Breasts are curious things. They sprout on you, unbidden, transforming you from child – generic, self-contained, human – to woman, that cartoonish parody of a person.
The way in which they develop will influence the way in which the world receives you. Small-breasted women are bookish, intellectual, perhaps slightly repressed; large-breasted women are cheap, available, maybe a little dumb. Either way, growing breasts makes you fresh meat. It puts you on the market, regardless of whether that’s where you want to be.
I am a small-breasted virgin in the body of a large-breasted whore. A flat-chested non-binary in the body of a matronly ciswife. I have never quite been able to get the right personality in place to match my tits. God knows, I’ve tried.
For almost ten years I starved myself into almost-flatness, rolling back the first-girl-at-school-to-get-breasts humiliations of my final year at junior school. Then when I lost it – and lost it badly, so many cup sizes, almost running out of alphabet – I attempted to occupy my own space, sleeping around, taking sexist jokes on the chin, taking time to realise that one’s space is not a thing a woman gets to define for herself. Then there were the almost-breast reductions, two operation appointments turned down. I wasn’t sure what parts of me to keep, which to reject. I’m still not sure years later, stretched and tired by a third round of breastfeeding. My baby son sometimes moulds and plays with the flesh while he drinks, as though he’s handling plasticine. That’s what my breasts feel like to me: insensitive, roughly formed, shoved onto me while I wasn’t looking. A bad joke, a “kick me” sign pinned to my back.
These are of course strange times in which to be the inhabitant of a female body. On the one hand, we are told there is no such thing per se. A penis can be female; a vagina can be male. It all depends on how you identify. Don’t be so cissexist, you there at the back!
On the other hand, the female body as object for universal consumption has never been more strictly defined. Tits and ass. Woman cannot be uterus, vagina, vulva – how essentialist! how reductive! – but she can be tits and ass, plus a hole, any hole, to fuck. Thus if you don’t feel like a woman – don’t want to be treated like a woman – better do something about those breasts. Get a binder. Have top surgery. Don’t, whatever you do, just leave them hanging, lest people mistake you for someone you’re not.
As though it is that simple. As though the mistake is not the world around you.
You are the mistake.
“Woman,” wrote Virginia Wolf, “have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” We are mirrors, templates, empty vessels. We’re whatever the male observer wants us to be. I am a blank page; write your meaning on it.
Jaqueline Rose recently wrote 15,000 breathless, muddled words on transness for the LRB. “Transsexual people are brilliant at telling their stories,” she declared. They are interesting, you see, unlike cis women, those dullards, unquestioning conscripts to the gender regime who see themselves as “normal” because they lack the trans person’s unique ability to inhabit a liminal space:
The ‘cis’ – i.e. non-trans – woman or man is a decoy, the outcome of multiple repressions whose unlived stories surface nightly in our dreams. From the Latin root meaning ‘on this side of’ as opposed to ‘across from’, ‘cis’ is generally conflated with normativity, implying ‘comfortable in your skin’, as if that were the beginning and end of the matter.
Who, exactly, we may therefore ask – trans or non-trans – is fooling whom? Who do you think you are? – the question anyone hostile to transsexual people should surely be asking themselves. So-called normality can be the cover for a multitude of ‘sins’.
Cis woman, as far as Rose is concerned, restricts herself to a surface-only existence. She is Woolf’s looking glass, now providing an outline to be filled with someone else’s deep, meaningful knowledge of what it is to truly live as neither one thing nor another. The patriarchal insistence that women do not have souls gets an update; cis woman does not know her own soul, but that is her fault. She condemns herself to inauthenticity through her own lack of curiosity, content to remain tits and ass, “the cover for a multitude of ‘sins’.”
It is fascinating, the myth-making in which Rose indulges in order to find her way back to the familiar, comfortable narrative, the one that says people born with penises have inner lives and people born without them do not. She quotes Paris Lees in what she calls a “wondrous twist” on Germaine Greer’s basic point that males cannot presume to know the inner lives of females:
Yes, I have no idea what it feels like to be another woman – but nor do I know what it feels like to be another man. How can anyone know what it feels like to be anyone but themselves?
