Calm your tits: 3 Ways I grappled with my top surgery
Forced with my own solitude during the pandemic, I have the space to reflect on my double mastectomy & explore my gender.
By Zayn Singh, Contributor
The process of cutting off my tits did not begin as an afterthought. Nor was it something I felt like doing because I could. It wasn’t a medical emergency; it wasn’t something that sounded fun to try. It wasn’t glorified like you see in reality TV where breast reductions or augmentations are all chalked up to be plastic and silicon—‘fake’ signs of womanhood created or reduced to pleasure a man and the societal gender binary.
No, for me it was a choice. It was an affirmation, a new beginning.
It was also a death, a release, a solemn recreation of my fat and skin to realign with a structure that I could stand to look at in the mirror. It was scary, it was painful, it was joyous and triumphant. It was everything I hoped it would be and nothing I wanted ever all at the same time.
There is a standard trans narrative in popular media and dominant culture currently.
One that Jacob Tobia in their coming-of-gender memoir Sissy describes as a sort of mad lib where we write our trans ness into the blanks put on the page by our cis counterparts. The notion that a removal of breast tissue or the insertion of such breast tissue helps to make trans folks more like a man or a woman is like saying I want a cheeseburger but please hold the bun and the cheese and also the burger. It’s absurd. It’s a way for the cis heteronormative society to continue to place our trans bodies within the confines of their tiny minds. And how tiny are they! It’s like bowling with bumpers up for the rest of your life; we are too scared to watch the ball fall in the gutter, because what if we never get it back? Or even worse, what if we hit all of the pins with the bumpers down and win? Then what?
I am ashamed and regretful to say that I bought into the narrative, when I scheduled my top surgery 2 and a half years ago. Even worse, I was still stuck in that mad lib when my surgery happened a year after I booked the appointment, erasing and replacing boring adjectives with fancier synonyms to cover up the fact that I still wanted to pass so damn badly and be a man.
I wanted that binary to embrace me, tell me I am one and not the other.
Hold me close, let me rest my head on your shoulder so that I may have your acceptance and approval. So that I may have your love. Label me as handsome, as strong, as a man in your eyes every time.
It’s funny; while the pandemic has made the world lonelier, I actually feel more liberated.
Now, when I’m forced with my own solitude in the time of a global pandemic, I have the space to reflect on the things I wish I had worked through in my head and heart before my surgery. There is space for me to perform my gender in ways that I would never dare to when I knew people would be watching. Isolation gives me room to breathe, to be. I am allowing myself to see that I actually don’t want to be a part of the trans narrative cis folks have determined for me.
I don’t want to be a man, I want to be a trans man. I emphasize trans because that prefix is so critical.
The movement from and into signifies that I am moving through and across boundaries, from binaries and into spaces that I have built and defined for myself.
I promised you 3 straightforward ways to grapple with your double mastectomy, but, of course, this internal questioning is never straightforward, nor is it ever over. Nonetheless, here are 3 reflections on how to grapple with losing your flesh by choice, and transition into a boldly profound human being.
photo credit: Zayn Singh
1. Accepting the death of an identity.
This was quite hard for me to get to, and in fact I would say the 5 stages of grief applied here to allow me to get to acceptance. And, like any cycle or set of actions, the stages repeated—and continue to repeat time and time again. Nonetheless I can confidently say that I accept.
I accept that I chose to remove my breasts and release myself from what I believed were the chains of womanhood.
It felt like holding your breath under water. I used to have contests with my sister and cousins in the pool when I was younger where we would see who could hold our breath the longest and I was always the first to lose. Perhaps it was my inability to push myself past my limits of physical pain. But I’d like to believe that it was because I knew that exhaling was a much sweeter release than winning. And removing my breasts was that release of the pain I had suffered through for so long. I had forced the femme inside of me to dim their light, because I was uncomfortable with the way my physical body looked. In the privacy of my own room, I can admit that I was quite fond of my breasts because the femme in me lived there. But how could I allow the femme to exist beyond just myself if I was embarrassed by the flesh that held them? Thus, I accepted that I was going to lose some to win others.
And what I won was the comfort of my femme in my chest that I feel proud to bare to the world.
It exists beyond just my room, beyond just myself. The world holds my femme too.
2. Gaining male passing privilege.
This was incredibly uncomfortable to admit to myself but the flat chested are respected differently than I had even understood. Walking down the street after my surgery, I noticed people stopped to move out of my way, not the other way around. How strange, I thought, you’d think I was carrying a knife. It was like 2 repelling magnets; everyone flocked around me, gave me space to strut to my breakfast reservation at the Pancake House (the pain relief medication really made me crave diner food). And then it hit me, they all were seeing me as a ‘man.’ Years of studying Stuart Hall’s Representation finally clicked for me in that instance.
My new flat chest was a signifier of maleness, and maleness is privilege in power, sex, money, and authority. I hated it! I wanted to scream, I was once a woman in your eyes, but that would only reinforce the binary to these folks who stepped aside for me on the street. I realized in that moment the importance of using transman as the way to refer to my gender expression. It felt as though by me saying transman, I was reclaiming the marginalization of othered bodies and passing the signified privilege onto those who exist beyond the binary. For me to be able to utilize this male passing privilege to uplift those who, like me, are gender queer, trans, and gender non-conforming, felt almost manipulative. Oh those tiny cisgendered minds!
You don’t even realize the ways in which you are questioning yourselves just by being around me.
And what a gift that is.
3. The scars will never fade.
I say this literally and figuratively. Literally, my double incision scars that seem to form almost two cupped palms holding my heart in place will never disappear. And the trauma I endure and have endured everyday for being trans will never fade either, scars of a figurative battle with the society of tiny minds.
I remember taking my shirt off for the first time since my surgery. It was a very hot and humid Chicago summer day and my family and friends were out on Lake Michigan. The sun was beating down, and I yearned to jump in the lake and cool my boiling blood down. But I didn’t, at least not right away. I was thinking: Oh god, everyone will know I’m a fake if I take my shirt off. Or worse, they will take pity on me and how big my scars are, how dark they are, how thick and prominent they are. I will look stitched up, like old jeans being passed down from sibling to sibling. I looked around me. And I realized, shit, this is never going away. And with that, I took my shirt off and jumped in the lake.
Before I jumped, I heard my good friend Lori say to my mother, “Now, that’s what happiness and freedom looks like.” And she was right. It was happiness and it was freedom.
But it was the freedom to show myself and the world that scars do not make me broken. Nor will they continue to break me.
Scars are the ways in which we see growth. The scars mother earth bears from volcanoes exploding have resulted in islands and land masses that we walk upon. My literal scars have granted me the gift of holding my femme close and letting it shine. My figurative scars have granted me the gift of helping society to move and to question what it thinks it knows. We do not know everything, I do not know everything. Every battle I fight is not just for me, it is for you: the cis man who has never had to think twice about his pronouns but worries about if he is man enough. It’s for the little kid who hasn’t yet comprehended the difference between a boy and girl. It’s for the parents who are terrified of their kids being mentally ill, because they have what the medical community has labeled as gender dysphoria, but what I label ‘radical discomfort in a body they have been unable to successfully study into a box.’ The scars are beautiful and bold. And may I forever keep them close.
About — Zayn Singh (he/him) is a queer South Asian trans man. He is working towards a Master’s in Counseling to become a therapist for the LGBTQ community. Zayn believes in working to bring communities together by sharing his story. He currently lives in Chicago, IL, working as a cyber security analyst with his many houseplants and ever growing collection of books and records.
Cover photo credit: Zayn Singh, @zksingh