My sports bras shred in the dryer, from overuse. I wear them layered over each other until I feel squeezed enough, like a lemon that’s given up most of its juice. I don’t understand what you even do to these things, my mother says, peering through the holes.
Breast: A person’s chest, especially when regarded as the seat of the emotions
At fifth grade lunch, boys shout out the number on Sydney’s shirt that appears over her enormous breasts: ‘1892’ for Abercrombie & Fitch, ‘1969’ for Gap. She is the first girl in our class to have boobs. In her book Master Breasts, Francine Prose writes that breasts are a body part that we didn’t start out with . . . whole new organs, two of them, tricky to hide or eradicate, attached for all the world to see . . . twin messengers announcing our lack of control, announcing that Nature has plans for us about which we were not consulted. I read Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret like everyone else, stuffing it in my backpack between chapters so my mom won’t see, won’t ask if I have any questions. I read about the impending doom, dreading them. I feel my chest to make sure they haven’t come yet. I want to stay flat.
I’d be happy to show it to you, but I also have to tell you it doesn’t work, Blume says in a video-interview over forty years after she publishes the book. She pulls back a vest to reveal breasts even smaller than mine. She is demonstrating the famous exercise – I must, I must, I must increase my bust. It looks sort of like the Chicken Dance. She laughs: a bare, open thing. Not only doesn’t it work, she says, but know what? You find out it doesn’t matter.
Nora Ephron disagrees. In ‘A Few Words About Breasts’, she writes angrily about her small chest: What can I tell you? If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. My second sister, Kelsey, has huge boobs. Like my mother, my own mother says. You could see hers before the rest of her turned the corner. In Paula Vogel’s 1997 play How I Learned to Drive, the lecherous grandfather makes the same tired joke: She’d better stop being so sensitive. ’Cause five minutes before Li’l Bit turns the corner her tits turn first. Asking why his granddaughter wants to go to college, the he asks: What does she need a college degree for? She’s got all the credentials she needs on her chest. My sister Kathleen and I are tiny; my mother calls us unlucky, how she sees herself.
It fascinates me how differently we view these body parts. As mine grow towards the end of middle school I give them stern looks in the bathroom mirror, the equivalent of a talking-to. That’s quite enough, my eyes tell them. My parents make me and my siblings leave the room when we watch anything with a sex scene. Leaving the room causes more of a scene than the scene itself; by the time my brothers and sisters and I have left, the clip is ending. From the other room we hear my father say, That was barely anything. From my mother: You want our kids to see those huge, fake things?
Everything from cutting one’s nails to cutting off one’s leg falls somewhere on a spectrum of moral or ethical judgment. – Susan Stryker
The first time I really try to rid myself of them I am fifteen. At the clinic intake, I am asked to step on a scale. My feet are cold; everything is cold. They make me take off my clothes. I have $4 in quarters in my pockets. I am wearing an underwire bra. Every piece of material will make me seem more ok, heavier. The criteria state: Disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight. I weigh 98.5 pounds. They ask if I have a goal weight. I just want to disappear, I say.
At fifteen, Janet Mock started taking Premarin, estrogen pills made from the urine of pregnant horses. Her transgender friend, her sister, gives them to her. This underground railroad of resources guided me during the years of uncertainty, she writes. But I am completely alone. I do not know at fifteen that what I feel is a thing that many other people feel.
Breasts were my favorite feature. I remember being struck by the sensitivity of my areolas, which swelled within weeks, prompting the budding of my breasts. If they rubbed too hard against my shirt, my nipples throbbed. Despite the pain, I flaunted my fleshy chest during our weekend nights out in a push-up bra filled out with a pair of silicone cutlets . . . The breasts that I flaunted in my friends’ company had to be concealed at home under layers so I could keep my pill popping under wraps. –Janet Mock
I go to an all-girls Catholic high school. My high-school religion teacher tells us again and again that people like me are called to what she termed the single life. When she gets cancer, they take her left breast; she comes back to school looking more or less the same, except for one day, when I see it: the fearful lopsidedness, how huge the right one looks with the left completely gone. This is the first time I really realize that breasts do not have to be forever. I feel an electricity, the hum of possibility in this teacher’s misery. A classmate hangs around after class to point towards our teacher’s off-balanced chest, to tell her: I’m sorry if this is inappropriate, but I needed to let you know that you forgot something.
