When I was a little girl, one of my older sisters got her period. Nana was 11, about a year older than me. When Nana and our other sister, Rosa, locked themselves in the bathroom, I banged on the door demanding to know what was happening. Rosa opened the door and proudly announced, “Nana is a woman now.” She showed me some underwear and the bathroom was smelly. I thought the whole situation was gross and I walked away, shaking my head, saying to myself, That is definitely not happening to me. And it never did.
It wasn’t until junior year in high school that it became clear that the biological markers of female development had completely eluded me. None of my classmates seemed to notice or care whether I had breasts or not. To them, I was a goofy, outspoken, basketball-loving extrovert. But to my family, I was a loner, a "Maria Macho" with an intense love of The Simpsons and sports.
As a teenager, my gender presentation had very little to do with my intersex body — it was tied more to my general disposition, as well as my relationship with my family and their expectations of me. Sometimes (although rarely) I happily wore the frilly dress and shiny shoes and straightened my hair. Femininity and its trappings were always just an option for me, something I’d adhere to only when I felt like it. Overall, in their own way, my family accepted my individuality — everyone in my family is a character in their own right. But one particular trait was the pinnacle of femininity and therefore non-negotiable: breasts.
Growing up on Long Island it was my two older sisters, one younger sister, and two younger brothers. I am the third of the six children. Our mother worked long hours and our father was in and out of our lives. Living paycheck to paycheck meant that unless it was an emergency, my mother was not taking time off to make doctor’s visits. By my junior year in high school, my eldest sister Rosa had joined the Navy and was living in Japan. She was like a second mother to my four other siblings and me — and she was the one who bought me my first falsies.
One day Rosa called from the base and we had a conversation about my body. I was 17 years old and I had yet to develop breasts or get a menstruation cycle. Rosa asked to speak to mom. "Mami, usted tiene que llevar a Aris al doctor. This is not ok," she sternly told her. A couple of months later, my mom and I went to the gynecologist. The doctor concluded that my delayed puberty might be hereditary — after all, my mother didn’t get her period until she was 18. She advised us to wait another year.
My mother’s menstruation was a major turning point in her life. My parents and I are from a small village in the Dominican Republic: sporadic electricity, rolling green hills, dry valleys, dirt roads, and a population of a couple hundred people. Mom and Dad met as young teenagers collecting water from a well. Although they wanted to run away as soon as possible (aka get married), they waited until my mother became a woman (aka began a menstruation cycle). Right after my mother turned 18 she got her period, and although there were still some objections from family members, she and Dad finally eloped.
Although menstruation is clearly essential for procreation, large breasts are not — and yet they were still a feminine ideal in my family. Growing up, it seemed the size of their breasts was all the women in my family could talk about. Their obsession made me want breasts the way other kids would want the latest car or purse.
But it quickly became apparent to me that this obsession with breasts went beyond my Dominican-American family. I remember watching Married With Children and learning all of the different American euphemisms for breasts: boobs, tits, titties, tatas, fun bags, bazookas, torpedoes, guzongas… It seemed universal: We are all obsessed with breasts, I thought to myself. So I considered my obsession completely normal.
After we waited another year to see if I’d start menstruating, still nothing happened, so we had a follow-up visit with the gynecologist. This time the doctor said something was wrong with my ovaries. She recommended an endocrinologist at Stony Brook University.
As a child, doctor’s appointments meant alone time with my mother. At this particular point she was the sole caretaker of six children, working 16-hour days with a mortgage to pay and barely getting by. So during this appointment I was happy to be basking in my mother’s attention.
My mom, a very proud person, has always been good at hiding shit from everyone. Sitting in the backseat, staring out of the window, our moods could not be more different. I could sense my mother’s suppressed worry and fear more than usual, while I was giddy with excitement. It felt like there was something big going on, bigger than the mundane existence of everyday high school life.
Although nothing had been confirmed that day, the mere thought of more doctor visits, more attention, more discovering, was confirmation enough that I was different. I was different from my three sisters. I was different from all the women in my family. I was special.
