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Face to face with new ideals of feminine beauty

There are not many of us, male or female, who are blessed with the facial beauty of a Jaye Davidson (Dil in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game). As a woman Jaye was good-looking, but as a man he was beautiful -- the same face, of course, but our perception of that face on the body of a man was different. We assign a higher standard of beauty to women.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why both heterosexual men and women prefer to look at female bodies and faces -- they are closer to our ideal of perfect beauty. Women are, to put it bluntly, expected to be better-looking than men.

But what about the women who are born with the body of a man? Transsexuals (people who have the wrong body for their gender) have always been with us. Transsexualism occurs in all mammalian species and is caused by a hormonal alteration in the developing fetus. So it's a physical problem which can be corrected by physical means. And not a "mere" mental disorder without a biological basis.

In the ancient world transsexuals were both accepted and respected, but somewhere along the way this view was replaced by the idea that "natural" was a physical manifestation of God's will. The bodies we were born with were the way that our bodies were meant to be.

In many cases this view has been superseded by modern medicine; heart, lung and liver transplants, blood transfusions etc are now accepted as necessary to correct some of nature's/God's mistakes.

Similarly, since Dr Harry Benjamin published his groundbreaking study, The Transsexual Phenomenon, in 1966 and devoted much of his career to studying and treating such cases, transsexualism has been generally accepted in the medical world as a condition which can be treated by surgery and therapy.

Last year I met an Irishwoman who told me a little of the trauma she had endured in coming to terms with the fact that she had gender identity disorder, and I began to appreciate the bravery of people who survive this, often hidden, neurological problem.

Sara-Jane Cromwell had been born a man, Thomas, and, like many transsexuals who struggle desperately to live in the wrong body, she attempted suicide before being diagnosed with gender identity disorder. Following successful surgery and therapy, she is now a happy, healthy, successful woman.

Today there is much psychological assistance given to people who undergo surgery to correct this disorder. Physically, most of the emphasis is placed on correcting the sexual organs. However, apart from the obvious, the main physical difference between men and women is in the face.

As Dr Daniel Simon, a surgeon who, with his partner Dr Norman van der Dussen, practises Facial Feminisation Surgery (FFS), told me, "It takes only a fraction of a second for a face to be recognised as a man or a woman. The sexual organs are hidden, the face is not."

They provide a much-needed "cosmetic" service, mainly to transsexuals, as they believe that "in order to avoid immediate identification as 'transgender', it is essential that the facial features are adjusted in such a way that the face will be recognised as belonging to the female gender". The aim is to subtly soften the more masculine features, making them recognisably feminine.

Last year, doctors Simon and Van der Dussen began to practise FFS in Marbella. The surgery takes between four and eight hours and covers areas of the face that most display "masculine" features, such as the forehead, brows and hairline, cheekbones, chin and jaw -- and, of course, the Adam's apple.

They are quick to point out that FFS alone is not sufficient for a patient to be accepted as a woman.

"Clothing, cosmetics and hair style, use of voice, body language and female etiquette, are all matters that will contribute to the fulfilment of the fiery wish of the transgender to lead a life as a woman."

They now have on average one patient a week.

Dr Simon is in the process of making his FFS available in Dublin (The Hospital Group).

So is it a vanity project? Hardly. As one transgender woman put it, "I want to make my body my own, and I want to have more feminine features. Transwomen do not give consent to their first masculinising process in puberty. FFS is a way of reclaiming the body and undoing that damage."

One does not need to be born in a woman's body to successfully become a woman.

As Dr Harry Benjamin, said, "I ask myself, in mercy, or in common sense, if we cannot alter the conviction to fit the body, should we not in certain circumstances, alter the body to fit the conviction?"

And if there are still those of us who have problems understanding the condition that is transsexualism, remember what The Bard himself said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Sara-Jane Cromwell's book, 'Becoming Myself: The True Story of Thomas who became Sara', is published by Gill and MacMillan. For more information on FMS, visit www.agaveclinic.com/

EN/ffs.php or contact The Hospital Group @ 1850 204090

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