Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.
“Tits,” by Matt Cornell
Of the many nicknames I’ve acquired over the years, there’s one I’m reminded of today. The name was given to me by a bully shortly after I entered the sixth grade. I had been a fat kid since elementary school, but as puberty began to kick in, parts of me started growing differently than expected. The doctors said I had gynecomastia. “Man boobs,” or “moobs” in the jeering parlance of our popular culture.
But my bully simply called them “tits.” And so this also became my name in the school hallways.
I was Tits.
He would pass me in the hall and catcall “Hey Tits!” and his buddies would laugh. Sometimes, if he was feeling extra bold, he might actually grab one of my breasts, and squeeze it in front of the other kids. Not everyone laughed. But many did.
As direct as this bullying was, growing up with gynecomastia was characterized by smaller insults. Most kids would just ask “Why don’t you wear a bra?” Even adults could be cruel. “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was often asked.
When wearing shirts, it was crucial that they be loose fitting. If a T-shirt had shrunk in the dryer, I would spend hours and days stretching it out, so that it didn’t cling to my body. You can see fat boys do this every day. Pulling at their shirts to hide the shape of their bodies, but particularly their breasts.
As a fat kid, and one who hated competition, I learned to loathe sports, and especially, physical education. The one form of exercise which I enjoyed from childhood was swimming. Unfortunately, as my breasts grew, so did my shame about removing my shirt. At summer camp, I never set foot in the swimming pool. I knew that taking off my shirt would bring ridicule, and that leaving it on while swimming would show that I felt ashamed of my body. So, I pretended that I was above swimming — that I was too cool for the pool.
By high school, I had developed remarkable powers of verbal self defense. I absorbed cruelty and learned how to mete it back out in sharp doses. There’s no doubt that this shaped the person I became, for better and for worse. In high school, I managed to carve out a social niche for myself. The bullying stopped. But the shirts stayed loose-fitting. I rarely went swimming.
The doctors thought that perhaps I suffered from low testosterone. I found this funny, since my sex drive had been in high gear since the time I was a sophomore. I assured them that this was not the case. Finally, the doctors said that my excess breast tissue was probably just a result of being fat. Lose the weight and the breasts will go away.
So I lost weight. I don’t remember how much. But by senior year, I was slender. Girls were starting to talk to me. I was more confident. And I still had breasts. After graduation, the doctors congratulated me on my thin body. Now it was time to get rid of my breasts.
In the first surgery, I was placed under general anesthesia. The doctor made a half moon incision under each nipple and cut out the excess breast tissue, finishing the job with some liposuction. Unfortunately the surgery wasn’t a complete success. My breasts were smaller, but lumpy, and my nipples were puckered. It took a second surgery to make everything look “normal.”
I was nineteen. On New Year’s Eve, I went to a party and got drunk for the first time in my life. There, I met a girl who took my virginity. She was too drunk to insist on taking my shirt off. This was a relief, because under my shirt was a sports bra, and under that layers of gauze. My chest was still healing from the second surgery. In many senses of the word, I was still becoming a man.
I’m reminded of this recently, oddly enough, after reading one of those “humorous” snarky news stories that pop up in the right column of The Huffington Post. Perhaps you’ve seen the photo making the rounds. It’s of Barney Frank’s “moobs.” The photo inspired similar stories at gay culture site Queerty, Gawker and Slate, which used the incident as the pretense for a scientific column.
While all of these nominally liberal sites pay lip service to the dignity of gay and transgender people, they miss one thing that is very clear to me. Aside from the obvious fat shaming in these stories, the fixation on “man boobs” reveals our culture’s obsession with binary gender. As I noted on The Huffington Post’s comment thread, before a moderator whisked my comment away, “the only breasts The Huffington Post approves of are those of thin, white female celebrities.”
It’s culturally ubiquitous. PETA, for example, is a habitual offender:
Men are supposed to have flat chests, hairy bodies and big penises. Women are supposed to have large breasts, thin hairless bodies and tidy labias. (If a woman’s labia are too big, it just might remind us that, with a little testosterone, the same tissue would make a penis.)
We have all the evidence we need that biological sex and gender are not as rigid or fixed as we imagine. There are intersexed people. There are transgender people and genderqueer people. There are millions of men and boys like me, who also have large breasts, or gynecomastia, a medically harmless (though socially lethal) condition that your insurance just might pay to correct. The prevalence of gynecomastia in adolescent boys is estimated to be as low as 4% and as high as 69% . As one article notes: “These differences probably result from variations in what is perceived to be normal.” You think?
We’re so entrenched in that snips ‘n snails bullshit, that we can’t accept bodies which don’t fall on either extreme of the gender continuum. Transgender men and women encounter these attitudes in direct, and sometimes life-threatening ways. And, given the misogyny that pervades our society, these pressures are even harder for women and girls, whether they’re cisgender or transgender. Their bodies are hated and desired in equal measure. When my bully grabbed my breasts and called me “Tits,” he was taking what he wanted. He was also reminding me that I was no better than a girl. I was beneath him.
