Let’s Talk About Breasts

You heard me right. I’m not talking about other folk’s breasts. I’m talking about yours and mine.

I want to open a conversation about what we are thinking, feeling and doing about our breasts because it’s this body which you and I are dressing. Because while there are myriad mainstream conversations taking place about breasts, many dapperQ’s are ambivalent about our breasts. When we gather, it is not something we want to talk about.  I know I don’t.  So I will.

For larger-breasted dapperQ’s, our breasts are generally in direct conflict with the cut of clothes we want to wear. I’ve gotten plenty of e-mails from readers to prove it. You want answers about how to tailor men’s shirts to accommodate your breasts, or you admit that you wear your clothing baggy to obscure your curves.  Or that it’s hard to survive summer options when you bind.

My breasts are size 38D.  They are fine breasts, as breasts go. (This is a photo of how I wore them at 21.) But I have no erotic attachment to them.  Even on a good day they are not particularly butch.  I wish they were much smaller than they are.  I work out and eat well so that my stomach and hips and thighs stay thin, but my breasts keep being huge.  Over the past couple of years–after giving up meat–I lost about 10 pounds.  So now maybe they may be closer to 38C. When I wear a Frog Bra from Title Nine (unfortunately even the XL is tight on me) they look more like a B, which expands my fashion options to include tight t-shirts, ties that aren’t lifted off my chest, and (yay!) suspenders.

My flatter chest makes me feel more attractive.  Or maybe it makes me more confident which makes me feel attractive.  Unfortunately, after several months of wearing the Frog Bra every day, my breasts ache on and off.  My OB-GYN says she knows of no research that suggests this sort of constriction leads to breast cancer.  But it hurts, and even worse before my period.  So I am forced to switch back and forth between a regular bra and sports bra, but am left more self-conscious than I was before I had any experience with my breasts being smaller.

I wish my body was much more muscular, but I’ve done as much as a 47-year old who lifts weights and eats well can do. Although I haven’t yet experienced muscle loss, all the texts say I can expect it as I move in to my 50’s.  I’m jealous of those who take T and sprout muscles I will never have. If I were 20, I believe these exact feelings would lead me to want to transition. Top surgery would be part of that equation.

At the same time, I don’t want to be a man.  I don’t want male genitalia.   I want the word “woman” to be more inclusive, or for folks to be more comfortable with those of us who exist on the edges.  Everyone’s experience is unique and that’s mine, as it exists today.

This morning I conducted a video interview with Clarity Haynes, a fellow Texan who has painted more than 500 female torsos through her Breast Portrait Project.  The project began more than 10 years ago when she painted a portrait of her own breasts in order to deal with her own feelings of ambivalence about her body.  I wanted to talk to Clarity about what she has learned about breasts throughout this project.  For my purposes, her credibility derives not only from the fact that she is a lesbian with a butch partner, but that her Beard Portrait Project “…explores the fluidity of gender identity. By portraying the female face with facial hair – real or imagined – I invite the viewer to question ideas of masculinity and femininity, and to imagine what it would mean to inhabit another body or social identity.”

I’ve agreed to sit for a portrait next week. Like Butch Burlesque, I don’t want to do it.  I’m not sure if I’ll share the portrait with you but I will share what I learn.

I also know this conversation is potentially a political minefield both within and beyond our community. But I am launching it in good faith.

I welcome your perspectives on the topic or ideas for what questions we might want to collectively explore.  I’m going to forward this to several of friends with whom I have had related conversations to ask them to chime in and invite you to do the same. ‘Til soon…

Susan Herr (Founder, Emeritus)

As a teacher, nonprofit executive, and entrepreneur, Susan is passionately committed to advancing ideas that matter. She founded dapperQ in 2009 on the hunch that fashion could build solidarity in the GLBTQ community and positive visibility for her peers in the broader media landscape. For her work with dapperQ, Susan has been quoted and featured in media outlets that include the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Curve, and Diva. She was also named to Go Magazine’s 100 Women We Love. She pays the bills as managing director for Trigger Creative, a film production company based in Brooklyn where she lives with her wife Shannon.

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18 Comments

  • Captain says:

    Here here, Susan. Thanks for raising this issue- I have personal experiences very similar to your own. It’s a constant struggle for me to find clothing that fits my body (I am short and have large breasts and large hips), and when I hit upon one style/brand that fits, I tend to just buy in bulk. I wish I had some options, though. The “no care slim fit rugged vintage look” that is so popular these days does not seem to account for reality when it comes to body size differences, specifically breasts and hips. The frog bra is definitely a great help for getting guys shirts to fit, but I don’t want to have to wear one every day. My question to all the rest of you dapQ’s is: are most of your clothes mens or boys, or are you forced to buy the few womens items that are not pink and frilly, due to fit issues?

