By Skyler Thomas
If one were to transform into a gender of their choice, which would be the best sex for marketing oneself strictly based on image in today’s society? The current perception of sexuality and beauty extends beyond which magazines we pick up, which programs we watch, and which art we choose to gaze upon, but goes further to encourage humans to view themselves as pieces of art, always being viewed under a critical eye. This paper explores whether the perception of self as art has gone so far as to influence the social, economic, and artistic development of a third sex within a society; the Katoey of Thailand.
Image by Skyler Thomas
The human body has long been the object of focus for countless artists. Historically, the female body in particular has proven to be the most profitable gender for an artist to base his/her work on. When Praxiteles sculpted the first nude Aphrodite in the fourth century, the female body began its transformation from being a shunned public image to being the cornerstone of marketing in most modern societies. Photographer Peter Marshall writes in “Contemporary Fine Art Nudes”, that the preponderance of female nudes is largely due to the male dominated buyers of art in addition to a number of other possible reasons, such as:
1. The naked male being a threatening image, particularly to other men.
2. There is more demand for female models.
3. It is easier to find women willing to pose nude, which could be a result of the male preoccupation of genital size being an index of masculinity.
The human body as art is not limited to its representation in cinema, sculpture, and photography. Ever increasingly the body itself is becoming a canvas to produce a newer and improved version of what was there before. From actors adding longevity to their careers through face-lifts and botox to erotic dancers investing in breast augmentation and liposuction to boost their marketability. Looking good is not the only reason to undergo such a transformation. Consider the French artist, Orlan, who has been labeled a performance artist because the subject of her work is the continuous morphing of her face through multitudes of surgeries while making a statement against society’s imposed vision of beauty. Or even consider sideshow artists Erik Sprague and Dennis Avner, who have made careers for themselves by surgically turning themselves into “Lizardman” and “Catman” respectively.
However, nothing offers a more assured marketability than turning oneself into an object of desire, and nowhere is this personified more than in Thailand. Upon a recent trip to Bangkok, I witnessed first hand what at the time was a shocking discovery. Thailand’s abounding prostitution is known throughout the world, but what is not as well known is that this industry consists of a massive number of men inside women’s bodies. These Katoey, or Ladyboys as they prefer to be called, have taken their desire to become women and used it to earn a living in a world where the female body is still viewed as an object of desire. The extent to which society has imprinted the notion of beauty upon this world is spelled out in moving reality as one watches the Ladyboys move through the crowd as taller, bustier, and sometimes more slender women than those who were born women.
During a visit to Thailand, the author Bobby McGill interviewed one Ladyboy named Nook who claimed that she can sometimes earn around 30,000 baht a month (about $750 U.S.). Considering Thailand’s economic status, this is such a good income that McGill questioned the validity of the statement to which Nook insisted it was the truth, but only in the busy seasons when Western men and Japanese men fill the bars.
Whether it is due to men encouraging this phenomenon buy purchasing Ladyboys or because for some unexplained reason more men are born desiring to be women, the numbers indicate that being a female is the more popular way to go. One can see evidence of this simply by looking upon the streets in Thailand, but Lynn Conway went further by actually doing a study in 2001 entitled, “How Often Does Transsexualism Occur?” In this study she discovered that the prevalence of Sexual Reassignment Surgery in the U.S. alone was in the order of 1:2500 while male to female procedures account for 1:500 of those. Similar ratios were found in countries throughout the world. Whatever the underlying reason is, people unsatisfied with their born gender are choosing to follow through with the male to female procedures much more often than female to male cases.
Laura Mulvey pointed out in her 1975 Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema that “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.” The foundation for what has been deemed as an acceptable or visually pleasing image of a female in society is so strong that even men who are turning themselves into women base their goals upon what Mulvey calls “an appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness”. The same is true with the Khatoey. Believing they are women trapped in male bodies, they don’t just settle for replacing their male attributes with female ones…they do it according to what is currently considered attractive, to what will sell, to what will further their careers as women living according to the standards set by a highly male influenced society. This is no small task. To become truly great pieces of human art, one must wisely choose the correct tools and artists for the job. Perhaps it is a little inhumane to compare a human to a piece of art, but once one begins altering physical appearance for the sake of a better existence within society, one becomes fair game to such comparisons. Transsexuals are not the only ones playing this game. On a less extreme level, much of society engages in Pilates, weight training, running, wearing makeup, and walking in high heels because of the positive social and even financial impact such appearances yield within society.
For the most direct and extreme societal impact of such actions look no further than Thailand. Changing ones physical, sexual self to that of a woman equals guaranteed employment. Hard as it is to imagine for some of us, prostitution is such a prevalent solution to financial struggles in these cultures that it is not uncommon for families to sell at least one daughter into prostitution for the sake of supporting the rest of the family. Parents are very accepting when they find out their sons believe they are meant to be women, perhaps because the Khatoey are a traditionally accepted third sex in the culture and perhaps also because the parents know there is money to be made in the Ladyboy industry. In an interview conducted by Paul winter in 2002, a Ladyboy named Nay describes her families’ involvement. “My mother did not mind me becoming a ‘Ladyboy’. Actually she even encouraged it. She was always more concerned with my school results, which were always good – consistently in the top five. My brother and sister didn’t care either. They all always loved me as I was and as I am.” Nay continued to describe how her mother helped her get her first job in a prostitution bar through an acquaintance.
Ladyboys are so accepted and so popular that even self-proclaimed heterosexual men have been quoted as saying they prefer them. Consider this quote taken from “Fake of Nature, Ladyboys in Bangkok”; “Everything is just like a girl, you get me? EVERYTHING!” insists Bonny, the proud boyfriend of Oy, the former Miss Tiffany’s Universe, the world’s leading Ladyboy beauty pageant. Bonny is and always has been straight. “I didn’t know she was a boy when I first met her. I was really shocked when a friend told me” recalls Bonny. “Oy is just like a girl so there’s no difference for me. Some of my friends are even jealous because she’s so beautiful.”
And prostitution isn’t the only career opportunity for the Khatoey. Ladyboys are immensely popular stage performers, dancing, singing, and acting at impressive venues and beauty pageants throughout Thailand and other Pacific Rim countries. Lists of Cabarets in several large cities boast costumes, sets, and performances rivaled only by Las Vegas. In the documentaries “Six Katoeys in Pattaya” and “Beautiful Boxer” the Ladyboys recall their days as little boys, dreaming of becoming the best and most beautiful Ladyboy on the stage. This is not just to satisfy a personal desire, but is also seen as a way out of poverty and even a passport to leave the country and perform in larger venues in places such as Japan, Malaysia, California, and even London; locations which offer a considerably higher standard of living.
To achieve such dreams the Ladyboys must become the best selling pieces of art they can be, which requires a lifetime process of various procedures to achieve the desired results. A big plus for Thai men, and perhaps a reason they experience so much success in their transgender lives, is the fact that they start with petite frames. Keeping the frames as petite and soft as possible requires the use of female hormones, such as estrogen. Depending on the age at which the hormones are first ingested, a petite and curvier frame is achieved. Now that the “canvas” has been laid, other procedures are to done to sculpt this new artistic rendition of the female body. Perhaps the most obvious procedure is breast augmentation. One might think the low prices and economic status of the region would equal poor quality in operations, but this is not true. Having viewed these Ladyboys first hand, it was hard to believe such perfect breasts were actually on men’s bodies. The reality is that some of the most experienced doctors for such procedures can be found in Thailand. The procedure is so popular in Thailand that the surgeons are becoming known as some of the best in the business. “Most of my clients are Thai and work in bars and other entertainment venues,” says Dr. Thep, a surgeon from the Pratunam Poly Clinic, a facility specializing in male-to-female SRS operations. The Pratunam Poly Clinic charges just $1600 USD for the procedure, compared to $25,000 in the West. The lower prices found there have actually started making Thai clinics major competitors against more posh locations around the world and not just for breast implants! In 2004, the first live sex change operation was broadcast from Thailand as an attempt to further their ever-growing reputation and strengthen their platform for competing against clinics around the world. Even an ex-marine from San Francisco traveled to Thailand for his sex change operation, as featured in the 2004 article “No Retreat” featured in The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine.
The process continues beyond obvious procedures such as adding breasts and removing a penis. Cartilage from the Adam’s apple can be shaven to reduce its predominance and the hormones should have already taken care of the voice. Facial reconstruction options seem only to be limited to that of the imagination, and then of course there is hair removal, rib removal, muscle reduction, and more. The business being generated in the medical field by these Ladyboys, not to mention money from the visitors who come to see them perform, to have sex with them, or to become Ladyboys themselves, is enough to influence a country to be tolerant of their alternative lifestyle alone!
If it is true that the female image is an exploited sexual icon and this image sells better than that of the male, than it stands to reason that the better the end result of the Ladyboy transformation, the more she will prosper from it. The more a Ladyboy resembles a woman, the more customers “she” will attract or the more shows she will perform in. The more beautiful the Ladyboy is, the more she can charge. The more she makes, the more she can afford additional procedures to make the art even more pleasing. It is a continuous cycle leading to the creation of society’s vision of the ideal woman, only on a man. Eventually she will be so beautiful that she will be headlining the biggest Ladyboy shows around the world, and the crowds will be paying to see her…a living work of art.
Peter Marshall, “Contemporary Fine Art Nudes”, 2000
BangkokRecorder, “Fake of Nature, Ladyboys in Bangkok”, 16.09.2005 http://www.bangkokrecorder.com/?p=redakt.artikel_detail&ID=24&ArtikelID=108
Sam Winter, “Nay”, 29/08/2002 http://web.hku.hk/~sjwinter/TransgenderASIA/personal_account_nay.htm
Karishma Vyas, MedicineNet.com, “Sex Change Operation, Live From Thailand”, 2004
Lin Conway, “How Often Does Transsexualism Occur?” 1/30/2001 http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/TSprevalence.html
Jeremy Drummond, “Orlan”, 2000
The Seattle Times, “Catman” 2005
Obscure Photos, “The Lizard Man”, 2001-2005
Skyler Thomas, Personal Interview with Bobby McGill, 2005