Over the past couple of years I've been watching two related themes play out in popular culture: The increasing acceptance of gender-reassignment surgery, and the increasing rejection of extreme cosmetic plastic surgery.
A father who lives as a woman after having his male organs removed through surgery is highlighted as having done something necessary and even admirable; but a woman who undergoes extensive surgery because she believes that she was meant to look like a "Human Barbie" is scorned, and even kicked off of a popular television show while being called "dreadful" by the host.
It's interesting that in the case of extreme cosmetic treatments, society seems to think that it is only a superficial remedy that does not accomplish any real transformation. A woman who wants to have much darker skin than her natural shade, for example, is seen as having made only a superficial change, one that in fact disrespects the body she was given. If a person of Asian descent believed that she was meant to be Caucasian, and underwent the increasingly popular type of surgery that would alter her physical features in an attempt to achieve that goal, she would be seen as doing something self-destructive. Yet as soon as the surgery moves to the realm of genitalia, it is seen as a positive and effective solution that accomplishes the patient's transformation goal.
I think that we, as a society, should take a closer look at our contradictory views on these two related issues, because we can learn something from our reactions to both types of situations.
We should take our newfound cultural empathy for transgendered individuals, and apply it to everyone who feels that they were born into the wrong body. To experience a fundamental discomfort in your own skin, whether it's with your ethnicity, your gender, your body type, or any other God-given attribute, is no small cross to carry. People in these situations need love and support, not ridicule.
I think we should also consider our unease with non-genital extreme plastic surgery, and ask ourselves if the same principles perhaps apply to gender-reassignment surgery. It is now taken for granted, at least by popular media, that it is possible to change your gender through surgery. I worry that this misconception is as dangerous as if it were to be accepted as true that it is possible to change your ethnicity through surgery: More people might be tempted to make irreversible changes that wouldn't accomplish their goal, and that they may one day regret. A post-op transsexual who was born male wrote in a forum for those who wish they had not had sex-change operations:
What really drove the point home for me was the realization that it required eight hours on an operating table to make my genitalia appear to be female. That pretty much tells me that I’m NOT female at all. If I were female, why wasn’t I born with female genitalia? Sure, there are some intersexed people with ambiguous genitals, but I'm not at all intersexed. My chromosomes are the normal male XY, with absolutely no abnormalities.
The reality is that I’m male, and no amount of surgery changes that fact.
I applaud the gentleness with which our culture now treats transgendered and transsexual individuals, and wouldn't want to see that change -- I would only like to see that empathy extended to all those who feel that they were born into the wrong body. And, most urgently, I would like to see a careful examination of the currently-accepted idea that one can change his or her gender by going under the surgeon's knife. I worry that this widespread misunderstanding of such a fundamental issue is causing a great cultural confusion about the real meaning of gender, and will only add to the hardship of those who are already hurting.