  • Mel (I’m @ButchPolice on Twitter) says:

    I’m really happy that this conversation is happening. Thanks for posting this, and thanks to all the other folks who have/will post – I feel like it’s pretty brave to talk about this.

    I have a C/D-ish cup. Over the course of my life, I’ve had a complicated relationship to my breasts. In my life now I alternate between wearing sports bras & binders, depending on my mood. Before I go on, I’d like to say that I think my complicated relationship to my chest is related to the size of my breasts. Because my breasts are pretty big, I’ve considered getting either a breast reduction or top surgery. The jury is still totally out about whether or not I’ll ever have surgery. I’ve always assumed if I had been born with really small (A cup or smaller), easily controlled breasts I wouldn’t be considering any modification of my body. Who knows, though.

    As of late, as I was musing briefly about on Twitter, instead of getting any surgery, I sort of wish that I could strap on/off breasts, like I do my cock. What I mean by that is that I’d like the same flexibility with this body part that I have with my cock – I feel like with a detachable item I can match the different fluctuations of my gender better. Depending on how I feel in regard to my gender on a day or in a moment, with a cock there are all sorts of permutations: usually I don’t pack at all, but when I want to I can use a soft pack, or a hard pack (that I can fuck with). In response to the question about when I’d want to strap my breasts on/off, I think it’s usually (though not always) less about the activity and more about how my gender feels to me at that moment while doing the activity. In general, I’d say I’d have the breasts strapped on as my regular state of being, and could take them off when I wanted. That’s just how I feel now. At different parts of my life, I would have said the exact opposite (meaning I’d only strap them on occasionally and my normal state would be without them).

    Here are some examples:
    -in general, being out in public: Sometimes I don’t care about having them, and I like the fact that my breasts are part of what identify me as a big butch dyke, and enjoy either the camaraderie that being visibly queer* in this way can bring and/or the shock value of interrupting someone’s schema with my presence (meaning that I can prove to someone by my existence that not everyone breaks down evenly into “female” or “male” as neatly as they might think). Other times, I don’t want to deal with that. In fact, sometimes when my breasts mark me as female-bodied and butch, it’s scary because I am more easily identified as something “bad” and feel more susceptible to being a victim of homophobic harassment or violence. (*I’m not saying butch is the only way to be visibly queer – it’s just the way I am visibly queer)

    -sports: for me, it is a total pain in the ass to have a big chest in sports. I have been an athlete my whole life, and it was a hugely sucky experience to develop and have to deal with a big chest in athletics. I had to wear 2 bras to try to control my chest better. Because of the weight of my breasts I also get marks/chafing where the bra straps go across my shoulders. For sports, my breasts would be off. They’d go in my gym bag with my change of clothes.

    -sex: sometimes I can fuck/be fucked totally naked and have my breasts be a part of sex with my girlfriend. Other times, I don’t want that – I’d rather not be touched there (or at all), and I’d rather keep on a sports bra/binder/&maybe even a shirt, and not have breasts be a part of the erotic experience. Instead of wearing a binder/sports bra during those moods, I’d rather just be able to tally take them completely off.

    -dressing up (ex. shirt & tie): it depends, and this is something that has shifted for me in the last 6 months. At previous points of my butch life I would have said that I would want my breasts off 100% of the time while dressing up. I used to be totally opposed and embarrassed by having my breasts be very visible when in a button-down shirt & tie, but lately I don’t really care as much. In fact, sometimes I even think it’s cool to see the shape of my breasts under my shirt. I’m not 100% sure of why this shift happened when it did. Or if this will only be a phase and I’ll shift to a different place in the future. Who knows? My self-esteem & confidence and my ability to accept myself as I am has grown in general, and that has helped expand possibilities in all areas of my life. I’ll still continue to bind sometimes when dressing up, because it does make me feel sexy in a specific way, but it’s not the only way I feel sexy anymore.

  • Jess says:

    Detachable breasts. Now THERE’s an idea. I, too, have always had issues with my breasts (and a very bummed out 34 D over here). These issues only recently (like, within the past year and a half) taken the form of binding and Frog Bra-ing. If I could afford it, I would love the opportunity to reduce these things down to A cups… But then I wonder, would they grow back? Or you never know, would I someday want them back? I would be glad to be able to detach and re-attach at my leisure and depending on my mood/outfit.

  • danna james says:

    Oh the pecs. What a strange thing, so often, to have this animal body. Thanks for bringing up the topic of pecs, chest, breasts, etc. etc. and offering such a studly photograph of one former mode of fashion management. And thank you for exposing yourself to activities outside your comfort level to get a deeper understanding of yourself and then sharing these brave adventures with us.

    I’ve been dreaming of chest surgery for fifteen years, but thus far, as in with t, I don’t feel comfortable pursuing medical intervention to help me handle being trans in this world. Maybe that will change. My pal CLB, before he had chest surgery, used to say, “I wish I could just get boobs-away cream,” and I, too, would dare to dream.

