At The End of this Essay is a Recipe for Salmon
It’s true. This is a recipe column, after all. Sufficient protein is extremely important for post-operative recovery. Once the initial anesthesia pukes pass and you can hold down more than Saltines, skip the starches altogether for cooked seafood, tofu, poultry, or red meats you enjoy. Your body will literally be building new flesh as you heal and it’s crucial. You’ll also need plenty of fruits and vegetables for fiber and vitamins, and lots of water and broth for hydration electrolytes.
Also of note: tumeric lattes will not make you flush out your bruises and heal your scars any faster, no matter what your New Age friends say, but they will taste like bitter mustard drippings, like if a hot dog went through the washing machine and you squeezed out the old towels that were in there and then drank that. They will also make you feel foolish for not spending that money on a pint of chocolate ice cream instead. If you’re gonna have a few treats while healing, go for old favorites.
What Counts as Transition?
The plastic surgeon took eight pictures of my torso as I turned in to face each cardinal and intercardinal direction, creating a 360-degree visual record of the body that I had at the time, the body I used to have. In galleries on the surgeon’s website and cosmetic social media like RealSelf.com, these kinds of pictures are simply captioned “Before.”
He took his camera and had me wait alone while he set up for the next stage of our consultation, where he’d basically Photoshop the images into a rough vision of the outcome, and we’d discuss the images side by side. I wore nothing but hospital socks and a paper thong that they’d given me “for modesty and hygiene”, but after years of nude modeling for my own classmates at MassArt, I didn’t feel awkward. A little chilly, maybe, but confident. I had a clear sense of what I wanted and a realistic understanding of what was possible, which made the whole experience more like going to a mechanic than bargaining with a magician or being sized up by a butcher.
I was there to have my torso “sculpted” via “selective extraction”, also known as liposuction. In my case, removing fat deposits around my hips to create a completely different silhouette (if not more “masculine” then at least less “matronly”) and forever changing where I’d hold fluctuations in my body fat. Though my shape would be altered permanently by the procedure, the actual numeric value of my weight would not change much, if at all, which seems to be a commonly misunderstood aspect of liposuction. When I gained weight, I’d still get larger, just in different places.
I sat and waited in an overstuffed brown leather chair tucked up against the intricate crown moulding that lined the interior of the whole building. The waiting room looked like a Victorian study, complete with built-in bookshelves and an “Oriental” carpet, while clinical fluorescent lights and sleek, modern workspaces crammed into the administrative offices. In my exam room, no less than three different backlit posters of young white women touching their own face hung above a futuristic brushed metal counter with minimalist white cabinets. “Young white woman touching own face” is the “laughing alone eating salad” of cosmetic surgery clinics and day spas. It seems to be standard for these places to have this kind of context-confused decor, the very most cutting edge beside the very most traditional, with variations according to region. It appeals to the client’s emotions from multiple fronts, saying: you are going to feel like both new money and old money; you are going to feel like both science and art.
When I first started fundraising for surgery, a lot of people innocently congratulated me for what they assumed would be a double mastectomy, a.k.a. top surgery. I quietly corrected those who needed to know: “Actually, I’m doing that one next year. This one is more like, I guess, middle surgery.” But I felt shy broadcasting more details than that, because the financial support I was seeking depended on friends, friendoids, and strangers supporting my reasons, something slippery and conditional and at the heart of what, exactly, counts or doesn’t count as “transition”.
You Don’t Owe Anyone The Details
I see other trans people fundraise online all the time for every manner of things and insist it’s “entirely about dysphoria” and certainly not mere “beauty” (heaven forbid). I don’t know how many of them truly believe this or are just singing the songs expected of them (it’s fine if you’re trans and you do feel this way). Either way, I try to make a habit never to ask or presume to need the details when someone asks for money, but I also don’t blame you for opting to disclose. It’s a tactic that will straight up make your fundraiser more successful; the pressure to come clean, apologize, and itemize is deep; and the consequences for any other approach are immediate and obvious, unless you’re sure you can count on a bigger than average social network with deeper than average pockets to come through.
