“You can terrorize a woman with her own body, and then she’ll torture herself”.
Carolyn Gage, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc
She always kept a picture of her breasts in the drawer beside our bed. She had removed them over a year before we met. But she kept the picture there, and asked me over and over again if I wanted to see them. She asked me heavy with self-doubt and focused on my response, for any answer the lines of my face might give her, any disapproval of her shape I might express. To her constant querying I always responded, no. I love you like you are. I love you how you are. All of you. As you are here and now.
She showed only carefully designed cutouts of herself to everyone else in her life…I was shocked at how skilled she was at slicing and folding herself up…for her closest friends, her most loved family members. What made me different than them, I saw, was that I was the one with whom she’d share all of herself, the secret corners of herself, every unfolded edge.
She learned this art of folding herself up, cutting herself into pieces as a child. She was trimmed and formed into whatever made her parents look good, then she learned to bend herself into shapes that would gain their approval, because narcissistic parents love you (or hate you) for how you make them look.
Are you sure you don’t want to see them, she would ask. Wouldn’t you love me more if I still had them? No, I said. I love you like you are and how you are. I want you to also love yourself as much.
She also learned shapeshifting to cope with the abuse. Screams in her face at drunken midnights- what, are you going to cry about it, you little pussy? So she learned not to cry. She was so, so small. What child endures beatings and incest and emotional torment without questioning their worth? …maybe if you change shape again your mother will finally love you…?
My love for her was never something she felt sure and worthy to accept, without checking in, to see if I approved of her shape. Don’t you want to see a picture of the breasts I used to have, she would ask? You are not an object for other people to approve of, I would respond. You are the person I love, you in relationship with me.
The lifelong experience of twisting herself around and cutting herself up meant she knew the medical industry like a safe and familiar aunt. The safe place to run to when things at home were unbearably bad. Doctors and hospitals gave her care and love, nurtured her with drugs and surgery. She had to rest up, though, and gather strength before returning home. Home placed a harsher diagnostic criteria on her person. Home demanded conformity of herself into shapes foreign to what she would imagine on her own. Drugs and surgery, she learned, could maybe sometimes provide relief with this struggle. When she told me she was taking testosterone, I said, I’m worried about your health…have you asked your doctor if that is safe? She was flabbergasted- that’s your only concern?! she asked, in disbelief……..I can’t believe all you care about is my wellbeing……..she hung for a pregnant pause, thinking maybe, just maybe, she could deliver a new and happier self with someone that loved her like she is.
I’ll ask my doctor, she said. And she did.
I do want you to be happy with who you are, he said, but changing your sex is bad for your heart. Don’t change. He wasn’t speaking in metaphors. Soon she could no longer walk up the stairs- her heart couldn’t breathe through this new cut out of who she had thought she should become. And just a few months after that, she had a heart attack. The change she underwent had started to shut down her arteries. Testosterone, it turns out, is great for shifting your shape, but not so great for empowering your heart to give you life. Look it up, the heart surgeon said. It’s dangerous, and it will kill you. And we did. There’s a very big chance that changing your body with hormones will kill you.
She asked me again about the picture
She still kept
In the drawer beside our bed.
After surviving what we might consider the attempted suicide,
or maybe the long, drawn-out torture of her body,
Show me the breasts this one time, I said, so I can get back to loving you as you are now.
Slowly she reached for the breasts in the drawer.
They were beautiful, beautiful breasts. They seemed perfect.
They’re just breasts, I said, maybe a little smaller than mine. Now put that away, please.
And I loved her a little more.
Then, in the silence of our cut up embrace, my questions also unfolded. Did you really have the experience of not feeling right in your body, I asked. No, she said. That’s just something I said to the therapist to get the surgery. Did you not love your breasts, I asked. I did, she said. I loved making love with my breasts and my wife loved them too. Then why did you remove them, I asked. Because I hated how people looked at me, she said. I hated what people thought about me. I wished for my mother to be proud of me. I wished for her to believe that my daughter would feel proud of her parents.
Who’s responsible for this violence? Of the body and of the heart? It must be a survival tactic, I think, to cut off the pieces that don’t fit into the mold that other people insist on. To shift your shape so that you are no longer the target of other peoples’ hate.
But also, there has to be a better way, to remove the weight of the hate of others, and to love and heal our broken selves.