In 2000, I began to see an endocrinologist in Long Island. After a couple of visits, a chromosome analysis revealed that I was born with male chromosomes: 46,XY gonadal dysgenesis was the exact diagnosis. After many more visits it became clear that doctors didn’t know what was going on inside of me. Test after test, the inner workings of my body eluded them. When the endocrinologist asked if I wanted to be put on female hormones that would spur menstruation as well as breast growth, I said yes — let’s get this show on the road. I was eager to finally become a "woman" and be done with all this.
During junior year of high school, after I started taking hormones, I would constantly go to the bathroom to see if I was bleeding. But more than anything, I wanted my boobies. I felt soreness around my nipples, but no breast growth.
After a year on estrogen and progestin, my body was not responding as expected. Other than some minor things, like the production of more vaginal fluids, my body was the same. No period. No breasts.
While my body hadn’t drastically changed, my emotional state had. For the first time, I experienced a deep, confusing sadness. But clearly there were several contributing factors beyond the hormone replacement therapy: It was senior year of high school; I had received almost all rejection letters from colleges; my basketball career, to which I had dedicated my entire youth, was ending; and I was worried I had no way to pay for college. Through all of this I felt very alone. My body took a backseat — it was a medical matter beyond my control. My body belonged to the experts, and with the right medicine, everything would sort itself out later. Give me a pill and let’s move on. My concern was getting a higher education.
Once admitted into college, I did whatever it took to stay there. I took out student loans and picked up jobs at school. Then, second semester of freshman year, I met Tommy.
Tommy and I were together for all four years of college; our relationship became serious quickly. It became so serious, in fact, that during my second year he helped me take out a student loan. His credit was better than mine.
I told Tommy I couldn’t have kids and that I had never menstruated. After all, we were in college, and we weren’t planning to get married anytime soon. At that point, I had always openly talked about my body with most people because it didn’t take away from my desirability.
Tommy was into psychology so we would spend long hours in his dorm room, talking about my body and my chromosomal makeup and the fact that I never got a period. In one our many conversations, Tommy was the first person to tell me aloud, “You are a hermaphrodite.” My immediate response was a hesitant, combative no...but maybe?
We would also have long talks about where my femininity resided. He thought my face was very feminine, the way I moved, my gestures, my hands, my thighs... none of our conversations seemed to hinge on the size of my breasts. This was comforting. Nonetheless, for many months into our relationship I hid the fact that I hadn’t developed them.
In college, I explored my feminine identity away from the strict constructs of my family and their impositions. I would go to the extremes: dressing in hyperfeminine colors and styles. Pin-straight hair with all pink outfits. At one point I owned a pair of pink Timbs. Yet, naked and alone, I still longed for the breasts I was missing.
Tommy and I were both virgins, so sex was not easy for either one of us and it didn’t happen for a while. Several months into our relationship, I still wouldn’t take my shirt off or let him touch my chest. Even though he knew my body was intersex, he was under the impression that I had developed breasts. I hadn’t told him otherwise. One night, he asked me what was up with my resistance and I refused to tell him. We stayed up until 5 in the morning, arguing back and forth about trust, power, defense mechanisms, and my body. He began a guessing game: Were you in a fire and horribly scarred? Is one smaller than other? Did you have breast cancer?
Finally I broke down and scribbled "I never grew breasts" on a little piece of paper. I folded it up and handed it to him, then turned my back and I began to cry. The whole thing seemed so silly just seconds after. The following weekend I took my shirt off for the first time. And sex seemed so much easier. After a couple of months, he told me my body was affecting his own clarity about his sexuality.
“What does it say about me that I am attracted to your boyish frame?” Tommy asked me.
He encouraged me to get breast implants.
By junior year of college, the endocrinologist also suggested that I get implants because he didn’t think hormones would help me grow breasts. I was conflicted. What I really wanted were natural breasts produced by my body. After all, wouldn’t implants be just as false as the bra fillers I had been relying on for the past four years? I wanted to be free. Topless. (Sometimes when I was a kid, I would walk around without a shirt on. I figured I had no breasts, so what was the big deal? Well, that didn’t fly with a lot of the people in my family.)
Would I feel comfortable being topless with implants? Wouldn’t this be just another way I wouldn’t feel like myself?