My friend Violet helped take care of me when I was healing from my lipo, and fundraised for her own procedures shortly after. In turn, I travelled to take care of her after she saw a surgeon internationally famous for his work with trans female patients, and facial feminization in particular. Like me, people baseline expected her to prioritize either genitals or chest, but the first things she wanted above all else were on her face. Also like me, she kept most of these details to herself until after the fact.
I asked her if she thought this was part of the narrative trap of crowdfunding for personal things. She responded, “I think it’s telling that a lot of insurance companies will cover [genital surgery] but will balk at a nose job as an elective procedure. I think it’s ingrained in the dominant narrative that [genital surgery] fixes trans people and anything else is vain indulgent nonsense.” As for people’s day to day attitudes, she added, “When you tell people you’re going to have some sort of non-[genital] procedure, people jump out of the woodwork to be like ‘I guess I support your choices, sweetie, but your body is fine the way it is!’… There’s a dichotomy of easily pitiable extreme surgeries for [trans people] that cis people don’t have and cosmetic surgeries that trans people aren’t allowed to have because trans people aren’t supposed to be beautiful or to take pride in their appearance.”
Not long after my middle surgery, a cis friend and former classmate who I’d known for years discovered through some of my anxious Facebook oversharing that what I’d had was indeed liposuction to my love handles and not, I guess, one the “pitiable extreme surgeries” she must have imagined. I’d known this classmate through a lot of changes in both our lives and bodies. She and her husband were gainfully employed and she had sent me twenty dollars. We talked openly and sometimes intimately about sexuality, marriage, gender, family, pregnancy, and parenting, and then suddenly she left a few strange, lengthy comments about how unfair my choices were (ones I still mostly paid for out of pocket, for the record, and had to take months off working to recover from). When I locked comments, she flew to private messages to lay down wall of text after wall of text. She urgently wanted me to know she didn’t have the best body image either, and sure would have liked some liposuction for herself, too, but had “important things” and “real things” to save for, like her son’s college education. I was not the politically useful oppressed friend anymore. I was some vain weirdo blowing through collective resources and she was a self-sacrificing mother, building the collective future. All her posturing and hypothesizing as an ally, never mind a friend, blew away in resentment, revealing a very mundane, very pervasive foundation of cissexism and heterosexism.
The story you chose to tell yourself and others about the same basic act may have consequences as trivial as rude comments or as severe as getting iced out of material support. Frankly, it reminds me of the times in my life I’ve been on food stamps but living somewhere with lots of take out and no grocery stores, or received necessities like a winter coat or a cell phone (or a place to sleep) as a “gift” with strings attached. It’s a society-wide problem that impacts how people talk about tax funded safety nets, repairing historical atrocity, you name it. We don’t really seem to believe in generosity or care as much as power plays and obligation. We could, with mass effort, live in a society where it’s not morally unforgivable for broke weirdos to get themselves a latte and manicure in order to feel nice about their lives. In the meantime, the best approach is probably the one that gets you what you need.
She’s Beauty, She’s Grace, She’s Missing Half Her Face
Around me in the recovery room were a half a dozen other people, all women, who lay silently beside me as we each faded in and our respective of exhaustion and Percocet, bruised, swollen, slowly draining saline out our incisions. I got thirsty and drank a Gatorade too fast, promptly throwing up bright green when I made my first arduous journey all three feet to the bathroom.
The nurses, also all women, unfazed by any of this, cleaned us all up and told us (bless their hearts) that we looked great. Cosmetic surgery outpatient is not exactly the hotbed of high self esteem, and I wasn’t deluded or defensive enough, despite my particular circumstances and all the props of language around my identity, to think I was so different from the people around me: afraid of being out of control, maybe ashamed for taking up space, for aging, for obeying the laws of gravity, for having phenotypes that were out of fashion. It’s a cruel game. You can get hurt by winning, yes, but also by losing, and also by refusing to play.