Very deep. Yet curiously, it’s an argument that would never be applied to any other class definition. I don’t know what it feels like to be raised in a working class household – but then I don’t know what other people from my social background truly feel like, either. So why can’t I lay claim to a working class identity? How can anyone else be sure – really, really sure – that this isn’t who I am? Because that’s not how socialisation and class structures work, obviously. Unless we’re talking about cis women. Cis women are the only people upon whom social experience leaves no meaningful cultural, historical or physical mark. We cannot write our own stories. The ink evaporates before we’ve reached the end of the first sentence.
Theoretically, all women could declare themselves not-women in order to escape this double-bind. We could present ourselves before Rose, in all our glorious complexity, demanding recompense for taking such a brave step into the world of the unconscious self. We’d have to chop off our tits first, mind. Chop off our tits, abandon our children, live like Amazons, scavenging in the wild, since it’s not as though simply announcing “I’m human” has done us any good. It doesn’t matter what we say. Our very bodies – each pound of flesh – are interpreted as offering non-verbal consent to whatever is done to us.
People with penises own the vast majority of the world’s wealth and commit the vast majority of the world’s violence. It is, however, considered impolite to dwell upon this curious coincidence. After all, correlation is not causation. It’s one thing to ask why people with uteruses are less successful at earning money (better nurturing skills, biological clock, lack of testosterone-fuelled ambition etc. etc.); quite another to ask why people with penises are so much better at rape and murder (shh!).
Writing for Glamour magazine, Juno Dawson defends the right of trans women not to have to talk about their genitals: “This isn’t a coquettish fan dance where I’m trying to tease and conceal, it’s just that by not talking about my genitals, you might have to listen to what’s on my mind.” Fair enough, although somewhat naïve when one considers that for female people, assumptions made on the basis of our genitals have been a reason why people haven’t listened to what’s on our minds since the day we were born. This isn’t just a case of mindless objectification; it’s a process of sex class categorisation, and it’s one we cannot avoid unless we can really, truly convince people that we are not members of the potential gestator class. For us, what is “in our pants” is not a subject of morbid curiosity; it is the void that makes us exploitable, expendable and less than human. And either way, it doesn’t really matter whether people can see what is in our pants as long as they can still see our tits.
Nobody has ever had to ask me “do you have breasts?” because it’s pretty fucking obvious I do. Yet contemporary gender politics situates these as a choice, a statement, part of an overall identity package. Paris Lees even lists “tit privilege” as one of the things cis women don’t realise they have: “I know tits can be a pain sometimes, but they truly are awesome, ladies. Take it from someone who took a bit longer to grow a nice rack.” I’m not sure to whom our tits are meant to be awesome. To us? To men? Either way, if we don’t know it – if we want to slice them off, starve them into oblivion, press them into submission – we’re either ungrateful or not women at all. To situate one’s feelings towards one’s body in a broader political context is a bigoted act. The point of your female body is to make other people feel better about their bodies, same as always.
And it scares me because I know how easy it is to fall down that rabbit hole. When you feel your flesh on you, inescapable, when it causes you that level of offence, of course it’s easier to try to make it disappear. I think most women feel it, to a greater or lesser extent, the way in which ever since fat deposits started to gather in particular places, we were seen as complicit in our own abuse. I know of girls who don’t want to go through puberty, just as I didn’t, only now they are being told there is a way out that will lead them to their true selves, the breastless Amazons they always should have been. And I think “but how? How can you genuinely believe you have the wrong breasts, any more than you have the wrong eyes or the wrong toes?” And then I think “easy. I believed it. If I were to stand naked in front of a mirror, I’d believe it again.”
I cannot help but feel the rawest anger at all the new ways invented to make women hate their own flesh and feel as though they do not belong. We are told that the narrative of the female body must not be exclusive, but we then create one that leaves women with nowhere to go. Our bodies are the only homes we have and here we are, suffocating beneath meanings that we can only control with the help of the surgeon’s knife.
We have brilliant stories to tell, too. We shouldn’t have to peel off our own flesh to prove we’re not empty inside.