After some back and forth, I decided to go ahead with the procedure. My mother’s insurance covered all the costs. I chose a plastic surgeon in my hometown. She had great reviews and her office was always packed with upper-middle-class women getting all sorts of work done. The surgeon recommended I get silicone. “They will look more natural and be nicer to the touch,” she told me. “A beautiful tear drop shape.”
I wouldn’t get them too big but just right for my body, like a medium B-cup, although I did consider a C-cup because it seemed like a coveted size among my sisters and aunts. "Tú 'ta segura que tú no quieres un poco más grande?" they would say, trying to persuade me to go a bit bigger.
The surgery took place in May 2004. When I awoke from the operation, my chest was swollen and sore but my excitement overshadowed any pain. I was overjoyed to finally have what I had desired for so long, even if they weren’t natural. I turned 21 that summer. I spent it with Tommy, visiting my family in Dominican Republic. I was elated. I liked showing off my new body, stepping into a new level of social exhibitionism.
But at the same time, even though I loved my new breasts, I quickly realized that I didn’t care for the attention I was getting. That vacation was not as enjoyable as I thought it would be. Clearly, as a Maria Macho, my relationship to Dominican gender culture has been fraught with conflict. Before my surgery, men and I had entered some pact that we would let one another be. But that summer I felt like I was playing along with gender expectations. I would dress with my titties out. I enjoyed escote. Hello there, hi. This is my cleavage. Nice to meet you.
Obviously, my boyfriend and I fought the entire trip. All I cared about was the fact that my body finally looked the way my family envisioned it for me — strangely it was also the way I’d envisioned it, too. But after the swelling went down, so did my ego.
It has now been 13 years, and occasionally my implants cause me pain. One is smaller than the other, and it wasn’t like that before. I fear the silicone is leaking in my body. I’m now considering whether or not I should have them taken out.
I am the first in my family to get breast augmentation, and it seems I set a trend. Many women in my family have undergone this surgery since mine. No one else in my family is intersex. I may have given the women in my family the unspoken permission to become idealized versions of high-femme women. This decision is about what will make me most comfortable in my body, but if I take out my implants, I wonder if I may be setting an example for the next generation of girls in my family that breasts do not define our femininity.
I am very conflicted about taking them out completely. I have come to love my implants. They are now a part of me. I look down and see my titties and I like them — but still, they are a foreign silicone object. When I was younger I used to have vivid dreams that I had large breasts, only to wake and find nothing. I wonder if now I will undergo the reverse. Will I experience phantom titties? I’ve been trapped in this back-and-forth for years — and I am still undecided.
In 2015, I finished a short documentary, Mami y Yo y Mi Gallito (Mom and Me and My Little Rooster) revolving around the first conversation I ever had with my mother about my body. It took me five years to get my mother to sit down for an interview. Throughout the film, it becomes very clear she does not care for the camera, yet she is such a high-femme character. When I bring up the issue of my implants, her reaction epitomizes her relationship to my body. To her, these implants complete me and help me toward my path of economic success and fitting in.
My mother is still a force in my life. In many ways whenever I confront her, my internal struggle resurfaces: Who are these implants for? Am I willing to keep something in my body that may cause me harm?
A clip from Mami y Yo y Mi Gallito (Mom and Me and My Little Rooster)
I also filmed conversations with my sisters, my aunts, and other family members. Through documenting these dialogues, I have come to enjoy the different levels of hyperfemininity that the women in my family exude with their high heels, large breasts, and curves. And I have come to embrace their decision to undergo plastic surgery — bodily autonomy also includes the right to change their bodies in whatever ways they’d like.
However, I like to think that I push boundaries of communication within my family regarding our bodies and the expectations of others. All of this talking has helped. I am still undecided about my breast implants, but through the making of my film I have a better understanding of my family’s motivations in relation to my identity.
My relationship with my mother has also changed since making this short film. After the premiere, which she and everyone in my family attended, she came up and hugged me. “The next time you come around with your camera, don’t think that I’m going to be the same person I was in that movie — not anymore," she said. "From now on I’m going to be much more open. We can talk about whatever you’d like.”