After all, claiming beauty (whether by invitation or self initiative) and having pride in your appearance while experiencing any kind of body-based oppression (which is most of them) is still twisted up in a menu of options so narrow and fine you gotta squint through a telescope to see the far off visions of acceptable ways to look, move, and behave. It can easily escalate into further victimization.
There’s an old prayer, popularized by twelve-step programs, that goes: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” So where is the line between bodily self determination and unhealthy obsession? Where was my own line? I knew I wanted to appear more “gender neutral” but there was so much implicit about size (and age, and race, and ability) in the concept. Spend any time at all on Tumblr searching the “genderqueer” tag to see all the ways a thin person can wear bow ties. I delayed biomedical transition for so long in part because I thought: I can’t pull that off, I don’t have the cheekbones.
My friend Henry, who is working on his own essay about these overlapping anxieties, called them his “tranorexia”. Over chat he told me, “When I finally got top surgery it felt unreal and kind of, like, magical. Like I was suddenly gifted with the kind of body I could actually use and care about and fuck with… Then the obsession became: I want to be totally straight up and down boney Morrissey-Jesus thin… And my doctor was like ‘you might need inpatient therapy for this’, so I realized I had to get it together… But I also had my own idea of like transitioning without using [testosterone] and just getting super thin instead, erasing my hips and secondary sex characteristics, period, etcetera, by being anorexic. Which worked for like two months but was not sustainable.”
That good old fashioned internal experience of alienation, alarm, and disassociation from your own body specifically due to gendered characteristics is commonly referred to as “gender dysphoria”. This term is meant to distinguish the experience from “body dysmorphia” more generally, when a person has such negative and inaccurate views of their body that it constitutes or leads to self destructive behavior (like starving yourself to look like Morrissey and/or Jesus).
In trying to fulfill our individual needs within patriarchy, we say “it’s this, not that”, when the messy reality is that the distinction between dysmorphia and dysphoria is one of individual circumstance and political utility. No external part of the human body goes un-gendered (or un-racialized, and so on). Everything from hand size to height to hair to the prominence and ratio of skeletal, muscular, and— yep— fat distribution is loaded and coded in culturally specific ways that determine how we’re categorized, and how we’re valued or devalued. It’s not entirely predictable, controllable, or consistent, either.
We certainly owe it to ourselves and others to interrogate how destructive and hateful and baseless appearance-based value systems are. At the same time, mantras of accepting the body however it is are, at best, a piece of advice that backfires when it comes to transition. At worst, it legitimizes conversion therapy and other forms of direct violence. There’s an inter-community affirmation that you still count as trans even if you can’t or don’t perform a given biomedical track, but last year I heard this precise language fed back to me as a reason I should not access that track at all. Maybe we think we’re raising awareness and being supportive repeating and reblogging and sloganizing “you’re still valid even if you don’t change your body”, but it sounds quite different altogether in the mouth of an endocrinologist giving you the brush off. What is the liberation-minded transsexual to do?
You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Cyborg
There’s an aspect of Christian cultural hegemony (meaning even secular atheists and people of other faiths living in cultures where Christianity is dominant perpetuate the ideology) that asserts that there is a “natural” state to a person’s body, and that natural states are the ideal and correct way for it to seek and remain in. The connection between paranoia over vaccines and GMOS, mean comments about breast implants, ignorant ideas about disability, and gatekeeping access to biomedical transition options is the fundamental belief in an uncorrupted body, a platonic ideal of beauty and health that, I guess, will make us live forever if we achieve it (spoiler: death comes for us all, even the pure).
When this belief compounds with patriarchy and colonialism and white supremacy, we get the contradictory demands to be pleasing and unchallenging to others in appearance and behavior (mostly men, mostly white people, mostly abled people, etc) but not ever do, try, or change anything to achieve it (never be “high maintenance” or “fake”, much less “demand civil rights, protections, and accommodations”). Some people’s bodies are deemed unnatural merely for existing, treated as monstrous aberrations, broken, mistakes. The disabled and fat are visualized as “freed” from their bodies after death, an absolutely terrifying sentiment of soft eugenics often mistaken for compassionate thinking by the abled and thin. Feminized and racialized bodies are tossed between somehow closer to a natural state but also somehow the afterthoughts of nature, depending on whatever spin justifies their domination in a given context.
