Dr. Eric Plemons presents research on whiteness and facial feminization surgery

Dr. Plemons began by explaining that FFS is not a specific set of procedures performed across the board, but instead denotes a specific goal of the patient; it is a form of sex reassignment surgery which typically includes a variety of bone and soft tissue procedures intended to feminize the faces of transgender women. In the surgical evaluation, particular facial features are identified as “sex specific” and targeted for intervention as such. Plemons highlighted that FFS is not what people usually think of when they hear about sex reassignment surgery, stating: “FFS changes the project of surgical sex reassignment by reconfiguring the kind of sex that surgery aims to change.”

Over the course of his research, Plemons began to take note of the role of race and ethnicity in constructing what are often perceived as “feminine features,” noting that “whiteness” is often framed as “ethnically neutral” which results in white female features being constructed as feminine. Plemons argued that white faces are used to create the rules around FFS, and are also used as examples of exceptions to those rules. In clinical practice, Plemons found that masculinity and ethnicity were entangled as the constitutive outsides by which desirable femininity found its form. In some cases, “feminizing” a patient also meant stripping away “ethnic” facial characteristics. On the role of non-white FFS surgeons, Dr. Plemons stated that “When it comes to surgeons talking about what a woman looks like, there’s a sense that being from within a certain ethnic/racial group enables a unique kind of seeing.”

In the United States, FFS costs over $60,000 and is currently not covered by health insurance, making it largely inaccessible to a majority of the transgender population. Plemons concluded his lecture by emphasizing the need to prioritize longitudinal research on patient outcomes in FFS, and a discussion with audience members on the role of social and economic systems in transgender health. To learn more about his work, check out his website here.

Dr. Plemons’s lecture was co-sponsored by Northwestern’s Department of Anthropology and The Sexualities Project. ISGMH’s Current Issues in LGBTQ Health lecture series is generously supported by the Northwestern University Office of the Provost’s Hollister Lecture Fund and by Northwestern Medicine.