    I think if I went on t, I still wouldn’t get surgery. Surgery isn’t my favorite to say the least. On the other hand, binding for nearly fifteen years hasn’t exactly been comfortable and probably isn’t healthy. I’ve tried frog bras, Underworks chest binders, plain old ace bandage. I would say the Underworks looks the best as far as making me completely flat chested, but also takes the greatest toll on my tolerance for compression and oxygen deprivation. I finally stopped binding about a year ago. It has simply become too painful.

    Not that walking around without a completely flat chest isn’t a big bummer. I’m not sure I’ve had prouder peacock moments then days I’ve donned a tight binder and worn a tight t-shirt or a tight button down shirt and tie. Nevertheless, I’ve made a decision to value one kind of comfort over another. I couldn’t say how big my pecs are, but they’re not too big, so I just suck it up, try to avoid clothing that serves to call attention in that direction, and go on my way.

    I look forward to hearing all the conversation stirred up here. I’m always thinking, maybe if I can just figure out a different angle for approaching things, I’ll be okay with what it is that I am. So maybe I’ll hear stories and ideas that help me come to terms with things as they are. But god what I wouldn’t for some boobs-away cream.

  • Lephisto says:

    Hey y’all!
    I went shopping for a shirt today – at least I tried… Frustrating like hell! I’m very curvy, say 50s bombshell with a tiny waist, and those shirts made me look like a sheet ghost. Besides being as long as a nightgown. I got broad shoulders, a 34F bust which even makes shopping for feminine blouses or shirts very hard. Yet I love my big boobs and I am proud of them – minimizers scare me. And trying to bind boobs as big as an F-cup is really futile I guess – besides hurting like hell.
    Damn, I wish I was any good at sewing. Then I’d sew my own stuff. Being a student I don’t have such a big budget to spend on clothes anyway. I can’t afford to get shirts altered by a pro and unfortunately none of my friends is into sewing. 😐

  • M says:

    I’ve considered top/reduction surgery. The boobs I have don’t seem to be mine a good 90% of the time. Reduction surgery scares me because I’m afraid that they will grow back somehow. When I mentioned top surgery to my girlfriend she thought I was coming out as trans. Over the years I’ve ranged from a 36C to 42DD. I don’t bind because it hurts. If it didn’t hurt I think that I would bind everyday. I almost always end up in overly baggy, layered clothes. Never woman’s clothes though.

  • Geri says:

    What a brave subject to discuss openly. My experience with women is that they are often hyper critical of their bodies, be it flabby upper arms, wobbly thighs, chicken necks, etc. If we could practise radical self acceptance and love the body we are in as an unbelievable creation think how much energy would be available to focus on interesting subjects like fashion and ending hunger. I’m a 32 H big boobed and curvy gal. If I spent a quarter of the energy on my art that I spend obsessing about the 8 pounds I gained this winter after foot surgery I could paint another more gynocentric Sistine chapels. Why is a boob job reduction any less oppressive then a boob job enlargement? Who’s construct of desirability are you attempting to obtain? PS the photo of you as a Texas saloon girl is the best!

  • MLH says:

    Geri, big boobs do get in the way of buying clothes most of the time. That’s what a lot (not all, though) of what this discussion is about. I am a 36 B, I do wish I had smaller breasts. I do lift weights and work out like crazy, in the hopes that they’ll get smaller…

  • Jac says:

    I’m a 36C and I never wanted them. I felt like the only girl in school that didn’t want them, but somehow sprouted the biggest, which I got made fun of for as early as the end of elementary school. I have recently lost weight too, which is nice because my breasts have definitely shrunk a bit from that, but I find myself in the same predicament. I really don’t want them, but do I really want to make a permanent change to my body? On one side, it’d be easier to run, fit into boys clothes, and I’d probably feel better about my body, but on the other hand I’m not great with change and would it feel better to just accept myself the way I am? Also, maybe it’s something unique too, like you were saying, Mel. To dress more masculine, but still have female parts and puzzling people can sometimes be an interesting experience. I’m not sure how I’ll feel in 5 years, but there would be no going back. Yeah, detachable breasts, good idea.

    Great discussion. And if anyone has more to say about this and the subject of the fit and style of clothes, I’m conducting a survey about it in hopes of in the near future coming up with a much needed solution to the style/fit clothing problem we all seem to have. http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QueerFashionSurvey

  • LB_Boi says:

    I too fall into the category of butch/boi with big boobs.
    (Say that five times fast!)

    I trade binders and sports bras most days but feel much more confident in my binder.

    More recently I’ve wondered, can’t I just get top-surgery and still be a boi, not trans? I don’t see why not. A friend of mine suggested that this wouldn’t be fair to transmen. My response, how could a surgery that directly effects me be unfair to someone else?

