The Sexist

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?

C.L. MINOU: It's kind of interesting how all this played out.

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?

CLM: I think getting my body to more closely conform with the way I "should have been" was a big part of all the procedures I've had done—plastic surgery to reduce the size of my chin, the breast augmentation, and the GRS itself. I don't think I did any of those out of a desire to be "prettier" or only to conform to an artificial beauty standard; my primary motivation was always to reduce the probability of being identified as transsexual.

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?

CLM: To answer the last question first: Yes, I think ideally we should be able to differentiate them. My own feeling about gender is that we should really be allowed to have any gender we want. The problem (contra someone like, say, Julie Bindel or a lot of the second wave radical feminists) isn't with gender, but the expectations of gender—that someone who has breasts should be feminine, or someone who wears high heels should be, I don't know, submissive. Being able to inhabit the gender you feel comfortable in shouldn't be limited to just trans people!

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?

CLM: To be honest, I tend to worry much more about being read as trans than I do about whether or not I'm conventionally attractive. Of course, that usually plays out by using the tropes of conventional female beauty, as I wrote about here ("I Feel Pretty, I Feel . . . Coerced Into Being Co-Opted By the Patriarchalist Beauty Myth") and here ("Looks Like Trouble"). This is actually something that has changed as I've gotten further and further from transition; I wear much less makeup nowadays (usually just lipstick, and long-wearing lipstick at that) and I've even gotten comfortable with going out without any makeup at all.

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.

  • Jess

    "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."

    This is really, really interesting and nuanced. Thanks, C.L.!

  • dj bent

    fantastic, complex discussion. thanks to you both.

  • Liz

    This is a great reminder of the harm a movement can do by shutting out certain members - in this case, feminists shutting out men and trans women. We're all in this together, and together we are stronger!

  • Em

    That was a fantastic read. We all need to be reminded to be inclusive sometimes, and how much harm exclusiveness can do.

  • groggette

    Thanks C.L., this was a great post!

  • kza

    If you always have identified as female, you never really felt male privilege to begin with. Seems unfair that you would get shit for that.

  • Emily H.

    "The problem (contra someone like, say, Julie Bindel or a lot of the second wave radical feminists) isn’t with gender, but the expectations of gender—that someone who has breasts should be feminine, or someone who wears high heels should be, I don’t know, submissive. Being able to inhabit the gender you feel comfortable in shouldn’t be limited to just trans people!"

    Totally agree with this. I really enjoyed this post, and C.L. Minou seems like a delightful woman.

  • Rebekah

    @kva - I wouldn't say that's necessarily true. Certainly you haven't felt the same privilege that cis men do, but you've still been treated (however wrongly) as a man, and that's a privileged position.

  • Rebekah

    Also, I freaking loved this interview for it held many beautiful and brilliant things.

  • Sarah

    This is an absolutely wonderful article. I have little experience with trans womens' POVs, and this interview was beautifully illuminating.

    I want to venture that critique of women's cosmetic enhancement, particularly breast augmentation, is not so much a critique against the association of breasts with femininity so much as it is a critique against the association of certain types of breasts with femininity. Personally, I think there's a big difference between getting breast implants or reconstruction after a mastectomy or for trans-related surgeries and getting breast implants because your breasts "need" to be larger. In other words, the idea that big firm breasts = better / more feminine breasts is wrong to me, and I think that idea is the motivation behind a lot of breast augmentation.

    Whether they're small breasts, big breasts, perky breasts, saggy breasts, symmetrical breasts, or lopsided breasts, they're all equally breasts, but people who get breast augmentation or champion augmentation may not feel this way.

  • Jesus Son


    Sorry, but your argument makes no rational sense. When both transwomen and "cis" women have breast augmentation surgery they are both conforming to "patriarchal" notions of what femininity should be--that is to be a woman, one must have noticeable breasts or wear lipstick or have long hair. For the sake of argument, isn't it patriarchy that tells transwomen that they have to look a certain way? I mean if you're going to apply this idea to women why not apply it to transgender women?

    The reality is when you actually try to apply logic to these types of cases, things begin to fall apart and unravel. Worse yet it illustrates perfectly the failings of third and fourth wave feminism to develop anything close to a coherent ideology or polemic outside of privileging the victim. The game comes down to this: he/she who has been more victimized has the ultimate moral authority on a given subject.

  • kza

    This is a tough call. Transgender women and women who have had a breast removed are kind of in the same boat. On one hand, getting a BA would bring them closer to the female form they prefer, but on the other hand is the female form they prefer just a form that complies with the patriarchal norm? It's easy to say as an outsider that you should forgo the BA and just be happy with yourself no matter what a sexist society would say...but then again you don't have to live a life without one of the physical features that define women in our society.

  • September Meadows

    Because C.L. Minou uses it here.....

    I prefer the term SRS to GRS and my reasons why are simple.

    1) For me it is a truth that GENDER is between a persons ears, not their legs.
    A persons SEX is between their legs and not between their ears.
    So with this reasoning, SEX Reassignment/Realignment Surgery is changing
    what is between a persons legs or elsewhere other than their brain.
    For me, GENDER Reassignment/Realignment Surgery would be an act of
    surgically altering the brain so that a persons mind fits their body. A very
    horrifying notion to me to say the least.
    [note: I have met many trans men and woman that say "Gender is between
    your ears, sex between your legs," yet prefer the term GRS to SRS.]