When my middle surgery swelling went down, when my bruises faded and my incisions scarred over, I started to move more independently and I started cook for myself again. I decided it might be impossible to reconcile or fully resolve all the forces and desires involved in self image, and ultimately what mattered was how I treated others. When I put on some weight, it felt pleasant, protective, and powerful, because it was filling out in different places than it had before. I couldn’t un-widen my pelvis, but having had some say in the shape of my hips at all, I did start to accept them, and later, enjoy them. I joked, “thank you God for making me trans so I could have this large, beautiful butt” until it wasn’t a joke at all.
There in the midst of all my cooking and eating to care for and delight this mysterious thing called having a body was a feeling of almost spiritual gratitude and self love, which could or would not have emerged had I not chopped off parts of what God, or nature, or the genetic lottery, had given me. This elated peace only intensified after top surgery and a few more years of hormones. A whole lot more of accepting the things I could not change became possible, as well as a tiny bit of wisdom to know the difference.
This winter, I was talking to my boyfriend about the different roles that bread and wine played in our respective religious upbringings, and something clicked together in my head that I found funny. I tweeted:
God blessed me by making me transsexual for the same reason he made wheat but not bread and fruit but not wine: because he wants humanity to share in the act of creation. I am only doing the Good Works here on Earth as intended! ?????
— Julian K. Jarboe (@JulianKJarboe) January 14, 2018
A few dozen notifications later I said to him, “wow, this goofy joke is really clicking with people. A trans teenager thanked me for the comforting words and there’s two theologians in my mentions discussing the merits of the argument?”
My boyfriend rolled his eyes. “That’s because you weren’t actually joking, Julian.”
Called out. In my own home. The nerve.
I’d remade myself in my own image, so to speak, and cooking and eating through the recoveries became a meditation and then a response to massive societal forces which had for so long felt antagonistic to me. Maybe without the right friends and the right time and the right place, the things I did might have created nothing but a new way to fail and feed bad. Instead they made room for new ways to succeed and feel better, which in turn permitted and energized me to do more of my part to shift the whole paradigm.
Maple Soy Salmon
As promised, this is my good friend Carrow’s family recipe that they modified slightly to suit their own taste.
- A large salmon filet
- About half an onion, diced
- Maple syrup
- Soy sauce
- Powdered ginger
- Black peppers
- Butter and/or olive oil
- Mix maple syrup and soy sauce together according to your taste, and set the mixture aside.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Sauté the onion in butter and olive oil until it’s translucent and soft.
- Rinse the salmon, place it into a shallow baking dish or onto a foil-lined baking sheet, and pat it dry.
- Lightly season it with ginger and black pepper.
- Spoon on the onion to coat the top of the filet, and then spoon or pour the maple-soy glaze over the whole thing.
- Bake until the salmon flakes easily (about 18-30 mins depending on your oven and the size of your filet).
Both salmon and maple syrup can be pretty expensive even in coastal New England, so substitute with available ingredients as needed. If you do have access to both fresh salmon and real Maple Syrup, though, I would say they are perfectly legitimate expenses to add to, say, a surgery fundraiser, even if you might have to sell the idea a little as acceptably pitiable.
Cover illustration by Flynn Nicholls.
The Care and Feeding of Your Sex Change is a guide to eating your way through hormone replacement therapy, plastic surgery, standing in line at state offices, lying to gatekeepers, fielding invasive questions from strangers, concealing panic attacks, and managing eating disorders, all disguised as a recipe column. Cis people can read it too, but are encouraged not to take terminology cues from irreverent intra-community internet essays. Big moods and big foods, taken with a grain of salt.