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Photoshop May Be Fueling Surge in Vaginal Cosmetic Procedures

Update Date: Dec 20, 2013 05:15 PM EST

Photoshop may be fueling the recent rise in female genital cosmetic procedures, a new study suggests. New research reveals that the exposure to modified images may alter women's perceptions of what is considered normal and desirable female genitalia.

The number of labiaplasty procedures has increased over 500 percent between 2001 and 2010.  The procedure, which reduces and makes the labia minor more symmetrical, has become the most popular female genital cosmetic procedure covered by the British health care system.

Researchers studied 97 women between ages 18 to 30 to see whether exposure to images of modified vulvas changed women's perceptions of what is considered normal and desirable by society.

The participants were randomly assigned to three groups to look at a series of images in two screenings. In the first screening, one group saw a series of images of surgically modified vulvas, another saw a series of non-modified vulvas and the third group saw no images. In the second screening, all groups then viewed a series of mixed images of both surgically modified and non-modified vulvas. The women were asked to rate each image according to their perception of "normality" and "society's ideal" in the second screening.

The findings revealed that women who were exposed to the modified vulvas identified the modified images in the second screening as more normal than the non-modified vulvas. However, those in the control group, who viewed no images in the first screening, were 10 percent less likely to rate the modified vulvas as normal.

Women in all three groups rated the modified images as more like society's ideal than the non-modified vulva images.  However, women assigned to view the modified images were 13 percent more likely to rate the modified vulvas as more society's ideal than the control group.

"Our results showed that exposure to images of modified vulvas can significantly influence women's perceptions of what is considered a normal and desirable vulval appearance," lead researcher Claire Moran, School of Psychology, University of Queensland, said in a news release.

"These findings further heighten concerns that unrealistic concepts of what is considered normal may lead to genital dissatisfaction among women, encouraging women to seek unnecessary surgery," Moran said. "This research is the first to document the extent to which exposure may impact women's genital dissatisfaction and more needs to be done to promote awareness and education around genital diversity in our society."

"The conclusions of this study may explain the increase in requests for female genital surgery in the NHS and why some women feel the need to seek labiaplasty and other unnecessary gynecological procedures for aesthetic purposes," Pierre Martin Hirsch, BJOG deputy editor-in-chief said in a statement.

Hirsch said that the latest findings are concerning for healthcare professionals because labiaplasty procedures can have serious short-term risks. What's more, there is no evidence that genital cosmetic surgery offers longer-term physiological and psychological benefits.

"It is important that healthcare providers counsel women on the normal variations in genital appearance and ensure they are well informed of any associated risks for surgical procedures,' Hirsch added.

The findings are published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

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