Feminine Transformations: Gender Reassignment Surgical Tourism in Thailand

Have you ever seen someone with a tattoo in another language and asked what it meant, and then after receiving an explanation you ask, “Oh do you speak it?” to a nice and curt, “Ohhh no.” It leaves you with a strange sense of emptiness — like the sentiment is in the right place but surely it can’t be as full of meaning as the person would like it to be. In Aren Aizura’s (I feel silly writing that, by the way… third person while talking about the overseer of the blog is kind of hilarious) article on medical tourism in Thailand, the same topic is explored.

In Thailand, there are around 8 clinics that perform gender reassignment surgery to a mainly foreign clientele, who of course receive the four star treatment. These medical tourists find themselves enveloped in a community of doctors and others going through surgery who make them feel much more comfortable while getting their procedures.

The article boils down to how the sense of “place” has affected those who have chosen to get their surgeries done there that have come from other nations (which are of course Westernized.) They travel to beautiful and exotic (yet 21st century!) Thailand and receive a procedure while being treated like four star guests on a tour of the easiest and most accessible yet culturally dumbed down. It’s like saying someone from Japan will easily know the United States if they travel to New York City — NYC certainly is an American staple, but it’s only one tiny bit of the culture that the United States has to offer.

Thailand is seen as a mecca for GRS for multiple reasons, one being that it is a more broadly offered medical procedure based on the fact that they don’t recognize gender identity disorder and because of this, it is an easier procedure to get than in places that do. At the same time, the Thai kathoey are more interested (only 30% desire to seek GRS) in other cosmetic procedures — so the aim of medical marketing is the Thai femininity — the white teeth, the pale skin, the ultra-feminine lady. So marketing within Thailand at the trans community aims to show the type of women that they can be — and this marketing hits the foreigners who are there for surgery as well.

Where these two things come together — the tattoo analogy and the Thai ultrafemininity — is with the women that were interviewed. One of the interviewees, Melanie, got a tattoo on her shoulder of a Thai goddess, based on a painting that she had bought after her first procedure.While there’s certainly nothing wrong with any of this, it is of note that the painting itself came from a shopping center across the street, aimed at tourists, with cheap touristy items to pick up and take home. And the tattoo itself was done once she was safely at home (with her painting) as well. She also seemed to have completely confused who the goddess was and what she represented, as she misnamed her during her interview.

Elizabeth, after having her procedure, chose to keep her testicles after her procedure and do her own little ritual which ended in feeding them to fish in ponds at a Buddhist temple. She talked about how she was offering them to the “yin energy” which is a feminine water energy.

The conclusion came from the fact that these were both pretty ridiculous in terms of being Thai cultural representations. The first was a woman who has a tattoo of “some goddess” on her shoulder that she doesn’t even really know or understand, and the second created a ritual which was one big mish-mosh of cultures and felt as though she’d done something spiritual, but they had one big thing in common. They both came down to being about Thai beauty — the same marketing techniques that were plastered all over the walls in the hospitals seemed to have whittled their way into how they both thought about their surgeries and the kind of “femininity” it had bestowed upon them.

The conclusion is brilliant in keeping it from being about the appropriation of Thai culture and Orientalism and really drives home the fact that these women chose what they found symbolic of their trips to Thailand for their GRS procedures, which mirrored what was marketed at them by everyone they came into contact with along their way there. It was really a brilliant and well-worded article that was hard to blog about without feeling like stepping on eggshells, which really goes to show how well-worked it was to have been written so well.

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