The schoolgirls who are asking for 'designer vaginas'
Schoolgirls today aspire to surgery that will give them "perfect" genitals, according to Susie Orbach, the leading feminist writer and psychotherapist.
Ms Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, has expressed concern that today's pupils are constantly attempting to live up to an invented body ideal.
Her comments have been echoed by other academics, who have warned that the phenomenon is becoming more mainstream in schools.
Speaking at the London School of Economics, Ms Orbach talked about the increasing popularity of labiaplasty, an operation in which girls' and women's genitals are cut back to create a shape deemed by surgeons to be more aesthetically pleasing.
"It's the new big operation for young women," she said. "Breasts weren't enough. I don't mean to be a Luddite, but these are things that worry me. We don't see these websites saying, 'Here are all the different labia you can have.' They say, 'Here are these labia, and here's what's wrong with them that you can correct.' We're losing body types and varieties. I think it's quite serious, frankly."
The number of labiaplasties in Britain doubled between 2005 and 2008; more than 800 procedures are now performed each year.
Liz Canner, who has produced an educational documentary on labiaplasty, believes surgeons are increasingly targeting school-age girls.
"A lot of young women have seen the procedure on TV shows or in magazines," she said. "They're more likely to be sucked in by the phrase 'designer vagina'. It's like a pair of designer jeans. Girls are going to their mothers, saying they want this."
Jessica Ringrose, of London University's Institute of Education, said the growth in surgical practices of this type is directly related to the increased absorption of pornographic images into mainstream culture.
"(Model) Katie Price is the porno ideal," she said. "This is something we should be thinking about: what kinds of bodies are being celebrated, are being seen as sexy? And what's this doing to young girls' self-esteem?"
Ms Orbach, speaking at the LSE to promote her latest book, Bodies, told the audience that modern culture has distanced itself from the natural, unaltered body.
"We have become our own icons," she said. "We see 5,000 images a week of digitally transformed bodies. How can we not be affected by it? It destabilises something and gives us desire."
The solution, Dr Ringrose believes, is for teachers to address the problem in PSHE or media studies.
"Where do girls get the idea to have a labia operation? From media sources," she said.
"So teachers need to have the resources to help young people deal with the sexualised media environment. PSHE should be given more credibility, and teachers should be given more training."
Ms Canner would also like to see girls made aware of the dangers of surgery. "It causes chronic pain, it causes scarring," she said.
And she insists teachers have a duty to improve girls' body image.
"Part of the problem is that girls think vaginas are dirty, that there's something wrong with them," she said. "We need education saying that this isn't something to be taken lightly."
She and Dr Ringrose point out that the line between designer vaginas and genital mutilation is thin.
"We say people in the developing world who do this are barbarians," Dr Ringrose said. "Then we say, 'It's fine, it's great. Come and get your parts cut out.' It's a very serious health concern, and schools could be broaching it."
Liz Canner's documentary is available at: http:orgasmic.org.