An episode of CBS’s “The Doctors” airing today focuses on a 23-year-old woman undergoing labiaplasty – yep, plastic surgery on the female genitals.
“I feel like I’m deformed down there,” said Shannon, a nursing student whose last name was not revealed on the show, describing her “constant discomfort throughout the day.”
The inner labia are like lips that cover the clitoris and vaginal opening. But some women say their long labia cause physical pain and psychological anguish.
“It was a factor in my previous breakup,” said Shannon. “I’m self conscious. I don’t really want to have sex – I try to avoid it, so it’s kind of a big strain on a relationship.”
Dr. Jennifer Berman, a Beverly Hills urologist who also appeared on the show, recommended labia reduction surgery to correct Shannon’s “anatomical abnormality.”
“It’s not just a cosmetic thing,” she said. “This is something that you need done, for sure.”
Dr. Grant Stevens, founder of Marina Plastic Surgery in Marina del Rey, Calif., performed the procedure. He said many women come in wanting labia reduction, but few actually need it.
“If I hear the word pain or chafing or tenderness, it’s an entirely different consult than if I get the ‘I’m embarrassed, I think it looks funny.’ But ‘I’m embarrassed’ doesn’t automatically disqualify somebody.”
Stevens said he removed a stretch of skin the length of a middle finger from Shannon’s labia.
“No one would be cruel enough to suggest a woman should live like that,” he said.
Labia reduction is one part of vaginal rejuvenation – a panel of procedures aimed at making the sculpting and refining a women’s most private parts.
“Your vagina can be a beautiful declaration of your taste and style rather than an impediment or humiliation,” reads the Marina Plastic Surgery website.
Other rejuvenation procedures include labia augmentation and vaginal tightening.
Labia reduction was just one segment on today’s one-hour episode of “The Doctors” called “Gross Anatomy,” which also featured bulging veins, boils and psoriasis.
“Let’s be real,” said Dr. Travis Stork, who hosts the show. “Looks do matter, whether it’s your face your hair or even down there.”
But some gynecologists call plastic surgery for the vagina misguided and risky.
“For every single thing that’s normal about a woman’s body there’s a man trying to change it,” said Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, an obstetrician and gynecologist at NewYork – Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. “The last frontier was the vagina.”
Labia reduction surgery removes sections of skin rich in blood vessels.
“They’re taking this beautiful, fluffy vulva and making it look like newborn baby’s,” said Hutcherson. “They’ve taken every part of a woman’s body and convinced us it’s somehow abnormal.”
Hutcherson said labia come in all shapes and sizes.
“I think women should have options, but I think it’s up to doctors to educate them about what’s normal,” she said.
Labia reduction can cause bleeding and infections. And scar tissue can make the skin less stretchy, causing pain and discomfort during sex.
But Stevens said he only operates on women for whom the benefits outweigh the risks.
“There are risks and complications associated with all surgery,” he said. “If I’m not convinced there’s a functional defect or such an abnormality that the emotional aspect is compelling, I say no.”
Indeed some patients – like moms with prolapsed vaginas after childbirth – benefit medically from the surgery, according to Dr. Erin Tracy, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“But most of the patients I have coming in asking about this are teenagers that look entirely normal,” said Tracy. “The majority of them, after some probing, seem to have some underlying body dysmorphic disorder or problems in their relationship that make them think they’re abnormal.”
For Shannon, who said she would avoid wearing bathing suits because of her labia, reduction surgery provided a self-esteem boost.
“I’m so excited,” she said after the procedure. “I saw the results, they look amazing. … I couldn’t be more happy.”