Breast: The part of a garment that covers the chest, i.e. breast pocket
About losing her breasts to cancer, Judy Blume writes: My dense, small breasts aged well. They stayed perky while other body parts sagged. I’d become quite fond of them. But immediately after that, she admits it was easy to decide to excise them, once they became infected. It’s a horrible feeling, wishing mine were, sometimes. Infected. When I move away to attend college my mother calls me and says she’s had a dream. You became a man, she says. You even cut off your boobs, she says. I laugh. How odd, I say. How’s everyone? I ask. She begins going through her other five kids, one by one, recounting their recent missteps, the ones that did not take place only in a dream.
Somehow, I continue to eat. I do not will myself to disappear. I remain whole. But in my dreams I melt them off with giant candles. Or I wake up without them; the doctor says: There was an accident. But what accident could end like this? Hippocrates believed breast cancer was caused by menopause. In the Middle Ages women believed that breast cancer could be caused by bumping into something with one’s chest. My grandmother died of breast cancer; it ate her slowly, took years. Will they take mine because of that?
After her mastectomy, Audre Lorde wrote: Any amputation is a physical and psychic reality that must be integrated into a new sense of self. The absence of my breast is a recurrent sadness, but certainly not one that dominates my life. I miss it, sometimes piercingly. She rejects reconstruction and prosthesis, wishing to bear her body as a witness to highlight the visibility of survivors of breast cancer: going flat, it’s often called now. Before the creation of reliable implants, if someone miraculously survived mastectomy, there was no way to be anything but flat.
Maggie Nelson, pregnant when she flies to Florida with her partner for his top surgery, writes: Flipping channels on a different day, we landed on a reality TV show featuring a breast cancer patient recovering from a double mastectomy. It was uncanny to watch her performing the same actions we were performing – emptying her drains, waiting patiently for her unbinding – but with opposite emotions. I first hear those words together – top surgery – when I meet a trans person for the first time. He has a blog, linking to other blogs, and other blogs. I read and I can’t stop.
Hitler called him the most dangerous Jew in Germany. One of the earliest advocates for transgender surgeries, Magnus Hirschfeld helped arrange the first sex reassignment surgery, for a trans woman named Dora Richter, in 1931. He was the first person to stand up and say that we are people in need of care, of assistance, of acceptance. In the most famous image of Nazi book-burning, they are destroying the library at the Magnus Hirschfield Institute for Sexual Science. Our library; our way of learning how to become.
When I first start researching top surgery, the only real information about surgeons and results is on Transbucket, a crude website where transgender people post before and after photos of their procedures. I stare at the long semicircular scars underneath their chests, at the blackened, scabbed nipple grafts sewn back onto them. The bags of bloody fluid hanging next to raw chests. With shirts on, these are simply people with flat torsos, but here they choose to show me how they changed.
Although they have been performed since antiquity, breast surgeries were rare – and largely unsuccessful – before the development of anesthetic and antiseptic techniques led to innovations in mastectomy, including the Halstad method of radical mastectomy, introduced in the 1880s, in which the breast, lymph nodes and pectoral muscles are all removed. Before that, cauterization and crude amputation were the norm. Breast cancer was a terrible secret, a punishment, hidden. In 1811, the novelist, diarist and playwright Fanny Burney, a rare survivor of early mastectomy, wrote a letter to her sister detailing her torture at the hands of a team of doctors as they performed a radical mastectomy in her home near Paris: I then saw my good Dr Larry, pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood, & its expression depicting grief, apprehension, & almost horrur. For weeks after I read her letter, when I try to close my eyes at night I see scalpels dipped in bowls of water at my bedside, a group of men in dirtied gloves beside my bed, ungloved fingers. I roll over, hold my girlfriend, run my hands under her shirt and around her small, firm breasts. I fall back asleep.
