Words: Nicci Talbot
Filmmaker Ellie Land released an animated film today (20th July 2012) to generate debate around the rise in labiaplasty.
Labia surgery has seen a surge in popularity over the past decade and last year, 2,000 women in the UK had operations on the NHS to reduce the size of their labia. Private sector surgery is unregulated and there’s no requirement for data collection meaning this is only the tip of the iceberg.
‘The film [Centrefold], which is based on the experiences of three women who had the surgery, is about encouraging people to think before having the surgery, as well as showing how the procedure is performed,’ says Land. ‘It’s also important to look at why surgery has become so fashionable lately. The mainstreaming of porn could be linked to women’s ideals of female beauty’.
It can also be attributed to the trend for shaving and waxing. Many young men are accustomed to seeing shaved genitalia in porn and view this as desirable in a woman. Journalist and presenter Cherry Healey interviewed several young men for her BBC3 series and all those shown expressed distaste for a full bush.
Centrefold shares the stories of three women and explains their reasons for having the operation. It’s easy to be negative and belittle what is a serious issue for some women, which may cause physical pain and affects self-confidence, happiness and sexual pleasure. Part of the problem is that what is ‘normal’ around genital shape and size is subjective. It can’t be measured and there aren’t NHS guidelines that surgeons adhere to.
In a follow-up documentary Land interviews gynaecologist Sarah Creighton and psychologist Lih-Mei Liao from University College Hospital in London, who specialise in surgical, gynaecological, psychological and sexual aspects of surgery for women with atypical genitalia. They explain the risks associated with the operation i.e. it can make the area numb and state that full data on long-term results isn’t yet available – this is not a simple fix.
They did a small scale study measuring labia size of women with labial concerns and of a previous study of women with no labia concerns and found that all the women who had said their labia were too large were exactly the same size as the women who were not worried about their labia. It’s not that the women who are worried have abnormally large labia, says Creighton.
Creighton is surprised by the increase in young girls (11 to 12-year-olds up to late teens/early 20s) expressing concern about their labia, and seeking a surgical solution. The film has given her an opportunity to air those concerns. ‘The film shows that this is not a trivial cosmetic concern and I think will focus clinicians, funders, researchers and the women themselves on the seriousness of this topic and really, what we should be doing is looking at how these concerns arise and alternatives to surgery so that women have other options and choices rather than resorting to an operation about which we know very little indeed.’
What are the long-term risks of surgery when it comes to sexual pleasure, sensitivity, urinary function and childbirth? Does genital tissue grow back meaning you might need repeat surgery a few years down the line!? What happens if the surgery goes wrong?
The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) is also calling for compulsory psychological screening pre-op for women as research has found that routine psychological checks were carried out in less than 35% of clinics. Good to hear that the Department of Health is conducting a review into private cosmetic surgery and whether it needs to be centrally regulated.
Ellie Land is a senior lecturer in Motion Graphics and Animation at Northumbria University’s School of Design. She previously made an award-winning film on female genital mutilation among women in Somalia and has worked on subjects including identity, femininity, gender and politics.
The Great Wall of Vagina (GWOV) is a wall sculpture by Jamie McCartney involving labia casts of 400 women, which aims to show the diversity of female genitalia.
We’re looking for pictures of your labia for a project to highlight the issue of labiaplasty, and to show how diverse we are. If you’d like to contribute please email a jpeg to email@example.com (all names will be kept anonymous and the images will be part of a separate gallery on the website).
What do you think about labiaplasty? Have you had surgery to reduce the size of your labia and are you happy with the results? Has it affected sexual pleasure and sensation? Were you offered pyschological counselling before the operation and do you think this was sufficient? Do you feel your surgeon played down the risks of surgery?
The rise in women seeking a perfect vagina (BBC News, 24th July 2012)
The risks of labiaplasty (Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, 25th July 2012)