With the explosion of social media and the surveillance society, body policing has gotten much more intense. We live in an age of crowdsourced bullying. I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up as a boy with breasts in 2011. I suppose I’d spend hours in Photoshop digitally sculpting my body, to remove fat from my face, belly and chest before uploading my profile photos. If I were a fat girl, I might become very skilled at using light and angles to disguise my less than ideal body, to avoid being dubbed a “SIF” or “secret internet fatty,” by my tech-savvy peers. I would probably become vigilant about removing tags from unflattering photos and obsess over remarks people made about me on comment threads.
Twenty years have gone by, and I miss my breasts. As a chubby adult male, I still have a small set of breasts, but not the ones I was born with. The two surgeries also deprived my nipples of their sensitivity.
I’ve often joked that if I knew I was going to become a performance artist, I would have kept my breasts. The breasts I have now are smaller, but still capable of stoking the body police. I once scandalized a fancy pool party in Las Vegas simply by taking off my shirt. I realize that, as a man, it is my privilege to do so. In most parts of our society, it is either illegal or strongly frowned upon for a woman to go topless. (Female breasts are either for maternity or for male sexual pleasure, not for baring at polite parties.) Perhaps my breasts, which remind people of this prohibition, invite a similar kind of censure.
I’ve performed naked enough in my adult life to know that the body police can always find a new area to target. I was recently stunned to hear porn actress Dana DeArmond describe me during a podcast interview as a “fat lady” while her host Joe Rogan openly theorized that my small penis was somehow connected to my feminism. Rogan’s view of gender is so restrictive that he can only conceive of male feminism if it is in a feminized body. (This is probably also why men who support feminism are often dubbed “manginas” by misogynists.)
There might actually be tens of thousands of words devoted to describing my fat body and small penis on the internet. It’s almost a point of pride. Now, I don’t just use my sharp tongue for self defense. I also use my body itself, as an argument, and as a provocation.
I am Tits. Got a problem with that?
Matt Cornell is an artist, performer and film programmer who lives and works in Los Angeles. You can follow him on twitter at @mattcornell.
2. I made yakisoba for dinner and now we have lots of delicious leftovers, too.
3. It rained a tiny bit tonight and there's supposed to maybe be rain tomorrow and Saturday. I hope we do get some more and for more than just a few minutes!
4. I've got such cute kitties!
I am reading several things! Like, actively!
It took me a while to get into a book after finishing Cuckoo Song because I had been so into that that it was hard to start something new and nothing really called out to me. But I just picked a book on my iphone at random the other day and that was Hiromi Goto's Half World. I remember seeing a lot of recs for it years ago, but I didn't remember anything about it at all. I read the prologue and then a few day passed and I didn't do any reading, but then last night at the hospital I had nothing to do but read, so I ended up reading almost half of it! I'm enjoying it a lot and will definitely be checking out other books by the author. (I think I have one on my iphone already.)
I also just started reading one of my library books today, Christopher Emdin's For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. I had seen this somewhere online just a few days ago and then when we were at the library there it was on the new non-fiction shelf, so I picked it up. I just read the intro so far, but it seems interesting. Although I'm usually slower with physical books than ebooks, I really want to read this before I have to return it in two weeks, so I'm going to try and read every day.
Mangawise, I'm not reading anything right now, but I am reading my backlog of Bob's Burgers issues. I do enjoy these comics, though I don't think they're quite as good as the show (for one thing, they focus only on the kids and while the kids are my favorite characters, I like Bob and Linda and other adult characters as well and like the more integrated stories of the show).
What did you recently finish reading?
I finished Ore Monogatari!! vol. 11, Koi-iji vol. 3, and Musume no Iede vol. 4, all of which were awesome. It was nice to have Musume no Iede to go into after Koi-iji, when I was feeling like I needed more Shimura Takako. Oh, also a single-volume manga called Cake wo Kai ni by Kawauchi Haruka. No idea where I picked this up, but it was cute. A bunch of one-shots linked by a local bakery.
I also read two Homestuck fics, In Which Dirk Strider Tries And Mostly Fails To Contain His Internal Dialogue, As Usual by LandOfMistAndSecrets and coming out of the closet and i've been doing just paradoxmachine, Dirk-centric and Dave-centric, respectively, both written and set after the end of the series. I especially enjoyed the former, though the second one was good, too, if a little more in need of editing (either the author originally wrote it in second person and changed it or is used to writing in second person and kept slipping, because there are a lot of places where it randomly changes from third person to second).
What do you think you'll read next?
I don't knooooow. Bookwise, I probably won't finish what I'm on before the next post, and mangawise, I am feeling a bit adrift right now. I might focus on going through my comic backlog some more after Bob's Burgers.
