices, it’s even more difficult to imagine a woman doing so. At the very least, isn’t it natural to wonder whether we might be hypocrites for condemning the one practice while tolerating the other practice, simply because it takes place in a swanky office suite tucked within one of our own cities?

Though both are performed in the name of feminine beauty, there is one huge and important difference between the two. Cosmetic surgery procedures are voluntary and undertaken by adult woman (with few exceptions), whereas female genital mutilation is most often performed on children and young girls who are not of an age or in a position to grant informed consent.

Barbie Mike Mozart

Despite this difference, some observers believe the general culture may be “brainwashing” women into believing they need these surgeries. It can be inferred such critics are also suggesting that, similar to a child, grown women lack agency — the ability to think for themselves and act independently. Porn is so prevalent, the argument goes; photos of female genitals are generally so widespread that women today are more likely to compare their genitals and question their natural beauty and femininity. They are more likely to believe their bodies are somehow lacking. Considering half of women in a 2009 Dutch survey reported their "genital appearance is very important" to them — it's hard to imagine 50 percent of women 50 years ago saying the same — this argument is compelling. After all, the fact is some porn stars do have surgeries to change the appearance of their genitals and many online pics are photoshopped.

Though it is abhorent to suggest a grown woman is incapable of free thought, the fact is if a woman even glances at other women’s bodies appearing on her computer screen (hasn’t everyone encountered a pop-up porn ad by now?), she is being influenced by a manipulated, corrupted, surgically altered vision of femininity.

And so, too, is any man she meets.

To understand how men may be influenced, simply read the comments section of an article about labiaplasty. Often the women who are considering the operation speak about some experience which made them feel inadequate and so unlovable. Describing how a guy rejected her after seeing her "down there," one woman wrote for the Experience Project, “I was so humiliated to the point that I have never let a guy get close with me like that since.”

Painful and sad, but real. Sure, not every woman would respond by feeling humiliated and running to get surgery, but any woman would understand how it might feel to be rejected because some guy finds her body unfeminine. 

Couple Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

What Can We Do? 

Since the Internet is not going anywhere (for now) and neither is porn, what’s to be done? How can those who believe female genital cosmetic surgery is a form of mutilation counteract the possible brainwashing? (By the way, this is not a screed against women who require vaginal surgeries. Medically necessary surgery is exactly that: necessary.)

One thing to do is speak long and loud about the risks of these procedures. A labiaplasty may not turn out as planned and some women feel even less happy after they have gone under the knife (laser, actually). The surgery and other procedures may cause bleeding, infection, and scarring, meaning some women may be left with reduced sensitivity and others will find sex to be painful after the procedure. And in the absolute worst case scenario of a surgery gone drastically wrong, need we spell it out? D.E.A.T.H.

Unfortunately, a 12-year-old girl’s self-doubt after seeing some alarming photo on the web or a woman’s hurt feelings following a rejection may not be so easily mended by rational arguments. Much more appealing, in many cases, is the sales pitch of a cosmetic surgeon — so often a well-dressed man smelling of cologne — promising her a simple (and expensive) fix to an embarrassing "condition" that is preventing her from being loved.

Here, then, are some home truths for any girl or woman who doubts herself. The overwhelming majority of women, no matter what or how many surgeries they have, will never attain their culture’s ideal of perfect outer beauty. (Give it up.) Any man who is obsessed with outer beauty or labia folds will not stay with one person forever. (Forget him.) Real, imperfect men need and eventually — but only when they're ready — fall in love with real, imperfect women. Get on with your life and find happiness where you can.