Some of the oddest stories come out around Valentines Day. One of the award winners this year is the story about women having their vaginas rejuvenated. That’s
right, rejuvenated and reconstructed and revirginized even. Think we’re kidding? Think again. It’s an emerging surgical trend.

Vaginal rejuvenation
costs thousands of dollars and is done with a laser. It includes a
variety of procedures, such as women getting their labia made smaller
because it is uncomfortable for them to engage in physical activity or
have intercourse, women getting their vaginal canal tightened as it was
pre-baby delivery, and other women going one step further by getting
their hymen (the gateway to the vaginal canal) tightened. This last
procedure can, in a sense, make a woman a virgin again.

One prominent Doctor working in this field is San Antonio’s Dr. Troy Hailparn. She proudly flips
through the photo album on her desk, showing off "before" and
"after" shots of her patients.

"See, look at this," the
obstetrician/gynecologist says, pointing at a set of pictures. "And look
how much better it looks after surgery. It’s really an amazing
difference."

Hailparn, a board-certified OB/GYN, likes to
describe herself as a sort of sculptor. The medium showcased in her photo
album? The vagina. Her artistic tool? A ballpoint pen-sized surgical laser.

Welcome to the final frontier in
self-improvement and cosmetic surgery. In addition to tummy tucks, breast
augmentations, thigh liposuctions and nose jobs, women now are seeking vaginal
"enhancement" procedures — everything from surgical tightening
techniques to "vaginoplasties" aimed at improving the overall genital
look.

But this latest self-improvement trend isn’t
without its critics, who see it more as an extreme vaginal vanity quest. Many
question the lengths women — and doctors — are willing to go to in
order to achieve idealized notions of physical perfection.

"It’s really selling appearance over
substance," said Carol Ellison, an Oakland, Calif., psychologist and
licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in sexuality and
intimacy.

"Besides, my definition of sexual
success is when you come to the end and you’ve had a good experience that has
enhanced the relationship and has been nurturing," Ellison said. "All
of the cosmetic stuff in the world won’t give you that kind of pleasurable
effect if you didn’t have those emotional skills to begin with."

Hailparn, who has not undergone the
procedure, readily acknowledges the blurring lines between what is medically
necessary and aesthetically desired. As she points out, the "laser vaginal rejuvenation" she offers
is actually a variation of a common surgical procedure performed by many
doctors for patients with urinary incontinence or other pelvic support
problems.

But you wouldn’t immediately get that
message from the sales pitch.

"You won’t believe how good sex can
be!" exclaims Hailparn’s Web site, cosmeticgyn.net. It goes on to detail how the doctor can
help women who are "not happy with the look of their vagina."
Advertisements for her practice, The Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation Institute of
San Antonio, also stress the purported, yet clinically unproven, sexual
benefits.

The cosmetic services aren’t covered by
insurance, but Hailparn’s office accepts credit cards or can help set patients
up with financing. The procedures can cost anywhere from $4,000 to
$9,000.

In addition to laser vaginal rejuvenation,
Hailparn even offers restoration of the
hymen — something she says women seek for cultural or religious
reasons.

Hailparn says her practice is about meeting
the needs of women whose concerns have been brushed aside by other doctors. But
others see the focus on sex and aesthetics as an attempt to seduce women into
striving for some homogenized sexual model.

"If you start thinking that your labia
or your vagina needs cosmetic work, then you have to wonder, ‘Do you really
want it, or has the market been created?’" says Beverly Whipple, a
nationally known sexual issues expert and a retired nursing professor from
Rutgers University.

"I think women like that need some work
in terms of self-esteem," says Whipple, president of the Society for the
Scientific Study of Sexuality. "We’re all unique. We’re all different.
That’s the beauty of it."

Still, women are flocking to Hailparn’s
Medical Center-area practice from all parts of the country. Some drive all
night to get here, from places including Florida and Michigan, seeking the
transformation promised by testimonials on her Web site.

Hailparn says she is the only one in the
area using this specific laser technique for cosmetic vaginal rejuvenation. She
took a training course under Dr. David Matlock, a gynecologist/plastic surgeon
with a bustling Beverly Hills practice largely due to his laser vaginal
rejuvenation techniques.

Matlock’s work has been profiled in numerous
magazines, including Playgirl and Playboy. And he has even appeared on
shockjock Howard Stern’s radio show to promote his techniques.

Hailparn, who calls Matlock her
"mentor," is unabashed about her new foray. She still delivers babies
and sees patients for other gynecological issues, but she says she’s passionate
about building up the laser vaginal rejuvenation side of business.

But she says her main reason for undergoing
training in the laser techniques was years of listening to women express
frustration over decreased sex drives and
vaginal relaxation
problems. She says she’s gained many patients who sought a female OB/GYN
after male doctors either ignored or dismissed their concerns.

One woman came to her complaining that a
physician brushed off her sexual problems and displeasure over her vaginal
appearance as "normal," adding that she should "just deal with
it."

Hailparn says she told the patient:
"You are normal, but you don’t have to like it. And if you
are not happy with your body — just like women who go and have their
breasts augmented or reduced or their noses done or lipo done — you can do
your labia. And if that will make you feel better about your body and enhance
your sexual life, then go for it!"

Many other OB/GYNs say they’re not at all
comfortable with Hailparn’s approach. Cosmetic work on the genitals or surgery
for "sexual enhancement" is not considered mainstream, says Dr.
Antonio Cavazos Jr., a local OB/GYN.

Cavazos and many others perform a procedure
known as anterior/posterior repair that is close to Hailparn’s vaginal
rejuvenation approach — except it’s done with a scalpel, not a laser. The
procedure strengthens the vaginal wall, thus providing support for the pelvic
floor, bladder and the rectum.

"If you want to say that you’re helping
to support a bladder that has fallen, then OK," he says. "But as far
as creating a ‘new vagina’ for better lovemaking — how do you define that?
Besides, a lot of things having to do with lovemaking occur between the ears
rather than below the belt."

In his 16 years of practice, Cavazos says he
has never had a patient tell him she was unhappy with the appearance of her
vagina.

"I really don’t see that there is a big
need," he says. "But I think Dr. Hailparn is definitely trying to
find a niche for herself, and there may be patients who say they want
this."

Joannie, a patient of Hailparn’s who didn’t
want her last name used, says she began thinking about laser vaginal
rejuvenation and a possible labioplasty, a
technique to "resculpt" the labia, after losing close to 170
pounds following a gastric bypass surgery.

The excess skin hanging around her
midsection put intense pressure on her bladder, and she has been on expensive
medication to control urinary tract infections for years.

Joannie remembers the moment she decided to
look for a doctor who might address her concerns.

"We were sitting around on the Fourth
of July with all my children and grandchildren and laughing about boob jobs and
(my husband) said, ‘I think if I was a woman after children I’d want the other
end worked on first.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, well, that makes sense.’ So I went
to the computer and I started researching and I found Dr. Troy."

Joannie, who’s from East Texas, underwent
Hailparn’s laser procedure for vaginal tightening and anterior/posterior repair
and hopes to have a labioplasty next. After the outpatient surgery, she stayed
for several days in a local hotel while still catheterized.

"I wasn’t a happy camper then, but I
can tell there is a big tightening difference," she said recently.
"For the first time, I’m able to use the magnifying mirror and not be
scared at what I see."

But an overt interest in the look of the
vagina concerns many critics.

Kirsten Gardner, an assistant professor of
history at the University of Texas at San Antonio, notes that, by definition,
there isn’t even a cosmetic or aesthetic nature to the genitals.

But on Hailparn’s Web site, under the
section of "designer laser
vaginoplasty," it states:

"Many people have asked us for an
example of the aesthetically pleasing vulva. We went to our patients for the
answer and they said the playmates of Playboy."

Gardner, who specializes in gender and
medical issues, says she finds the Web site’s phrases and images incredibly
suggestive.

"I find the use of the word ‘aesthetic’
remarkable," she says. "She is literally telling you that your vagina
should be more beautiful. But it’s deplorable to suggest that your vagina needs
to conform to a certain model. It’s feeding into a neurosis that you need to be
perfect."

For feminists, vaginal
"enhancement" takes personal improvement to an outrageous level.

At the core of feminism is the idea that
women should be able to choose to have this sort of surgery if they want to,
says Ruth Stewart, a nurse with 40 years of experience as a nurse educator.
"If it’s done for medical reasons that’s one thing, but for aesthetic
enhancement, I think it’s ridiculous. I can’t see how it would help
self-esteem. And if a woman feels she needs this to hold on to her partner,
that’s very sad."

"This just seems to me so
shallow-minded," said Alice Neufeld, a member of the San Antonio chapter
of the National Organization for Women. "Women should focus on the real
medical issues, like breast cancer, not just focus on external beauty. And
who’s to say you have to have a ‘pretty one’ to attract a man?"

Ellison, the California psychologist who has
also written a book titled, "Women’s Sexualities: Generations of Women
Share Intimate Secrets of Sexual Self-Acceptance," questioned the safety
of cosmetic surgery in such a sensitive area.

There is no information on the long-term
effects of using a laser to cut through genital tissue, which is replete with
tiny nerve endings that, if severed, could affect sexual stimulation, she
noted.

"We just don’t know what can happen to
a woman down the road after she does something like this," she said.

Hailparn says she remains true to her oath
as a physician: Do no harm. That’s one of the reasons she prefers the laser
over the scalpel. She says it causes less blood loss and promotes faster
healing for patients.

Hailparn also stresses she does not advocate
unnecessary surgery and will perform a complete evaluation of a patient before
recommending any course of treatment.

If she feels like a patient is seeking her
services for the wrong reasons — simply to please a controlling spouse,
for example — she’ll recommend psychotherapy. If a woman’s problems can be
corrected without invasive surgery, she’ll suggest doing exercises, known as
Kegels, to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles.

"I try and approach the whole person. I
can’t fix every problem, but I can direct you to the people who can help,"
she says.

"But you have to respect a person’s
choice if they’re not happy with their bodies," she says. "I will
respect any woman’s right to say ‘I want this changed.’ If I can provide that
and it’s not harming the patient, then it’s OK with me."