C.L. Minou on Boobs, Beauty, and Being Trans
So, I've been pretty hard on breast implantation lately. First there was this screed against justifying breast augmentation as empowering. And then there was this dissection of the plastic surgery industry in general. And then C.L. Minou, a writer I admire very much, sent me an e-mail basically saying, "Hey! I am a woman who actually has breast implants. Want to talk to me about it?"
And good thing, that! For behold the product of that missive: This lovely interview with Minou about the ways in which the feminine beauty ideal intersects with trans identity and feminist identity and the work of just living our lives and being comfortable in our bodies. But first: Minou blogs at The Second Awakening, a blog about feminism, post-gender-transition; she is also a regular contributor to Below the Belt and Tiger Beatdown; soon you'll see her work over at Change.Org, too. Onward:
SEXIST: What was your decision-making process like in deciding to undergo breast augmentation, and how do you feel about the whole thing now?
At first, I was not one of those trans people who is overwhelmingly focused on having the surgery—I certainly didn't think I wasn't "complete" or "not a woman" without the surgery, and I didn't have a particularly urgent need to get it done right away. I knew that I'd eventually want to have it, but I wasn't sure how long "eventually" would be.
Initially I don't think I was planning to have the breast augmentation done as part of the process—I still wanted to see what would happen as a result of being on hormone therapy. As time went along and it became clear that I wasn't going to grow past my A cups, I did begin to think more about getting BA done. Not because I was particularly dissatisfied with my breasts, or wanted really big ones; for me the calculus was simply to have breasts more in line with the rest of my physique, which is somewhat . . . larger than a lot of cis women of similar background.
As I began to think more seriously about the augmentation, I asked the opinion of some other trans women I knew who had done BA. One of them told me that it took her from being perceived as "probably a woman" to almost always "definitely a woman." I have to say that was probably the convincing moment for me.
Anyway, one morning about nine months after I had gone fulltime, I was walking to work and running over the question of whether or not to get the BA done and for a second an image of my body after both surgeries flashed across my mind . . . and I nearly started to cry, right there on the street. That's when I knew it was time to get the GRS (gender reconstructive surgery) done.
As a trans woman, how has your relationship to your body been affected by the expectations placed on it from the outside? Do you think your identification as female been affected specifically by these physical expectations?
At the same time, I can't pretend that all of those actions, down to the whole "look more like a (cis) woman" isn't strongly controlled by societal expectations of what a woman looks like. Having "strong" features, or small breasts on a broad frame (or even having, you know, a penis) aren't considered acceptably "female" (feminine?) by the beauty standards that exist for women in our society, cis or trans. Had any of those been more acceptable to society as a whole, I might not have had them done. (Well, except for the GRS; that was just going to happen one day.)
So while I can definitely say that I never had any procedure done specifically to make myself "more beautiful," at the same time the pressure on any woman to be "beautiful" was certainly part of the decision process.
If I wasn't trans, I might have been able to avoid some of those, I think—it would be a lot easier for me to opt out of some of the beauty myths if I was much more confident at always being received as a woman. But I'm speaking only for myself; I know trans women who opt out of the beauty race.
How does a woman navigate the space between her own individual preferences for her appearance ("I got breast implants because they make me more comfortable/confident with my body") and the significant expectations imposed on women's bodies from the outside ("they make me feel more comfortable because people expect my breasts to be a certain size")? Can we differentiate between the two? Should we?
All that said, the relationship between the individual preference and the outside expectations are hard to break apart in practice. In my own case, the fact that getting implants made me conform more with the outside expectations of what my body should look like certainly ended up making me much more confident and comfortable with my body. Obviously as a general principle I'm quite in favor of people modifying their body to feel more comfortable! In my case, all of the surgeries I underwent were about making me feel comfortable with my body, or more specifically the idea of what I wanted my body to look like—but how can I separate that from the outside pressures on the very conception of what a woman's body should look like? Does the fact that I'm more comfortable with some body image issues than a lot of cis women I know (I'd like to lose a little weight but I never obsess about it and frankly I don't tend to freak out about what I eat, for example) mitigate the fact that I had so many cosmetic procedures?
I don't think we can simply say that having cosmetic surgery is or isn't a feminist act; I think it's an incredibly difficult thing to tease apart. Certainly some people have cosmetic surgery as a response to the sexist outside world, and for women this is expressed in ways that is very rarely experienced by men. Frankly, I think the problem isn't with deciding for yourself to what degree you want to conform or resist societal expectations of appearance; it's when you attempt to justify those decisions with reference to other people that causes the problems. The woman who never wears makeup and thinks that all women who do wear makeup are tools of the patriarchy isn't that far removed, in terms of rigidity of ideology, from the woman who always wears makeup and thinks people who don't have no appreciation of how to navigate a deeply sexist world.
How do you think high beauty standards imposed on women specifically affect trans women? Do you feel an added pressure to be acknowledged not as a woman, but as a conventionally attractive woman?
That's of course just me. A lot of trans women, like a lot of cis women, chase the beauty standard pretty hard. For trans people, though, it can be much more brutal because some of us simply don't have bodies that fit the template of conventionally attractive women in Western (white) society–we're taller, broader, our curves are–different, some people have issues with hair (too much in the wrong places or not enough in the right places), etc. And these are doubly destabilizing, because not only do you end up paying the penalty any woman does for not being "attractive" enough, you also run the risk of not even being seen as a woman.
How has your transition affected your relationship to feminism? I saw in a Tiger Beatdown comment that you said your "own dedication to feminism is sometimes dismissed as simple self-interest even by feminists." I'm not sure if that directly relates to the boob discussion, but I'd love to talk about it either way.
CLM: As I say over at The Second Awakening, my experience of privilege has left me an opponent of it in all its forms—because I'm quite familiar with the gradient. And it's not even as simple as male privilege vs female subordination—as a crossdresser, I was a lower status male back in the days people thought I was male. I was a feminist before I transitioned, but I'm a much more ardent feminist since I transitioned.
But there's definitely the possibility of my feminism being dismissed for a lot of reasons. The one you cite is certainly one of them—that I'm only a feminist because I'm a woman now, or to express it more bluntly, that I'm trying to recapture my male privilege. (Of course, some people would accuse me of still having it, or acting like I do). The whole question of my former male privilege is pretty complex and delicate–I've never denied that my career (outside my writing life, I'm a programmer) was certainly made much easier because at the time I wasn't a woman. But is that balanced by the lack of status I have as not just a woman, but a trans woman, one who often loses status even among women? Because there's also a trend to automatically discount my feminism or feelings about a feminist topic because I don't share the background that most cis women share. (In its most extreme form you get the attitude of Lu's Pharmacy in Vancouver, a woman-only store that refused service to trans women because we've never bled.
At the same time, as someone who identifies and is usually identified by other people as a woman, I've certainly become more confident in expressing myself in feminist ways. Obviously my words have greater impact when I speak as a woman, rather than as a feminist-identified man. It's not that I deny there's any self-interest in my feminist viewpoint—it's just that it's not the ONLY reason.