In Season 4 of the reality TV show I Am Jazz, which documents the medical transition of trans-identified male teen Jazz Jennings, Jazz’s parents are reluctant to consent to their child getting a tattoo as a 17th birthday present.
Jazz announces the desire to get a small tattoo just a few days before turning 17, knowing that the idea might be met with some resistance. As expected, Jazz’s parents, Jeanette and Greg, don’t immediately support the idea, and a discussion ensues. The moment the conversation is over, a conclusion not yet reached, the three start a video call with Jazz’s surgeon, Dr. Marci Bowers, to discuss the upcoming amputation of Jazz’s penis.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting for a while. I know you might not like this…Do you think I could get a tattoo?” says Jazz one day in the kitchen over a spinach smoothie.
The look on Greg’s face does not hide his lack of enthusiasm, and the scene then cuts to Greg explaining his reaction.
“My initial reaction is ‘can you just get a paint-on tattoo? One that washes off and just see if you like it’,” says Greg.
He asks where Jazz was “contemplating” getting it, and Jazz replies perhaps the shoulder or collarbone. Both parents agree that the collarbone is out of the question, and with that the conversation is over, at least for now, because it’s time to call Dr. Marci Bowers to discuss Jazz’s imminent vaginoplasty surgery.
The surgery is the last step on the medical transition pathway for Jazz, who was socially transitioned as a young child after Jazz’s parents interpreted their child’s extreme gender-nonconformity as a sign that their son was their daughter.
Jazz’s puberty was blocked at a very early stage, meaning that Jazz’s penis remained undeveloped. In Season 3, the family learn that this means a standard vaginoplasty, where the surgeon amputates the penis and uses the penile and scrotal skin to line the “neo-vagina,” won’t be possible because Jazz doesn’t have enough tissue to work with.
Jazz is offered a vaginoplasty procedure that would involve using a section of the colon, but is warned that this typically has an unpleasant odor. This is understandably unappealing to Jazz, so the family shops around.
In Season 4, they meet with a surgeon who first offers to implant a “tissue expander” into Jazz’s scrotum. This is an empty balloon that would slowly be filled with water, stretching the scrotal skin to create more tissue with which to construct a “neo-vagina.” The doctor explains that, by the end, this is very painful because the scrotum becomes the size of a grapefruit.
The tissue expander is met with little enthusiasm, so the surgeon then offers an “experimental” vaginoplasty using Jazz’s peritoneum lining, which is a membrane that lines the abdominal cavity. The surgeon confesses to only having performed 15 such procedures so far, with mixed results.
“I’m not keen on the word experimental,” Greg says to the surgeon, apparently oblivious to the fact that most of his child’s life has been a medical experiment that he and his wife signed up to.
Later in the tattoo episode, Greg remarks to Jeanette that he noticed Jazz’s friend Victoria has a tattoo. This appears to be an acknowledgment that adolescents are prone to social contagion. In an earlier season, the family visit a local high school that suddenly has 10 or 12 trans-identified students, all of whom are inspired by Jazz, and all of whom are female. No one mentions the possibility of social contagion in that particular episode.
During a private discussion, Greg and Jeanette agree to talk through some conditions with Jazz before signing the consent form, so Greg is surprised to discover at Jazz’s birthday dinner that Jeanette went ahead with the signing of the consent form without his knowledge and Jazz is proudly displaying a brand new mermaid tattoo.
But the tattoo isn’t the only surprise in store for Greg during the dinner. After cake, Jeanette tells the family that Jazz has more exciting news.
“Today, while we were driving up here…we booked the date for my surgery!” says an excited Jazz.
“I’m very surprised because I wasn’t part of that conversation as to when the date was going to be set,” explained Greg later. “And when there’s big news in the family, I certainly don’t want to be the last to hear. Some of these things, like tattoos and surgical dates are important things that I want to be participating in.”
In Season 5, Jazz goes ahead with the vaginoplasty surgery, suffers severe complications requiring three corrective surgeries. The surgical site requires lifelong dilation to prevent the body from healing the wound. Jeanette famously quipped that she would wake her teenage child, put lubricant on the dilator, and demand that Jazz dilate to prevent the cavity from closing up.
Jazz’s ongoing battle with depression and binge eating continues all the way up to the present day.
In a recent episode in Season 8, Jazz, who is at this point obese, breaks down on Jeanette, and in a very distressed state, says, “I just want to feel like myself. Like that's it. I don't care at all. I want to be happy and feel like me and I don't feel like me ever.”
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