There were several themes I’ve edited for The Good Life this summer that I felt I should write for. Suicide was one. I got stuck there: I couldn’t finish writing about a subject I hadn’t fully processed. The victim—and there is no upbeat alternative term, is there, for one who has completed suicide—had friends and family, too, and when I write about something so sad and specific as her effect on me, this person who has died, I want, I need it to be good, because this is a small town and I could find myself face to face with her mother, for instance, and I need to be able to look her in the eye.
It is never too late to write for a call: I publish posts in series long after the special section debut. The scheduling of the debuts of special sections is even sort of loose, since I can never guarantee how many submissions I will receive, or accept. So I can write for Suicide some time, and may. Now that I’ve said it, I think it’s more likely that I probably will.
This theme of Body Modification, at first, did not even seem an obvious subject for me to tackle. I worried (that infernal, internal editor) that it would be alienating to write on the subject when Danny edited the Body Image series, that people would feel that my body is not male; that they would deny who I am by calling me something else. Having given up trying to believe what I was told about myself before I could form an identity of my own, I have only what I have come up with to have faith in; when so many disagree—and they do—with what I have discovered, it’s a denial that I can’t defend against. I am what I am. If you can’t see that, I cannot convince you.
It’s not the mirror or its reflection, but what one is able to perceive that determines one’s body image. I saw myself as male until I couldn’t bear the denial of all evidence to the contrary. Then I grew to adulthood and discovered that the evidence could be changed. I didn’t have to stay the way I was born. So much can be changed, really, that it’s kind of a miracle, at least for me. Most of the change has come from little vials of testosterone.
I’ve also had chest surgery: bilateral mastectomy with male chest reconstruction. Having had this one procedure, which was performed in a same-day surgery center, I’m not eager to submit to another. Being a man who looked like I did demanded that I finish what I started. I know there are people in the world who live as men with breasts. I could not stand to be one of them, and I was able to scrape together the money. My privilege. Good thing: it’s not like insurance covers this. In Andrew Smiler’s article, Plastic Surgery: It’s Not Just for Women Anymore, he notes that one of the most popular cosmetic procedures men undergo is male breast removal. If we recognized gynecomastia as a medical condition, this wouldn’t be considered cosmetic surgery. Likewise gender identity disorder.
Most men aren’t having such large breasts removed as I did, and so they can have this done with smaller scars than I live with. Other trans men I’ve talked to have also had this experience of assuming that our scars speak for our experience; that strangers will know we are trans if they see our chests. It isn’t so. They ask. When my scars were newer I had a couple of people ask me about them, down at the apartment complex pool. Each time they supplied the lie and I agreed to it:
“Open heart surgery?”
Because to ask is rude, and to question the veracity of my answer is even worse, the conversation always ended there. I was too insecure to give them the opportunity to see my exposure differently.
Twelve years later, in another state, I ride my bike and walk my dog around town without a shirt on, all summer long. I like the way the sun and wind feel on my skin. It’s cooler to sweat freely than into cloth that clings. I am trying to feel comfortable with the privilege of shirtlessness. I am also a long time nudist. Nudists have to find places, other than alone, at home, to be nude together; we can’t just decide to show up at the Stop N’ Shop in sneakers and nothing else; the sign on the door indicates that at the very least, a shirt must also be worn. In addition to health regulations, state laws dictate what may be exposed and what must be covered to be considered decent. I don’t mind freaking out the tourists on a nude beach: I feel entitled to be naked, no matter what I look like, in space designated for nudists, who famously come in all shapes and sizes. I mind very much taking too much privilege in my posh neighborhood.
I like to think I’m always decent, no matter what I look like.
Other than piercing my ears, I had not modified my body until I began taking testosterone. My attitude was like that of Kyle Carpenter, who writes of his fear of commitment and how this bears out on his unmarked body in My Body Is a Temple. But other things happened to commit my body to change: I went through puberty. I got pregnant. I had a baby and nursed him. My skin is pale, hairy, and prone to keloid scarring and stretch marks. I did not get to choose when or how much or whether it would change. I still have the marks from surgery—both times—and also, faintly, from each of the times I endured puberty: the time I did not choose and the time that I did. I am marked deeply, inside and out, by childbirth. This is what happens to bodies, and skin, and to my skin, in particular. Why not, I finally decided in my mid-twenties, choose at least some of the design? Several months after starting to take testosterone, and a few months before I had chest surgery, I got my first—and still my only—tattoo. It’s on my right bicep, so that I would forever wear my heart on my sleeve, even while naked. It’s a reminder I’m relieved to possess, of a truth that would otherwise be invisible. Even while naked.
I have worried that maybe I shouldn’t show my chest so casually. That maybe I’m taking too much privilege, and inflicting ugliness on other people. Other trans men I know, even ones with more pleasing aesthetic outcomes, hide their chests. They’ll keep their shirts on at pool parties and at the beach. I show myself. I’m finding out just how much of my reality I can share, even at the risk of being disrespected. Here’s where I’ve been, in a raised-relief road map.
I think the scars on my chest are ugly, but I’m not ashamed of them. They were the unavoidable effect of being myself, and I’m not ashamed to be me. The relief I’ve found from modifying my body gives me peace. So many years later, I am able to stand up straight, to walk tall, and my body says to me that this is not our privilege: this is a right.
Image credit: loumurphy/Flickr