Breast: A joint of meat or portion of poultry cut from the breast of a bird or mammal.
It is not easy to say No when, tipsy and uncharacteristically impulsive, I somehow find myself making out with my childhood best friend one night in our hometown. I’m twenty-one. She grabs my hair, tells me she misses it long. You were so beautiful, she says. She smells like beer.
In the dreadful moments between hearing what she’s said and feeling her teeth on my breasts I realize I have let someone who does not know me at all take off my clothes, put her hands all over me. She bites down again, though I know she heard me say No. She is over six feet tall. She outweighs me by fifty pounds. By the time I say it a third time her hand has made its way almost inside the body I have never wanted less to be mine. We are in her parents’ basement in a town with no streetlights, no sidewalks, nobody who could ever understand what this is. After, I have to ask her to drive me home.
My college girlfriend and I get back together for good and we become more serious. After two years together, I tell her I am not a woman. It is something I’ve never told anyone. We have just had sex. She has nothing to say, so I put my clothes back on and pretend it is still a secret.
In my desk at the high school where I get my first teaching job I keep a copy of Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language. It reminds me of a high school teacher – at that all-girls Catholic school – who, waiting until the other students had left and recommended it, quietly. Recognizing in me someone who needed something.
In ‘A Woman Dead in Her Forties’, Rich refers to a beloved friend’s post-surgical chest as a scarred, deleted torso. I look at the words during my lunch, recovering from a student asking, Why you wanna be a man, miss? I look at the words again, at my browser history.
Since it killed my grandmother, my mother tells me I should find out if I, in particular, am susceptible to this cancer, and others. My father survived rectal cancer. My mother survived melanoma, twice. But I don’t find out. I don’t do anything. I don’t go to doctors if I can help it. In my apartment after my mother reports back on her recent mammogram I look online at the torsos of brave people who’ve posed to show what they look like post-mastectomy. Removing a cancer is not at all like shaping a chest to look like a man’s chest. It is a functional re-imagining – a shaving-off of bad is all they have in common – but without consideration to how one might look in a locker room.
My mother says it hurt more than usual – this mammogram – because, as a recent birthday gift, she’s received a boob job from my father. She sees my look of surprise, says, Don’t judge. You don’t know what it’s like, after kids. The unsaid: You never will. Also unsaid: How can you be so unlike what you are supposed to be like? And finally, still unsaid: Why can you not appreciate what you have?
The first person to get a successful modern silicone breast augmentation didn’t really start out wanting it. In 1962, Timmie Jean Linsley went to a Houston clinic looking for someone to remove a large tattoo on her chest. When she encountered a surgeon looking for volunteers to receive an experimental breast augmentation surgery, she remarked that her real issue with her appearance was her large ears, which, in her words, stood out like Dumbo. She traded otoplasty – surgery in which the ears’ position is changed, in her case to have them pinned back – for the experimental implants. I wonder about trades: what I would let someone put in my body to fix them. What I’d let someone pull out.
I say successful because Timmie Jean Linsley is still alive. The implants stayed where they should. I say first because Timmie Jean Linsley is a woman. Before her there was a dog – Esmerelda – the first real victim of implants. After a few weeks, she’d chewed at the stitches so viciously that they were removed. Aside from hatred of the implants, Esmerelda had had no ill effects, and implants were declared ready for us.
When our first son is born, Anna is so sad. She’s sad like she was only once before, after college, when she saw the psychiatrist she described only as The tall doctor with the bright orange hair, when I was not enough and books were not enough and parks were not enough and she had to take pills to help her get to work. When he cries she looks at him, and at me, and at him again, like she does not understand what this all means. Feeding him is literally your only job, I say, disgusted with her and with having to pressure her, to control her breasts in this way. To tell her to give her body to someone else, whenever he wants, sometimes hourly. She lifts up her shirt and feeds him, before she hands him back to me to take away.
At night she takes care of some of Philadelphia’s sickest people, men and women with tubes and wires hanging everywhere. A patient who needs her to do everything for them is said to require complete care. Anna doesn’t write anymore, doesn’t act anymore. She is no longer the woman I met in college. Having this baby, feeding this baby, has changed her. When she comes home and sleeps through days, I sometimes lay the baby against her body, pull up her shirt and let him drink.
