Image: photography by Ashley Armitage. Image source.
Boobs, titties, hooters, jugs, whatever you call them, they’re more than tissue and mammary glands. Our breasts, for better or worse, form a critical part of our identity. Historically politicised, breasts and nipples are controversial because they are such an obvious physical manifestation of what people consider gender to be. We are taught to feel torn between covering them and revealing them, and despite their incredible capability to feed newborns, they are frequently shamed for doing so publicly. In this five-part miniseries I’m speaking with Australians about breasts. I’ve chosen five women who have had complex and different relationships with their breasts. Hopefully it forms a kind of boob-focused time capsule; a cross-section of experiences and attitudes toward breasts in the early 21st century.
This second interview is with Valerie, a trans woman who is an Australian artist.
Bri: Please tell me about your breasts.
Valerie: I’m not really the type to get poetic about my body but giving a matter-of-fact description of my breasts feels like underplaying how much they mean to me. I mean, here’s what I can say about them: they’re not big enough to completely fill a bra yet but when I’m topless they’re at least visible from most angles and present enough to get a decent handhold on if the occasion calls for it. Doesn’t come off too much like a product review I hope?
Bri: Do you want to change your breasts from how they are now? Or have you already changed them from some other, original state?
Valerie: As I recall it took less than a week of hormone replacement therapy before my nipples started to get sensitive to touch in a VERY nice way. Then they started to get sensitive to having anything at all bump or brush even slightly against them in a constantly distracting ache kind of way… Both of these are still the case but at least the pain reminds me that my breasts are still growing. I’d like them to keep growing for a while longer, and if I could wish them into a new form instantly I’ve got a fairly good idea of what I’d go with, but after years of appreciating breasts of many different shapes and sizes I reckon I’ll be satisfied with whatever I end up with.
Bri: As they’ve been growing and changing as part of your transition, how has that made you feel? How has it impacted your sense of self?
Valerie: Even with clothes on they’re a clear, visible point of difference between myself now and the way I was pre-transition, and between myself and the men I’ve known for years and never fully felt like I belonged with. I have a new name, new clothes, I wear makeup now, my personality has changed quite a lot for the better, but having even just a slight curve in my chest drives the message home as to being considered a woman, among women.
Bri: Have you ever had an intimate partner express a strong opinion about, or have a reaction to, your breasts (positive or negative)? How did that make you feel?
Valerie: I have one intimate partner, a cis woman, and we’ve been together since before I transitioned. We don’t often talk about my body except to observe visible changes every so often, and we don’t often talk about sex (before, during or after), but… she treats my breasts very well, now that they’re here, is how I’d put it. The first time she put her hands up my shirt during sex was one of the single most affirming moments of my life.
Bri: Do you wear a bra? How does underwear make you feel?
Valerie: Depending on my mood, underwear can either feel very affirming or draw my attention sharply to the differences between my own body and the bodies it’s designed for. Learning how to do up my own bra strap has been a frustrating experience and if I don’t laugh at the quiet absurdity of trying to learn this skill in my 30s the feeling curdles into something more painful. There’s a chance that there’s a perfect kind of underwear out there for me with just the right balance of beauty and function, but just searching for it is exhausting.
Bri: Would you like for your answers to be published anonymously? And if so, or if not, why?
Valerie: It’s no secret that I’m trans but I’m going anonymous for this because there aren’t a lot of search results for my name yet and I’m not quite okay with this being one of the first! Let’s get some more of my work out there before everyone knows how I feel about my boobs, alright?
From previous conversations with Valerie I know she gets frustrated that the conversation around transgender identity is so focussed on surgery. Watching the show “You Can’t Ask That”, for example, she told me that it was annoying that all the questions towards trans people showed an emphasis on ideas about pre- and post- surgery being paramount. Even accepting people can’t shake ideas of a gender binary. Speaking with her about breasts, however, gave me a new understanding for how important typically-female physical identifiers can be for a trans person to feel good about their bodies.
I got goosebumps when I read about Valerie’s feeling of affirmation when her partner reached for her breasts during sex. It’s so important for us to feel accepted by our intimate partners, I’d never bothered to stop and think about how easily that comes for me as a cis woman with a cis partner. Speaking to Valerie about her transition has taught me a lot about what it means to be a woman today. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I’m grateful for her friendship, time, and honesty.
Read the previous instalment in the series: