When it comes to understanding what women want, they are the perfect operators. Challenging the traditionally male-dominated bastion of cosmetic medicine is the UK's first all-female plastic surgery team.
The group - assembled by the award-winning Harley Street consultant Dalia Nield - has been set up to provide for a booming industry, where 89 per cent of all procedures are performed on women, yet fewer than 10 per cent of surgeons are female. In terms of intimate, gender-specific operations such as breast augmentation or vulvoplasty, this inequality has emerged as a serious concern for growing numbers of British women considering cosmetic surgery.
"A few years ago, I started to realise that something should be done, because the situation in the industry just wasn't right," said Mrs Nield, who has worked in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery for more than two decades.
"With intimate operations like vulvoplasties, a lot of women can be very embarrassed to be seen by male consultants. I just thought they would feel more comfortable with an all-female team."
Mrs Nield, who is based at the London Clinic in Harley Street, now offers a broad spectrum of cosmetic procedures - from augmentation of the breasts to augmentation of the labia majora - all conducted by women. From first consultation to post-operative recovery, the work is completed by professional women handpicked by Mrs Nield - from the anaesthetists to the runners.
"For me it doesn't matter what sex you are, just if you are good at your job or not," said Mrs Nield. "But the patient sees it differently. I noticed a lot of people were coming to me for breast work primarily because I was a female surgeon. To a certain extent, they believed I could better understand how they were feeling because I am a woman."
Mrs Nield normally operates in a team of seven, with one anaesthetist, an ODA (anaesthetic assistant), a senior registrar, surgical and non-surgical nurses, and herself as the surgeon. One of the three regular female anaesthetists on her books is Dr Catherine Greville, who is full of praise for Mrs Nield's initiative.
"What we're about here is providing good patient care," said Dr Greville. "Surgery is always an ordeal and cosmetic surgery in particular is often very sensitive, involving extremely delicate parts of the body. If what the patient needs to get through that ordeal is an all-girl team for whatever reason, then we're well placed to provide it. A good surgical team will look after the psychological aspect of any operation as well as the physical."
According to Dr Greville, a number of the team's bookings have been from ethnic minorities, particularly those with specific non-male requirements due to religious beliefs. Among the most popular procedures are abdominal liposculpture and either the augmentation or reduction and resculpting of the labia, generally referred to as vulvoplasty.
In the US, vulvar and vaginal nips and tucks - or "cosmetic gynaecology" - now represent the fastest-growing segment of plastic surgery, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The techniques have been practised for more than half a century to repair childbirth-related injuries, but in the late 1990s, a handful of West Coast surgeons began promoting the procedures to improve both sexual function and appearance.
In this country, the thriving cosmetic surgery industry is now worth an estimated £539m. According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), women had 19,601 surgical procedures in the UK last year, up from 15,019 in 2004. The top procedure was breast augmentation, with 5,646 carried out - a 51 per cent rise on the previous year.
Experts predict that the market will continue its seemingly unstoppable growth, with analysts Mintel estimating that by 2009, the industry in this country will be worth almost £1bn.
One of Mrs Nield's satisfied customers is Sarah, a 35-year-old office worker from London, who recently underwent a vulvoplasty.
"It's horrible enough having an operation done, but when it's such an intimate part of the body it's a bit intimidating and intrusive having it done by a man," said Sarah, who paid £3,500 for the operation.
"To begin with, I saw two consultants, who were both male, and I just felt that they didn't understand how I felt about myself. I walked out of there feeling uncomfortable and almost invaded. I've got to admit that if I hadn't found Dalia, I don't think I would have had the procedure done."
Cost: £3,000-£6,000. Duration: one and a half hours.
Female procedures in 2005: 5,646
"They want to look normal, not like Dolly Parton"
Abdominoplasty (tummy tuck)
Cost: £6,000-£7,000. Duration: two hours.
Female procedures in 2005: 1,832
"Many have stomachs damaged by pregnancy"
Major liposuction (more than 500ml)
Cost: £5,000-£10,000. Duration of procedure: two hours. Female procedures in 2005: 1,216
"The biggest growing area, especially in Europe"
Rhinoplasty (nose surgery)
Cost: £5,000-£6,000. Duration: one hour.
Female procedures in 2005: 1,533
"Women just want to look like everyone else"Reuse content