    2) I feel that in order to help make trans folk unthinkably common, and as
    acceptable in society as anyone else, we need to demystify ourselves by
    settling on a common and sensible terminology to describe ourselves.
    Having contradictory terms or multiple meaning does nothing but annoy
    and frustrate. If we want to win over the silent majority, our words need
    to be simple, concise, and as acceptable as all the words that are used to
    describe cisgendered folks.
    [note: I do realize that there are a large number of trans folks that want to
    move away from having the term SEX in any of the terminology that is used
    to describe us. GRS instead of SRS, Transgendered woman/man instead of
    Transsexual woman/man. That is fine but If that is what the majority want
    then the whole trans language should be overhauled instead of doing it in
    confusing, contradictory baby steps that just help hobble us.

    So what do you think or feel about it all?

    September Meadows
    Yakima, WA USA

  • Christine Rodgers

    I am a woman (born woman.) I have given birth to four children and breastfed them all, yet my breasts (when not lactating) are not even an A cup. I am tall and have a broad frame- I look at myself in photos when I was a bridesmaid for my sister last year and think 'wow, I look like a transsexual' (lots of makeup, but not a 'feminine' body.) I am not typically 'feminine' (clothes, makeup, hair etc.) I am not even naturally maternal (It's been a learning curve.) I will never be able to afford cosmetic surgery and may never know what it feels like to look like a 'real woman.' But I don't even care. If your identity depends upon your gender, you are very enslaved indeed.

  • DanceDreaming

    Actually, I think GRS technically refers to Genital Reconstructive Surgery, and is therefor inclusive of all genital plastic surgery? I could be wrong. Whereas SRS is a non-technical term specifically for all surgeries that are involved with sex-reassignment, including BA for transwomen, and removal for transmen. As well as facial surgeries, and tracheal shaves sometimes.

    But then the terms go all fuzzy when they hit common parlance. As terms are wont to do.

  • CL Minou

    @Christine Rodgers: You looked like a transsexual? You mean, you had big boobs and wore almost no makeup?

    Oh, no, I see. You looked like your *stereotype* of a transsexual, which is, I guess, a mannish person wearing a lot of makeup. Kinda like Annie Lennox, I guess.

    You certainly didn't look like *me*, an actual transsexual, who has, as noted above, large breasts and a general aversion to makeup.

    I do truly love it when people--especially people who make a big deal about their own gender presentation, like you did--smugly tell me about how my own gender struggles should be No Big Deal.

  • Christine Rodgers

    Sorry, I should have said I looked like a transvestite.

    I am curious why you are so adamant to assert that you are a woman, including having surgery in order to avoid being mistaken for a man. What exactly makes you a woman?

    It is of course your right to do what you want with your own body and your own life. However I can understand women who were born women and maybe not having the same freedom or choices you have had, wanting a space of their own. (Like Lu's pharmacy, which offers confidential help with birth control.) Let them be. If you give them respect and acceptance, maybe they will give the same to you.

    Being in a female body is a very vulnerable position. I'm talking about having a vagina and a uterus.

    Asserting yourself against these women is like being, dare I say it, a chauvinistic man? I would never do it, but then maybe that's because I know what it's like to have a vagina and a uterus.

    If you want to be accepted as a woman, try to understand the common experience of women. Women have historically been told what they are and what they should do, by men. Can you not understand that you, saying you are actually a woman, and forcing women to give you the same rights, makes you look pretty much the same as a man?

    If you truly are a woman born into a male body, then of course I agree you should be accepted in a place like Lu's pharmacy.

    That is why I ask 'what makes you a woman?' Because attacking a women's centre makes you look to me, not like a woman.

  • Christine Rodgers

    p.s. I guess what I mean to say is show solidarity with your sisters, if that is what they really are. Then they will hopefully recognise you for what you are.

  • Christine Rodgers

    And I guess it boils down to, if you believe you are a woman, then absolutely you are.

    However the moment you seek outside validation is the moment I question your belief. How can I believe you if you are not sure yourself?

    I only spoke of my 'gender presentation' to show that I do not require validation that I am a woman. To me it is a matter of chromosomes.

    As you have decided to also call yourself woman, the word no longer carries the same meaning. Therefore I will refer to myself as an XX. It means nothing and yet it means everything. It is, after all, material. And I am not.

    No-one can define what being an XX is. An XX person may be gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, or intersex.

    I have always been a feminist, despite growing up in a fundamentalist religious home. However, as you also call yourself a feminist, I will refer to myself herein as an XXist. Just to avoid any of the connotations you, as a non-XX, may have given the word.

    Perhaps as a feminist you speak for women's rights. I do not. I speak for XX rights. Whether they be man or woman, both or neither.

    I absolutely uphold the rights of XXs to run businesses, charities or social groups solely for other XXs. I am not sexist. I am an XXist. It is my chromosomes.

    I believe the intellectual or spiritual 'higher self' is sex and gender free. Eventually, we all lose our feminine bodies and ability to bleed (if we live long enough.) Then what is left? Being human is infinitely more than sex or gender. But while I am in this XX body, I will always defend my rights and the rights of my fellow XXs.

    I am not not anti XY. I have a son (or an XY child) and I want him to have every right he is entitled to. I will even support his right to breastfeed (XYs can lactate too. Probably not if they've had augmentation surgery, however.)

    So maybe you are a real woman, that's great. Perhaps I am not. Like I said before, I don't care. I do care about XYs enforcing their beliefs on XXs. Before as a feminist, and now as an XXist.

    So if an XY woman walks into Lu's pharmacy and is accepted as an XX, fine. However, if Lu's pharmacy refuses service on the grounds that the XY woman is not XX, I think that is their right too. Why don't you set up your own XY pharmacy, if you really care about yourself and other XY women? And respect the XXs. And don't tell me you are concerned with complete non-discrimination. You haven't complained that Lu's aren't serving men (because they do- XX men.)

    This is why I used to call myself a feminist. I couldn't stand the lack of respect for women from men. Now I understand what I really meant was the lack of respect from XYs to XXs. Thanks for the clarification.