The Look of a Woman: Surgical Reconstruction of the Transsexual Face

Eric Plemons, Anthropology

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11/4/10 CRG Forum: The Construction of Femininities & the Racial Politics of Beauty
"The Look of a Woman: Surgical Reconstruction of the Transsexual Face," Eric Plemons, Anthropology

Early surgical procedures intended to change a person’s sex focused on the genitals as the site of a body’s maleness or femaleness, and took the reconstruction of these organs as the means by which “sex” could be changed. Genital reconstructive surgery and endocrine interventions have remained at the center of both medical and popular imaginations in the question of somatic sex change. However, in the mid-1980s a novel set of techniques was developed in order to change a part of the body that proponents claim plays a more central role in the assessment and attribution of sex in everyday life: the face. Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS)—a set of bone and soft tissue techniques intended to feminize thefaces of male-to-female transsexuals—is predicated upon the notion that femininity is a measurable quality of the craniofacial complex that can be both reliably assessed and surgically reproduced. Such an assertion begs the questions: What does a woman look like? What forms of knowledge are used to support a claim to know? This talk will address the history and current application of these techniques, calling special attention to the discourses of “science” and “aesthetics” that surgeons use to both support their claims to recognize “the feminine” and plan their interventions to produce it. From these distinct ontological beginnings, surgeons work toward the production of a femininity that is not only normative, but one that is also staged as the realization of the transsexual patient’s “true self.” Patients and surgeons share a projected post-surgical future in which the patient “passes” as an ordinary woman. The uncertain place of race and ethnicity within the medical category of “femininity” will be discussed from the perspective of both surgeon and patients.