A large percentage of breast cancer is found by the owner of the breasts: Get to know your body after surgery, one top surgeon cautions. My breasts are small, soft, with one regular nipple and one inverted, dented in and sad-looking. It seems an oddity of form, not function; I have no plans to breastfeed, until I do.
A day before Thanksgiving and two weeks after first injecting myself with a friend’s sperm I wake up with sore breasts, pins and needles that begin in my nipples and radiate through my entire breasts. I take a pregnancy test, hold it in a variety of lights, and decide the second line is faintly there. We’ve decided our children should be close together – Irish twins, even, but breastfeeding means my wife does not ovulate, and we move on to the next best uterus. Two days later the line is gone. I bleed. I feel my breasts constantly throughout the day, there is less pain every hour, and I mourn its loss.
The baby who could have been, borne from the body that should never have been. He would have been born in July.
But this body has at its foundation a strong will to carry out its biological destiny. Some people may have been born in the wrong body; I was not. I was born in a body that gave me the freedom to carry a baby, one who stays around this time. I am not quiet in bed, but I hesitate for the first time asking my wife, my lover of seven years, to touch my pregnant breasts. They just feel…different. Like in a good way. She once balked when I told her I was not a woman, and now she balks at these: these large areolas. Bulls-eyes to help our not-yet-born second son find them, when they’re his.
Breasts are unusually susceptible to cancers. Inside they are porous, thirsty for toxins. As the world allows itself to be poisoned, those of us with them are poisoned first. The FDA claims that, in its current levels in our food, Bisphenol A (BPA) is safe. Many studies find otherwise. The water fountains in Philadelphia schools are not safe, so I often purchase bottled water on my way to work, from a pizza shop across the street from school called Paulie’s. Perinatal exposure to BPA in rats can cause malignant, metastatic mammary tumors. Breast cancer. The FDA says maybe, if you’re concerned, seek alternatives to plastic and cans. Pregnant people need to drink water, and a lot of it. There is no safety in having this body in this world.
When she tells friends or people at work that I’m pregnant, they to her say things like: Wow, you’re so lucky. Krys must really understand you. At home she admits she hates this, this assumption that to be queer is to be more easily understood, that a uterus and breasts make our experiences the same.
Pregnancy protects the breasts, and so does breastfeeding. The younger you have children, and the longer you use your body to feed them, the better the protection. Strange, the choices I make. Strange, the protection they offer from this sickness. Everything online refers to breastfeeding women, breastfeeding moms. But I’m not a woman, not a mom. I google What does breastfeeding feel like? and, at nine months pregnant, find no satisfactory answers. Most responders take this as an opportunity to share why breastfeeding did not work out for them. I stare grimly into my future: me, a human vending-machine.
When Samson is born I weigh 175 pounds. When filling sausage casings, if you press a thumb firmly into the sausage, an indent should remain when you pull your hand back. Otherwise, it is overstuffed and will burst. Contractions make my abdomen a casing pulled too tight, the membrane fit to tear. I am worried about what to wear. I pack clothes of all kinds, but somehow, these hours are some of the only in my life in which I forget I have breasts at all. My shirt comes off seconds after I get to the birth center.
In truth, breastfeeding feels like he is a vacuum and I’m an especially dusty rug.
The detachment of the placenta is what signals the body to begin lactating. As it rips from the uterine wall the body experiences a sharp decline in progesterone. Soon after, if baby is placed to the breast, the establishment of supply can usually begin. I didn’t have a birth plan except to say: I don’t want to see my placenta. I have no desire to see my organs on the outside. Placenta, from the Latin: a flat cake.
Typically, a baby has to suck at the breast for a few minutes before letdown, the ejection of milk, occurs. The second Samson’s mouth touches one of my nipples, milk shoots forcefully out. There isn’t just one hole; one of the ways in which humans differ from cows is the number of streams we have. They have one. Our ducts lead out through multiple ductal orifices, creating teams of tiny synchronized jetstreams. I’m not sure how many I have. I never try to count, too busy trying to contain the flood. If I press on one nipple like an elevator button, nothing will come out and we will all be safe while I think of what to do.
