Vaginas have become the new talking point, as the labiaplasty and 'vagacials' are on the rise

When did vaginas become such a beauty issue?

Siobhan Norton
Wednesday 21 January 2015 18:28

It’s a rather… delicate conversation to have, really. “Um, look, I… well, are you alright? You look a bit tired and lacklustre… I mean, I know someone who can work wonders with… yes, yes, I know, I probably haven’t been paying attention to you, I’ve just been so busy… well, what’s wrong with a little nip and tuck, it might perk you up…” Cue stony silence, and probably some disapprovingly pursed lips.

When’s the last time you sat your vagina down for a serious talking to? What? You don’t spend that much time thinking about your vagina, let alone talking to it? Well, laydees, you’re missing out - here’s a whole area of your body that is just crying out to be pampered and beautified - dyed, shaved, plucked, steamed, primped - and, yes, even nipped and tucked if you feel it isn’t conforming to the norm.

Sound ridiculous? Perhaps, but it seems the beauty and cosmetic surgery industries have found a whole new way to prey on our insecurities. Shape magazine ran a feature last summer with some ‘useful’ advice on keeping your vagina young - including avoiding long bike rides. Waxing salons are beginning to introduce ‘facials’ for your vagina - ‘vagacials’ - to soothe and repair the delicate skin after having hot wax ripped off it.

The ‘vagacial’ has become so mainstream that it even featured on ITV’s ‘This Morning’ this week, must to the bemusement/mild horror of Phillip Schofield, if his expression was anything to go by. Their guest, dating expert Lisa Palmer, explained how she had developed the treatment - comprising coconut oil, honey and egg whites and a steam - to help rejuvenate “dry, sagging vaginas”. The live testers - including one 70-year-old woman who wanted to freshen up for her 30-year-old partner - described the treatment as “lovely and warm”. Twitter promptly exploded. “*Squats over kettle* *searches cupboard for honey*” was one non-plussed response.

At the more extreme end of the market, labiaplasty is offered by cosmetic surgeons to alter the inner labia, and improve the appearance, making your vagina more ‘normal’. G spots, if they even exist, are injected with collagen to make them bigger, and thus increase pleasure. And now, the latest buzz word is ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ - procedures, usually involving lasers and fillers - that can give you a ‘younger, tighter vagina’.

While these procedures may have grown in popularity, they are not new. In 1975, Dr James Burt revealed in his book Surgery of Love how he performed non-consensual vaginoplasties and hoodectomies to increase pleasure. His medical licence was not revoked until 1989, after several of his patients had filed lawsuits.

This didn’t stop the movement in its tracks, though. In 1996, California cosmetic surgeon Dr David Matlock patented Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation - and by 2000 the phrase ‘designer vagina’ was born, at least on the pages of Cosmopolitan. In 2005, again in California, another plastic surgeon, Dr Red Alinsod, introduced a surgical procedure that resulted in a “clamshell” aesthetic. He called it ‘The Barbie”.

At this point, should we even be horrified? It’s not the first example of women being told - and believing - they should look like Barbies, complete with high, firm breasts, impossibly tiny waists and long legs. But moulded, plasticised genitalia? It would appear so. In 2011, the British Journal of Medicine found that 40% of the women it surveyed wanted to go through with vaginoplasty even after being told that they were perfectly normal.

It may seem that this is just another extreme trend, or the media’s latest hyped-up scaremongering. But in 2013, more than 2,000 women had labiaplasties on the NHS alone, with no figures on how many went private for similar procedures. And those figures don’t count the more minor procedures that women are undergoing - from the silly but harmless enough ‘vajacial’ to steaming and laser treatment. Vaginal rejuvenation is big business.

Why is there such a rise in the ‘designer vagina’ phenomenon? Researchers say pornography may influence women’s desire to conform to a certain ‘norm’ - and current hair-removal trends have left very little to the imagination. It’s common, post-Brazilian, for your waxer to hold up a mirror, hairdresser-style, for you to admire her handywork, and see yourself from a whole new perspective.

Many cosmetic surgeons are more than happy to recommend the procedures, and argue that it’s merely a natural extension of our grooming regime. "Genital-based treatments seem very shocking and controversial, but in fact many of these practices have been happening for decades, even centuries,” says Colin Webster of the British Association of Beauty Therapists. “British women - and men - are beautifying down below just like they would anywhere else.

“We hear about all kinds of beauty treatments taking roots in the UK; one of the most recent is vaginal steaming, a practice in which the vagina is literally steamed in order to cleanse and soften the skin. Traditionally, this has taken place before marriage in developing countries where life is very different; people may walk many miles, without any hygiene facilities, and this can take a toll on the body. Here in the UK, I'm not sure if this practice would be anywhere near as necessary and I can imagine that many women would not really notice such a difference. Having said that, if it does catch on, no doubt there will be women squatting over hot baths all over the country."

Steaming does in fact seem unnecessary, as does anything claiming to offer a vaginal ‘detox’ - the vagina is a self-cleaning organ. But, like a vajacial’s gentle exfoliation and soothing moisturising treatment, it is relatively harmless, apart from the damage of £90 or so for the privilege.

Genital surgery, however, can have more serious ramifications - both physical and psychological. In December, Theresa May warned that, unless there is a physical or mental health justification for the procedure, doctors who provide the service could be committing a criminal offence. The Home Secretary added that courts could be asked to rule whether “purely cosmetic surgery” fell into the same category as female genital mutilation (FGM).

In 2012, the Wellcome Trust released an animated film called ‘Centrefold’, featuring three women discussing how labiaplasty had affected them. They spoke of their anxiety over their ‘abnormal’ looking vaginas - Jessie dreamt of her labia wrapping themselves around her neck like a scarf, and spent hours searching through pictures in search of women with similar labia to hers. Not finding any, she said, made her feel like “a complete freak”.

Drs Sarah Creighton and Lih-Mei Liao, a consultant gynaecologist and psychologist respectively, collaborated on the ‘Centrefold’ project. They conducted a study, published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which concluded that there was no real difference between the labia of those seeking reduction and the general population. They say that this points to the low self-esteem or poor body image of women seeking the procedure.

Mr Ash Mosahebi, Consultant Plastic Surgeon at Spire Bushey Hospital, says he has seen a rise in the number of women enquiring about surgery, particularly women in their 20s. “I would generally advise against this type of surgery unless the patient has functional problems such as pain or discomfort when exercising or during intercourse. With this type of surgery, not only is there is a higher risk of infection but if the surgery is not carried out properly by a specialist it can lead to a miserable life for the patient, including problems walking comfortably. It is my job as a plastic surgeon, to educate my patients about the real risks, and the problems that can sometimes occur."

Mr Mosahebi adds that the psychological dangers run deep - and a surgical procedure may not tackle the insecurities. “If patients have underlying issues like body dysmorphic disorders then it could worsen it. Embarking in cosmetic surgery is a big decision, and is not to be taken lightly, especially with a high-risk surgery such as labiaplasty. Patients need to be aware of all the risks and if they do decide to go ahead, ensure the surgery is carried out by a reputable surgeon. It is crucial to ensure your surgeon is a member of British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), ensuring they adhere to a strict ethical code of conduct and offering best care and follow up for their patients."

Whether or not the trend of rejuvenating vaginas becomes as normal to us as getting our eyebrows done remains to be seen. One thing, however, is certain. In the week where breasts disappeared from Page 3 it appears the focus is very much still on the aesthetics of the female body - even if it isn’t just the bits you thought.

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