My top surgery is slated for November 30th. On that day, I will have taken the final major medical step in my transsexual transition. No more breasts. Or, at least, no more breasts in the way that I have always known them.
In many ways, I may be the luckiest transsexual around, for the genetics that resulted in sizable breasts for my female family members took care to skip over me. I have always had a flat chest. This was an embarrassing fact for much of my life, although it has saved me much grief in more recent years. It’s always been easy to pretend that these things aren’t a part of my body, and so it has been just as easy to sidestep the idea of actually getting rid of them. So when I think about this surgery, my thoughts are complicated, and they change nearly every day. A large part of me is afraid that I will regret this. I am afraid of dying under the knife, or coming out looking Wrong. I am also afraid of having tits for the rest of my life. I keep having dreams about buying skirts and dresses, about putting on makeup, and while I do not believe these are nightmares per say, I am disturbed by the sudden intrusion of imposed femininity by my own subconscious. As November 30th draws nearer, my odd sense of both dread and relief do not feel contradictory.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a satirical comedy of mid-20th century exploitation films, that takes a sudden and sharp turn into horror when it is suddenly revealed that character Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell is a transsexual male. He reveals this by opening his shirt and exposing his breasts to a man he wishes to sleep with, Lance. In response to this, Lance laughs: “You’ve been a broad, all along, Barzell? A goddamn broad? A goddamn ugly broad? An ugly broad!”
Since I watched the film, “a goddamn ugly broad” has been something I have been repeating over and over to myself, mulling the phrase over in my head. A goddamn ugly broad. The last words of a man about to be decapitated by Z-Man’s phallic sword. A phrase that starts out hysterical, before the tremors of genuine disgust and terror creep in along the edges of his inflection. The phrase that turns Z-Man from relatively docile to a homicidal maniac.
It’s an odd thing for a film to declare the tits a horrific sight. How many careers have been made off a good pair of breasts? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars have been put into the industry of having the best pair possible? How many millions of men have clamored and begged and pleaded for nothing greater than the mere sight of tits? Although, like many symbols of sexuality, I suppose tits are either the indicator of immense power, or an indicator of severe inferiority, all dependent upon who is wielding them.
Perhaps as a result of this, there aren’t many films where men are empowered by having tits. Mostly because, when people hear the phrase, they incorrectly assume the film is about transgender women, and they imagine all the various times that male actors have put makeup prosthetics onto their chests to imply tits for the sake of a punchline. But in those rare moments where transgender men are allowed to whip their shirts off, chaos truly ensues. A symbol of male sexuality (the penis) on a female body has long been a favorite method of subversion for filmmakers and writers alike: but very few ever consider the inverse. Few consider a symbol of female sexuality (breasts; or, rarer still, an explicit vagina) on the male body.
In 1972’s Private Parts- a film about a young runaway, Cheryl, and her stay at her aunt’s hotel- George doesn’t even directly do anything that bad. He is Cheryl’s cousin, who is abused by his deeply misogynistic mother (the aunt), raised as and forced to live as a man, which results in a warped and violent sexuality. He dies when he attempts to inject his own blood into Cheryl, and is accidentally crushed by a light fixture when she flees. At the end of the film, upon the discovery of his body, two police officers fondle George’s tits. “With knockers like that, I could go for this guy myself,” one declares to the other.
For many years, I rationalized my affinity for my breasts through the context of sexual relationships. I did not (and still do not) mind them for an intimate context, but when I walk around from day to day, that slight bit of protrusion hobbles me. It’s hard to work a job when my primary focus is on hunching over myself. It’s hard to focus on school when I’m sweating through two layers of shirts. It’s hard to make friends when I am singularly concerned with whether or not I am giving my transsexuality away to them. But even with all that in mind, I am not in a constant state of depression and agony over the fact that I have tits. More often than not, I’m fine with them!
I’m aware that I am odd in my comfort with having tits. I remember in college, I went shopping with a new friend, another transgender male, for shirts. We came across a bikini top shirt, and I expressed some interest. I don’t think I can ever forget the bewildered expression I got in return, because transsexual men aren’t supposed to like their tits. We’re supposed to loathe them. We’re supposed to want to rip them off our chests with our own bare hands. But I never felt the urge to overcorrect in maleness to compensate for being born female. I can acknowledge that’s probably the result of a lot of factors specific to me alone, but I also just subscribe to the idea that it is not such a horrible thing to be a male with tits. The horror is not inherent.
That being said, it’s time for them to go.
The last of the transsexual horror males, Yuji’s breasts are horrific in their absence. During the events of Sion Sono’s Strange Circus (2005), we learn that Yuji was born a girl, who underwent horrific abuse and who then spent years tracking down his mother on this quest of revenge. Long before we ever get a look at his body, the audience watches as Yuji visits a support group for body modification enthusiasts. Among the heavily pierced, tattooed, and surgically altered, his chest impresses them. It is not until the end of the film that reveals what Yuji’s chest looks like: almost normal, were it not for the heavily scarred, nearly dead skin where his breasts had once been. It looks burned. It looks like Yuji had cut them off himself.
When I met with my surgeon for the first time, he explained to me what I could expect for my results. He explained that because of my small size, I could be lucky enough to avoid any eventual scarring. I could eventually look like I’d never had any procedure done. But instead of that, I asked him for scars. Two. Curved along the pectoral muscles. Not connected. He seemed surprised, but ultimately just wanted to make sure I was happy. If that means scars, that means scars.
In some weird way, I almost feel like I’m betraying myself by doing this. And I know that’s ridiculous. But if ‘men with breasts’ is a micro phenomena in film, then the ‘mutilated woman’ is a frequently cited hysteria of transphobic mouthpieces. Even knowing the low regret among those who undergo surgery (detransition rates are anywhere from 1-12%, depending on the source), the propaganda is still in my head. It’s hard to feel confident in such a serious choice when I can’t even tell most of my own family about it: because it would devastate them. Because to them, I will be mutilating myself. The feelings of others must be spared over my own emotional and physical comfort.
That being said, there is a sort of ease that comes with knowing that no matter what I do, my body will be monstrous. It will be monstrous because of my tits, or because of their absence. Either way, I am going to be defined by those few pounds of flesh for the rest of my life. As Yuji puts it: “I [want] the vase to match the flowers”. When I think about my top surgery, I am scared, but I also want to cry with the feeling of elation and excitement when I imagine what I could look like, and that is how I know I’m making the right choice.
What often defines the cinematic transsexual is a lack of autonomy. The audience knows very little about George besides the fact that he was forced into maleness and that his sexuality is warped because of it. He is a Horrific Transsexual, but because of the abuse he faces, that is actually secondary to his victimhood at the hands of his mother. But Z-Man and Yuji are very particular, in that they are horrific for how they control their bodies. The fact that they choose to reveal their breasts, or that they choose to remove them entirely, is what is meant to inspire terror. Their autonomy is the horror. Their comfort with their own bodies is what makes them monstrous, and it’s what makes them so compelling to me, especially now on this seemingly month-long eve of my own surgery.
I will go into this next December changed in a way that I have never known before, but I do believe that I anticipate it more than I fear it. I have lived my time as an ugly broad, and while the precipice I stand on remains daunting, I am ready for my vase to match my flowers.