    With all this talk of less labeling and sexual fluidity would it be so wrong (or is it wrong) of me, a boi, to want to go through with top-surgery?

  • Sam says:

    I think that being uncomfortable with our bodies is something that most women share. We invest so much energy in picking ourselves apart, feeling uncomfortable in our own skin, and wishing we could cut and paste ourselves into the ‘perfect’ person. I too wish that the word “woman” could be more inclusive. I have always had what might be considered a masculine figure – I’m tall, have broad shoulders, larger feet and hands than most men, and a flat chest. I’ve always longed to have a more feminine figure and felt growing up that I wasn’t a real girl – that I was somewhere in a murky gender area – and that people would soon figure me out. I find women in mens clothes with visible chests very attractive. I like that look and often find myself envious that I can’t attain it.

  • M says:

    I think that some of this has less to do with a beauty ideal and more to do with a disconnect with our own bodies. Or perhaps that our bodies do not match our gender (butch/boi). We have trouble dressing around an extremely obvious body part that we don’t really want.
    @LB_Boi: I agree with you. There isn’t anything wrong with wanting top surgery. Nor should there be anything wrong with actually getting it. It’s not an insult to the trans community. And it might be an eye opener to the butch community.

  • Titus Androgynous says:

    I too have a complicated relationship with my breasts. I am a boi with 32D chest size and wish that I was an A like my mother. (I just found out that cup sizes go up to size M (!) so I realize they could be much larger.) I love my breasts during sex and I love that they allowed me to breastfeed my child. However, when dressing, I do not like them to show. I like the boi esthetic of a tie and vest that lies flat. And suspenders! I need to bind to wear the clothes the way I want.

    I have always been disappointed in their size and dreamed of a reduction, but I wouldn’t trade away the erotic sensation in my nipples for anything.

  • Cal says:

    Oh man can I relate to this conversation. I *am* in my twenties and am currently going through the T or not to T and top surgery crisis. I completely relate to Susan’s thoughts on wanting to build up bigger muscles and have a flat chest, but feeling more like an androgyne than a man. It’s not that I want to be a man, it’s that I have a super curvy, feminine body that just doesn’t match up with the boi I feel like. I’m another 32 D and those suckers get in the way. I wear tight bras and binders and tend to feel a lot happier with the way I like with them on, but surgery is a bit more of a commitment. Plus, I really enjoy being a dyke. I’d be sad if looking more like a man made me less welcome in that community.

    This is the first discussion I’ve ever seen where people who aren’t 100% transmen are bringing up the boob dilemma. Thank you.

  • greekboi says:

    I agree with some of the commenters-not feeling like scrolling back up to get the names, so I’ll just explain (though I may repeat some of what was already said).
    I’m a 34C/32D and I hate them with a passion! Oh god I bind every day and I want to get top surgery really bad. I do have a few concerns, though.
    1. If I go on T, I DO NOT want injections. I just can’t bring myself to do that (I’m afraid of needles to the point I gag if i just see an IV in a person’s arm).
    2. I don’t want to go on T if I don’t have to. It’s a lot more money and doctors appointments (and bloodwork? if so, see #1) to start T. However from what I’ve read on trans websites it seems like to get top surgery you have to be on T and living as a man for a year…which is not what I want. (I don’t get why it’s so complicated when you can change your face and get a boob enlargement without that as long as you pay, so…) So I’m not sure if it’s even possible without going on T?
    3. The sensation! I know someone else mentioned this up there. One reason I don’t want to go on T is that I’m considering maybe having kids, and I might want to breastfeed them. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be possible if I got top surgery. Also I am so sensitive there…I don’t think I’d give up the amazing sensation I have in my nips for anything. And I’ve heard that it’s common to lose all feeling there after the surgery, so…

  • Ames says:

    Thank you for this post and the comments. It feels good to know there’s community out there going through these same things…even if they suck. I’ve got 34D and switch between binding and sports bras like many of you…and feel so much better in a binder. I’ve been thinking about getting top surgery but am in my 20s and wonder if I would regret it. I much prefer a flat chest & it goes with my style so much better…and have always wanted to walk around in the summer without a shirt on. Loss of feeling and scarring scare me a bit though. And of course cost.

  • NiCole says:

    I feel the same as most of you on this post, although I don’t identify as trans I really really want top surgery. I’m currently a 34 D and I hate them with a passion. Maybe if they were a nice small A cup I wouldn’t be so dysphoric about them. I just want to be able to roll out of bed throw on a nice medium/small t-shirt and not have to worry about which bra to put on today binding is too uncomfortable and makes me even more dysphoric. I just want a flat chest and not have to worry about one of my buttons popping open on my Jean shirt when I go to move. 🙁

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