I was an early bloomer, as they say, but it sure never felt like blooming to me. While I suppose being the first in your class to enter puberty is never a fun experience, it is only in retrospect that I see how truly horrendous it was for me. My experience became divided into both pride and horror, as I wore it on my sleeve, or should I say, on my chest. I didn’t know at the time that I was transgender – had I known I might have acted differently – so in my self-hatred I decided offense was the best defence, and started to show off my chest. A lot.
Needless to say neither my teachers at catholic school nor my parents seemed very amused, but it was the only way I could handle the fact that something completely alien to my existence was growing in front of me. Literally.
My first bra was a B-cup. It was essential for me that it covered my entire chest, no lumps and bumps sticking out. I opted for a deep red colour with black lace trims – something very grown up, something empowering. I switched the awkward pre-teen boobs for a masquerade of “I’m sexy, I got this”. As my chest grew from a B- to an F-cup I wore increasingly elaborate contraptions; lace, frills, glitter and straps. That kind of extravagance is really quite alien to my true nature, which was kind of the point with it all. When friends admired and commented on my big boobs (and they did so with love) I could distance myself from their words. The bras became shields between me and the dysphoria. It went quite well with the rest of my dramatic style at the time, but it was all a big hoax. I was a pretender in a frilly dress.
I have always dealt with pain and trauma by transforming it into something I can own. I take the hurt and I make it beautiful. That way no one sees what is really happening, no one sees what I really feel. So I spent my free time reading about the history of underwear, watching fashion- and burlesque shows and adding my own (terrifyingly bad) embroidery to my bras. No one ever questioned my love of lingerie, because they didn’t know I was a boy. And when they found out, the questions beat down over me. Why don’t you try harder to look like a man? Why don’t you wear a binder? A binder is, to me, all the pressure that kept me in the closet for so long put into action. Not only pressure to pass to avoid prejudice, but also pressure from the queer community to be trans enough – not to mention the feelings of failure when my large chest is still apparent to everyone.
The advice on how to be more manly (i.e. giving up bras) comes from a place of love and caring, but it fails to understand the different dimensions of dysphoric feelings. The feel of my breasts, more than the look of them, is what triggers my body dysphoria. In a world where we are so obsessed with judging our bodies in the mirror it is often assumed that dysphoria is a predominantly visual affair, to do with how others view us, but that is only a part of the picture. Making my breasts as small as possible to those around me at the same time as I have to deal with the literal pressure of society’s expectations on my chest only serves to create a monster of dysphoria. I shouldn’t have to hide and pretend. I am a man with two big breasts. They are uncomfortable and always in the way – but they are there, for now, and I will not deny their existence, because to do so would be denying my own existence as a transgender individual.
I don’t understand why so many people inherently assume trans individuals should try their hardest to conform to gender roles – often the same, oppressive roles that only a very conservative person would ask a cis-gendered individual to live in. I have experienced this idea everywhere, even in queer communities, and it seems to stem from the same falsehood described above – that dysphoria is all about how others read us. Of course, the idea only feeds itself because if one constantly expects trans individuals to try harder to be enough, we will never be able to be just that. Then we will never be accepted, until we are invisible. Shouldn’t we rather be encouraging whatever makes a trans person feel as comfortable as possible, whatever makes us feel queer enough? If we are to truly reclaim our bodies, we can’t keep pressuring each other to do what others expect of us.
But I also don’t want to be deemed less of a queer. A lot of my male friends wear frilly knickers and nylon stockings, and they are celebrated for their courage. Because I am a trans man I am not. If I wear nylon stockings and show off my lacy bra I am, mildly put, confusing. Unmanly. Unqueer. Less subversive. If I show off lacy knickers with my low-cut trousers I am not trying hard enough to pass.
My main focus now is to make sure my chest is always as unnoticeable as possible. It’s about not feeling it as much as it is about not seeing it, so underwires and most sports bras don’t work – soft bralettes are the way to go for me. There is one thing that I miss about the time before I came out though: I miss the feeling of wearing an artwork on my chest. I miss the feeling of reclaiming the breasts that are not mine by covering them with something both beautiful and personal. I want to make sure that when I look in the mirror I see a lovely piece of design, a thing of beauty, covering the source of my anxiety and pain. If my breasts can never be a part of me then at least I want my bra to be. A bra made for me, and not a woman they want me to be. In a world where breasts are not manly, trans men need to reclaim the bra to reclaim our chests. Frilly or not, underwire or not, minimising or push-up, it does not matter. What matters is that it makes you feel beautiful, empowered and confident – and no one else has any right to belittle that experience for you by implying that your bra is not for you, but a woman that you are not.
I am extremely privileged to be able to get top surgery. There are many who have to live with breasts that are not theirs for an entire lifetime, and we need to face that a large part of the hurt comes from the inability to find bras and bralettes that cater to male and androgynous tastes. My wish and hope is that as trans men are made more visible in the lingerie industry there will also be a growth in garments that help us feel better about the breasts we have to carry around – be it for a month or for a lifetime. To know that it is what makes us feel our best, feel our manliest and most ourselves, and not be confined to binders because that is what is expected of us. I want beauty and affirmation, I want to feel proud of what I am – a man with breasts. We exist and we need to be able to see our identities represented and respected, we need bras that are a part of ourselves and not something that makes us feel even more alien to ourselves. We need support, both from our friends and from our bras, just like everyone else. Because: