Yesterday I went to see one of the surgeons who operates in the local Breast Reconstruction program. Do you remember when my GP told me that she would sign me up for breast reconstruction because I was “in denial” when I declined reconstruction at the time of my bilateral mastectomy? Well sure enough, the surgeon’s office called me because they had a cancellation, and I went to see Dr. N because I thought I should explore all the options available to me. And yes, I have been rethinking this reconstruction business generally, and in particular, my strong resistance to the whole thing.
I learned two things yesterday. First, I am sad to say that I am so shallow, and so marked by cultural norms around fat phobia, that I was thrilled to hear that “you don’t have enough abdominal fat to make breasts”. Having grown up as a tormented fat child, this was my very first adult experience of being told that I wasn’t fat enough! <OMG that is SO sick> But seriously folks, I also knew for sure, feeling absolutely alienated by the various breast implants littering Dr. N’s desk, that I could no more voluntarily submit to attaching breasts to my body than to wear a dress. Not me.
As I have commented upon in previous blog posts, breast reconstruction is narrated entirely un-self-consciously as the reparation of a state of injury to restore a woman to a previously uncompromised state of femininity. There are many normative investments in this line of reasoning, including but not limited to a view of the female body as equivalent to the feminine body, and a view of the female body as being made up, symbolically, of essential parts, such as breasts. On this view, there is a whole which can be radically compromised by the subtraction of specific parts. And so most texts about breast reconstruction take for granted that the stigma of mastectomy will involve an injury to femininity that can be corrected surgically. The degree to which this is a symbolic restoration is underscored by the things that are left out of these accounts, like the fact that using the best of current techniques, breast reconstruction can not repair the nerves that provide sensation to the breast.
However, for me (and many others) the fundamental problem with what I will call, the Restoration Story, is that it incorrectly identifies my gender identification in general, and in particular, the role of breasts in my gender identification. And so a refusal of, or resistance to, “breast reconstruction” is, in fact, often not a desire to refuse a reparation to the damage of surgery, but rather, a refusal of the notion that there ever existed a normative relationship with breasts. How do you reconstruct what was never there? It’s one thing to co-exist with breasts that never felt like they belonged on my body. But how could I ever choose to undergo surgery in order to “restore” what never was — which I could simply define as a state of normative femininity?
I have been thinking about my options. I know that they don’t include the recreation of breasts. However, I also know that I am pretty sure that I don’t want to live out the rest of my life with a chest that is entirely unintelligible as a chest. Or at least, I am drawn to the notion that “body alchemy” involving a potent mix of feminine and masculine identifications creates a kind of “gender trouble” with which I feel a deep and familiar affinity. So now what? Well one of the options that I have been thinking about is the form of body modification that f>m transgendered folks call, Top Surgery. Loren Cameron’s gorgeous book of photographs, including his own self-portraits, document this Body Alchemy as practiced by f>m trans folks, wherein breasts become a chest.
I didn’t feel like I could talk about this with Dr. N, whose desk was covered with an array of breast implants and nice diagrams of busty beaming women. There is a plastic surgeon in town who does most of the f>m top surgeries. I have to wait a year to see him, but maybe I can just hunker down and be patient. It is SO not my best trick, but it may be the only trick in my book. It wouldn’t be something to undergo without a lot of thought, in any case. All very interesting to contemplate. I wonder what our public health plan will say to f>m chest surgery in lieu of breast reconstruction. Or in my case, chest surgery as the only genderqueerly-intelligible form of reconstruction. Think the logic will work with the billing bureaucrats?