At night I lie next to my infant son – and then toddler – in bed. For two long years he nurses, gripping the side of my breast in his fist like I’m a coffee mug, gulping me while I try to sleep.
My stomach is white and smooth, snaps back to its old self weeks after Samson is born. My breasts are different; every day they grow bigger. Along their sides there are angry purple stretch marks. The growth is dramatic. I put weight on with Samson slowly, day by day over nine months. But a week after his birth my A cups are at least a D. Every morning when I wake up, they feel bigger, all welled up and fit to erupt.
Breasts: Either of the two soft, protruding organs on the upper front of a woman’s body which secrete milk after childbirth.
I am on my way to a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu camp in Massachusetts with a friend when I have to stop to pump in a Dunkin Donuts bathroom. It’s been too long; they feel like firm sacks of gravel by the time I sit on the toilet, manual pump in hand. I maneuver the pump with one hand, pressing down on its plastic like an old-fashioned water pump, massaging the bright-white milk out with the other. Begin at the top of the breast with an open palm, smoothing the milk down and out through the ducts. Squeeze down in an even, controlled motion; never pull. After fifteen minutes I emerge with two warm bottles and hold them up to my friend, an offering. She laughs, too.
They are for food, right? History is full of debates over whether the animalistic way we feed our infants is best for them. And if it’s best, how best is it? Did I need to do this? My wife, the labor and delivery nurse, thinks it really is that important. She starts taking college courses so she can sit for her lactation consultant exam. I pick up one of her papers off the kitchen counter, spend a moment reading it. Maybe, I mention after, trying to sound casual, You should say parent. Instead of mother. When you talk about nursing. But Anna glares. It’s a paper for a stupid class. Don’t take everything so seriously.
My entire life I think it is going to be surgery first, and hormones later, if ever. But I am not ready to commit to six weeks of not lifting a baby – not now and not for years – and so I find myself in a queer clinic on a hot April afternoon. You’ll need two hands to push it; it’s thick, the nurse who teaches me how tells me. He is pretty. You’ll need to inject it somewhere fatty, he says. The stomach is perfect, he says. Right here. He places a thick finger next to my belly button. Going to extremes to look good isn’t anything new, I think, as I push the syringe of heavy, pus-colored oil into a knob of pinched belly fat.
Some estimate that as many as 4 per cent of American women have breast implants. After a severe dip in the 90s, boob jobs are way up again, with nearly 300,000 breast augmentations performed in 2016. Recently, a procedure called fat transfer augmentation has again become popular; in it, someone can get fat suctioned from one place on their body injected into their breasts. Previously, only an average of about four and a half ounces of fat could be injected into the breast. With pre-expansion, by which the recipient of the surgery wears a suction bra for weeks to vacuum space into their breasts before surgery, that number has soared to nearly eight ounces. I look at my chest in the mirror, remember when it was big, like that: wonder at the choices we make, the changes we pick.
Transition: a movement, development or evolution from one form, stage or style to another. I am aware I am moving away from something and towards something else. It fuels me. In this liminal space I walk around the house in my underwear, go ahead and ask elevator strangers, What floor? And I smile. I lean in front of them to press the correct button, aware that this new body takes up just the right amount of space. To disrupt class one of my students breaks out in song and I find myself dancing. Miss, you crazy, he says.
A friend of a friend, a woman in her twenties who belongs to my Crossfit gym, finds out she has breast cancer. When she returns months later, after a mastectomy, I try to stop myself from watching our coach figure out what this woman’s new body can do. My friend puts her arms up and to the sides, testing. After a few minutes she sits beside a pull-up bar, her face in her hands. When I do pull ups the bar sometimes grazes my nipples. I take mental notes about range of motion, for later, and feel a sick jealousy. I want mine gone; I want to give hers back to her.