The Merry Widow is a very fluffy, very light operetta that takes place at the embassy of a make-believe tiny European country in 1905, where the ambassador is panicking because the country's richest widow is thinking she might want to marry again, and if she marries a foreigner and takes all her money out of the bank it will cause national financial collapse. Therefore everyone is very determined to hook widow Hanna up with drunken playboy Count Danilo, who happens to be her ex. Meanwhile, in the B-plot a French officer attempts to seduce the ambassador's wife, who is having none of it, and would therefore like to marry him off to the widow ASAP to get him out of her hair. Waltzing and hijinks ensue!
Boston Lyric Opera has made a couple of interesting decisions in their production of this opera. The first is that it is completely multilingual -- they've sort of picked and chosen from among the various translations, so the libretto is all in English, and the songs are in whatever language they feel like the character in question might plausibly be speaking at that time.
...conveniently their interpretation of Hanna is an American former showgirl, so a SIGNIFICANT CHUNK of her songs are in English, but they do get a fair bit French and German in there as well, which is kind of a cool approach!
The second is that they have changed the plot so that the entire story takes place in 1914, rather than 1905. As a result:
- a frequent gag is the ambassador's conviction that the greatest danger lies in the threat of attack from perfidious Monaco
- an even more frequent gag is the appearance of Kivowitz the attache (a show-stealing character invented for this production) with some telegraph of vital importance regarding a.) Belgium's fears about invasion b.) the development of tanks and machine guns c.) Archduke Franz Ferdinand's travel plans d.) submarines etc.
- to which the inevitable response is 'lol what's a tank? anyway we have IMPORTANT, SERIOUS things to worry about, SOMEONE LOCK THE WIDOW AND THE COUNT IN A CLOSET TOGETHER IMMEDIATELY'
- while Kivowitz, constantly in the background, is visibly hating his life more with every moment that passes
It's actually very funny, in a black kind of way that highlights the fact that the world in which this operetta takes place is Short-Lived And Doomed.
(The updated libretto is overall genuinely funny -- as I said on Twitter, my favorite was the guy who yelled "Don't get between them! IT'S A TRAP!" as the entire cast stares at Danilo and Hanna finally making out.)
It's not until act 3 that things start to get kind of sledgehammery, for ex.:
- an extremely bizarre flash-forward to Franz Ferdinand's death in the middle of a comic song titled "Quite Parisien"
- a lengthy speech by the French officer in which he declares that he is going off to join the army, then despairingly tries to convince the diplomat's wife to run away with him and leave Europe because everyone here is dancing and ignoring the fact that the world is going to end in terrible war!!
- a subsequent lengthy speech from Kivowitz at the end of the play, complaining about how everyone here is dancing and ignoring the fact that the world is going to end in terrible war!!
- a bit where most of the cast come out dressed in WWI military uniforms, looking vaguely shellshocked, and wistfully waltz with the empty air as the curtain drops, which would actually have been really effective for me in a Cabaret sort of way if we had not just had two lengthy speeches already about how the world is going to end in terrible war!!
I mean I get what they were trying to do but I personally would have toned it down maybe a little, is what I am saying.
That said, it was overall a really fun production and I had an excellent time! (Also, don't worry about Kivowitz, he runs off with Hanna and Danilo to be their bouncer in the bar they are going to start in America in order to get away from the terrible war.)
- lacking coherence
- lacking in historical rigor
- most importantly, a trash fire that is full of shit.
All of which she dresses up a little bit in wink-wink-nudge-nudge and statements that seem to be going one way but actually are going the other.
So many people I know have been disgusted and hurt by this over the last day or two that I feel I gotta say something, that I am so fucking tired of this shit, because it's exactly what one sees in Western society and at present in certain other subcultures that will remain nameless. The people who have had structural power* freak the fuck out when they don't have 100% control of the narrative anymore.
Fandom is not a space apart from these kinds of actions and reactions. I will throw a copy of Dick Hebdige's book on subcultures at any acafan who disagrees.
And I'm certain this will all get dismissed by her and others as exactly the kind of thing that they mean, god those people are such bullies.
Seriously, fuck this noise. I have been in fandom for 15 years and just...fuck.
That is all. I highly recommend/appreciate the stuff folks have been saying on Twitter, by the way, especially Rukmini Pande and Nico.
* I don't mean power over the canon or over media. I mean power in fandom-the-subculture, which is a thing, even if that power isn't necessarily large in the scales of the greater world.
I took both cats into the vet this morning for their annual check-up.
Dreadful has lost 2 1/2 pounds since January. The vet is thrilled with how he looks and how he's moving. His coat's glossy and sleek, he's animated and active and full of personality and just in general doing really, really well.
His blood glucose numbers are still all over the map, so we still have to test him twice a day to see if he needs insulin, but our vet and the specialist she's been talking to about Dreadful both think that as he looses a bit more weight those numbers will stabilize.
Sovay, on the other hand, has gained weight. So, we need to start paying more attention to exactly how much food she's getting, but since she's not food-motivated the way Dreadful is, that should be pretty easy.