Girls as young as nine are requesting to have surgery on their vaginas because they are “distressed” by its appearance, the BBC reports.
The shocking admission was made to the Victoria Derbyshire show, with Dr Naomi Crouch, a leading adolescent gynaecologist, expressing concern at the number of young girls being referred for the operation by their GPs.
The surgery, referred to as labiaplasty, results in the lips of the vagina being shortened or reshaped.
While the NHS states the surgery should not be performed on girls under the age of 18, more than 200 under-18s had the surgery on the NHS between 2015-2016.
And of these 200, more than 150 of the girls were under the age of 15, the BBC reports.
Dr Crouch, who also chairs the British Society for Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology, told the show that she had not seen a single girl who actually needed the operation during her work for the NHS.
“Girls will sometimes come out with comments like, 'I just hate it, I just want it removed,' and for a girl to feel that way about any part of her body - especially a part that's intimate - is very upsetting,” she said.
Paquita de Zulueta, who has worked as a GP for more than 30 years, added that in the past few years she has seen girls as young as 11 and 12 years old come to her with fears that their vaginas were “the wrong shape, the wrong size” and “really expressing almost disgust”.
She pointed towards the constant images of perfection aimed at young girls through pornography, social media and even toys as being the root cause of the problem.
“Their perception is that the inner lips should be invisible, almost like a Barbie, but the reality is that there is a huge variation,” she said.
And it is not just here in the UK that young girls are beginning to request labiaplasty.
A world-first study conducted in Australia last year found that 54% of GPs had seen female patients requesting genital cosmetic surgery, with girls as young as 15 requesting the operation.
Dr Magdalena Simonis, who works in the University of Melbourne’s department of general practice, launched the study after her own patients began requesting the surgery.
“When I spoke to colleagues who were also working in areas of women’s health, they also expressed the same sort of experiences with women questioning whether their genitals looked normal,” she told The Guardian.
And it appears the problem is a relatively new one, with the rise in requests for surgery correlating with Dr de Zulueta’s earlier point about the increase of social media and easily accessible internet porn contributing to issues with body confidence among young girls.
“Many of the [GPs] volunteered that that 20 or 25 years ago, this was never an issue,” Dr Simonis added.
So what can be done to help steer young girls away from wanting unnecessary vaginal surgery?
Dr de Zulueta believes the answer lies in better education, to empower young girls to learn more about their bodies from a young age, while increasing their understanding about what is normal as they begin to hit puberty.
“There isn't enough education and it should start really quite young, explaining that there is a range and that - just as we all look different in our faces - we all look different down there, and that's OK,” she said.