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Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright

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Her Nether Regions: What's Normal?

Posted: 08/25/11 02:18 PM ET

You can rest easy, gals. Turns out there's nothing "wrong" with your vulva after all. A study published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology has declared that most women seeking genital cosmetic surgery to reduce the size of their inner lips do not have oversized or misshapen labia minora.

Such findings feel liberating until you consider that the researchers themselves may be perpetuating the designer vulva problem. While the investigators determined that 30 of the 33 women had labia with dimensions within the normal published limits, the other 3 women's vaginal lips were sized up as having "significant asymmetry," as in a mean (SD) of 26.9 (12.8) mm on the right side of the vulva and 24.8 (13.1) mm on the left side.

This gave them the green light for NHS-covered surgery at the University College London hospital clinic, where the research was based. The clinic can only perform surgeries on females whose genitalia measure outside of what's considered normal.

Yet what is meant by "normal"?

Dr. Sarah Creighton, gynecologist and the study's lead investigator, is quoted as saying "there is little information about what is normal," with her team encouraging the publication of more large-scale data on normal labial measurements. Such commentary indicates that, as depicted in pornography and advertisements, vulvas are indeed supposed to have a certain look. Anything outside of a range would, otherwise, be considered abnormal.

The fact of that matter is that, when it comes to genitalia -- or one's breasts or one's testicles -- what's normal is to have a wide range of sizes. What's normal is for one side of a person's body to be anywhere from a bit to a lot bigger, longer, fatter, smaller ... than the other side. Asymmetry is the norm when it comes to people's body parts!

The main concern with genital cosmetic surgery isn't determining who should and shouldn't be eligible for such services; it's the need to counter the misperceptions of what is normal that ultimately cause distress.

In helping to quell women's aesthetic concerns about their vulva, we need to start by educating them about the human body and the influence of cultural expectations and appeal on what's supposedly desirable. We need to continue the campaign being waged by women around the world that diversity is beauty. And we need to target females when they're young.

The average age of the 33 aforementioned participants was 23, with one-quarter 16 or younger, and the youngest a mere 11-years-old. Forty percent wanted smaller labia "to improve appearance," a stat made even more unnerving when you consider that all participants were referred by general practitioners who felt that surgery was appropriate treatment. Now just how "normal" is that?

 

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