I buy my first binder only a few months before the publication of the first big study about chest binding among queer people. It is slippery and comes shrink-wrapped in a little plastic sleeve. Wearing it feels like trapping myself in a permanent inhalation. The study says that clinicians should compare the physical harms caused by binding with the mental health or quality of life benefits reported by the patient. We are not supposed to wear our binders to swim, to sleep, to work out. One hot Saturday in April I don’t listen. I wear a binder to the gym, run next to an upbeat woman in the heat. I struggle to breathe, to pull air in, to fight the nightmare in which I pass out here and everyone finds out what is underneath the layers.
Not all of the results posted online are good. Many are accompanied by warnings. We must submit our bodies to this, this experimentation. No one knows what the hormones really do; I signed a paper acknowledging I know they may make me infertile, despite knowing multiple people who took them for a decade before carrying children. Decades after Hirschfield’s library burned and we are still experiments. No one knows the true risks of all this. My breasts are shrinking. As my fat redistributes it settles in my belly and leaves my chest. They look like Whoopie cushions someone sat on.
Some trans people use the phrase gender euphoria to describe the feeling of someone using the right name of pronouns, the feeling of looking in the mirror and seeing changes, the feeling of layers of bandages removed to reveal not a new self, but a realer self. After Transbucket comes YouTube, hundreds of videos of top surgery reveals, people crying and laughing as a masked surgeon unravels them. I watch these videos after my children are in bed, feeling a familiar compulsion and revulsion. A friend adds me to a Facebook group for top surgery questions and answers. It has 10,000 members. Most of them write that surgery is a means to freedom, but I am trapped by the questions: the Will I, the When Will I, the How Will I Learn to Live Without Them?
Each of us struggles daily with the pressures of conformity and the loneliness of difference from which these choices seem to offer escape. – Lorde
We usually do a breast exam? the nurse at Planned Parenthood says. I’ve moved to small town, a thousand miles away from where I cracked up my Philadelphia midwife by shouting, I’m not pregnant anymore! seconds after giving birth. We usually do a breast exam? It’s said like that: a question I’m supposed to answer. I still have them, I say. I motion towards my layers: a binder, a tee shirt, another tee shirt. They’re under here somewhere. She’s relieved at the joke; I said it like that for her.
How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK – desirable, even (e.g., ‘gender hackers’) – whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? – Maggie Nelson
A young man approaches me at the gym and I am worried he will yell at me for hogging the equipment, for reading multiple pages on the bench between sets. What’s that? he asks. Oh, I say, holding up Florence Williams’s Breasts. He takes a moment to consider whether he still wants to flirt with the man at the gym who reads an entire book about breasts – books upon books, is what he doesn’t know.
One by one the guys in my transmasculine support group get their top surgeries. We talk about their phone consultations, their calendar arrangements, taking leave from work: how to do it without saying the surgery you’re getting, how to tell your coworkers no when you’re back at the office and they ask you replace the water cooler’s thick, full bottle. Every week they tell us how many more weeks they have left until their breasts are gone. They fight their insurance companies by email, over the phone, by email again. Appeals are filed. We are outraged on their behalf; only we are outraged on their behalf. And then, for weeks, they’re gone, and we know that when they come back, they will be finally unburdened.
No one in the group talks about what one does if one cannot decide whether to keep them or not. If it is normal to harbor both intense gratefulness and revulsion towards them. No one in my group has breastfed a child. No one talks about wishing they were sick, about the decision being out of their hands. No one talks about whether it is normal to touch them when masturbating, to walk around the house topless, but to feel fear and shame when thinking about the people one knows, but doesn’t know, finding out they exist. No one does, and so I don’t either.
My last memory of Philadelphia: four months on testosterone. 91 degrees and counting. I leave the gym covered in a wet shirt. I take it off, walk down crowded Frankford Ave in my sports bra, drinking iced coffee from a sweating cup. Every day my shoulders are bigger, the hair on my legs a touch thicker. But I am the least of the strange things one can see here on a Saturday morning in Fishtown. It is gender euphoria.
Breast (verb) – Face and move forwards against or through.
Detail from ‘Red and Black on Grey’, 1968, Terry Frost © St Lawrence University Art Gallery