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What parents should know about teen genital cosmetic surgery

Entrance to an operating room
Entrance to an operating room
Amanda Graham, Flickr Creative Commons

Warning: The contents of this interview may not be suitable for young people.

There's a long list of things teen girls agonize over: Size. Skin. Style.

Now there's a new concern — one that has doctors worried: Genital plastic surgery.

According to a report in the New York Times, there is an uptick in the number of teen girls seeking the procedure. The number of girls 18 and younger who actually went through with the surgery jumped from about 200 to 400 in one year. A group of gynecologists has issued guidelines to help doctors process these requests.

But why is this a concern for teen girls, and what do parents need to know?

New York Times reporter Roni Rabin and Dr. Julie Strickland, chair of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' committee on adolescent health care, joined host Deepa Fernandes.

Interview Highlights

On what genital cosmetic surgery is:

Dr. Strickland: "The kinds of procedures that teens are seeking out are really to modify the appearance of the external genitalia primarily... For some time we have known that adult women often seek modification of their external genitalia. Often that is a result of the normal aging process, or disruptions of their appearance during child birth. This is a little bit different in that, what we're seeing is more concern about teenagers who are unhappy with the native appearance of their genitalia or are concerned about the variation in size and shape."

Why this is something teenage girls are concerned about:

Dr. Strickland: "We certainly all have seen an uptick in concerns of, and much heightened awareness of, what the genitalia look like as far as teens. You know, many teens come in without really an accurate perception of the large variation of normal. So we often get more of a request to evaluate and to educate on what kind of procedures can be done to modify the appearance. A lot of them really don't realize the extensive surgical nature of what they're asking for, but they just come in with a general unhappiness and a need for reassurance that their genitalia is normal. We don't really know why that has happened, but certainly there's a cultural change that has occurred in that girls are much more aware of sort of an idealized image."

Roni Rabin: "What the doctors were telling me is this is a generation that is seeing a lot of imagery. And I have to say this because we got beaten up in the readers comments about this: They're seeing pornography. Soft, hard, I don't know. There's all the Instagramming, and the texting, and the social media, and there's a lot more exposure to imagery. And these images, as Dr. Strickland suggested, are usually idealized. They've been airbrushed. They're pretty, and symmetrical, and whatever colored in a way that's not reflective of the wide, human variation that's perfectly in the range of normal, and I think we have to be aware of that. And it also comes in the context of women doing a lot more to their bodies on a regular basis than may have been the case for older generations. Whether it's just polishing your nails and toe nails on a regular basis, and your eyebrows and waxing, and just a lot more grooming overall, and a lot more attention."    

What parents can do before heading to a doctor's office:

Dr. Strickland: "I think just reassurance. There's certainly nothing wrong when a teen approaches their parents because they have concerns about their body or their body proportions. It's important for parents to have a good working knowledge — and they may also need that — about the normal growth and development, and the fact that puberty extends overtime and isn't a static episode in a young woman's life, and that actually growth and development occurs over many years."