One summer day during an annual family trip to Jacksonville Beach, Florida, I stood alone, my feet in the sand, the chilly air hitting my hairless, androgynous chest. I was 11 years old. I felt so exposed with just my swim trunks on, sensing that I needed to cover up — even though there was nothing there. I wondered why I didn’t feel comfortable like my brother and my dad being shirtless in the sun. Seagulls circled ominously above us, foreshadowing the struggle I would continue to have with my body throughout what I would later call my “first” puberty.
A decade later, in the summer of 2012, I took my first estrogen injection as a part of my gender transition. Within a few weeks, the sensitivity and soreness of the new buds forming under my skin gave me hope. Soon, though, I felt a new sort of shame — this time from an external source. My friends and partner at the time quickly urged me to get my first sports bra. Even though I was excited about my changing body, that excitement was charged with an undercurrent of annoyance. Why were my barely protruding nipples already becoming politicized, a piece of public property to be controlled and critiqued?
By last summer, I was mostly satisfied with my body. My face had softened considerably, my skin was smoother, and I had some semblance of breasts. But whenever I was naked, any confidence in my womanhood would quickly deflate. Those now medium-sized buds, though larger, were still a source of discomfort for me. I started considering the possibility of getting my breasts augmented.
I stewed over the decision for months before asking others for advice. Most of the time, I was met with static. My mother would respond with well-intentioned platitudes, like "You’re beautiful the way you are." Everyone else in my life had similar opinions: "You shouldn’t get them done," some would say. “Natural is always better.” “A handful is enough.” This flood of comments made me wonder whether it mattered how I felt about my breasts, if everyone else in my life insisted they were fine the way they were.
Throughout my transition, my chest wasn’t the only thing that made me feel vulnerable. There was also my Adam’s apple, which would be sore for days on end from my attempts to push it in so much. I had it surgically shaved down early in my transition, after which I halfheartedly vowed that I wouldn’t have any more cosmetic surgery done. I wanted to be able to more easily say, “I’m all natural.” It gave me a sense of superiority — especially because I wanted to be the kind of feminist who not only speaks out against cisnormative and patriarchal beauty standards, but eschews them in her own daily life.
Around September of last year, my discomfort with my breasts began to supersede my desire to adhere to an unwritten feminist standard. I thought that if this was something I wanted — if it would truly improve my life — why not go for it. But I was worried about what the choice would mean when it came to my relationship with feminism.
As the cliché goes, any time you’re unhappy with something in your life, change it. That’s the accepted mindset when it comes to losing weight, getting a new job, or doing something new with your hair — but when cosmetic surgery is invoked, it’s almost never supported with such flippant positivity.
Prior to my breast augmentation, I made my fair share of jokes about augmented bodies à la Michael Jackson, Lil’ Kim, and Kylie Jenner. There’s a self-righteousness that accompanies shaming folks who have had cosmetic work done. I found myself far more vocally supportive of good, subtle surgeries than botched or drastic ones. I was also just as harsh as the rest of the world on folks who elect plastic surgery outside of what’s deemed medically necessary.
When I surveyed friends and loved ones about what they’d think if I got my breasts augmented, many would grant my potential decision more validity because I’m trans. There’s an insistence that all kinds of surgeries are a necessity for transition — for a trans person to truly feel at home in their bodies or to even be attractive — but that’s not true, at least for me. While breast augmentation was something I thought I might want, it wasn’t a prerequisite for transition. The truth is, while some trans folks can’t see their lives going on without certain physical transition goals being met, I always knew that surgery wouldn’t make me more of a woman — I’m a woman no matter what my body looks like.
But as a black woman, it was difficult to embrace myself early on: I had a rail-thin body, no curves, and a flat chest. black women with bodies like this are often seen as less valuable and desirable within the black community, even if glorified in the mainstream beauty industry. You’ll see thin black models on runways and in magazines, but black women with large breasts and butts have long been heralded as paragons of feminine beauty in music videos and black media.
When it comes to the intersection of cosmetic surgery and black womanhood, I can’t help but think about the scrutiny constantly hurled at rapper and sex icon Nicki Minaj. She has the textbook example of what’s considered the perfect black woman’s body: breasts that spill over most of her outfits, a cinched waist, and — the pièce de résistance — a full ass. Though many salivate at her assets, others critique her body to the ends of the earth. And when they do, they speak of her alleged plastic surgery with disdain. Minaj, like all women, is held to a ridiculous double standard. On one hand, we’re supposed to be able to say, “I woke up like this,” but on the other, women who aren’t conventionally beautiful and don’t put in the exhaustive effort to appear so are derided and shamed.
Black women also live in the shadow of Saartjie Baartman and what she has meant historically to a society ruled by the white gaze. Black women without curves aren’t valued — not to mention that black women with “too many” curves aren’t appreciated either. That celebration is reserved for women with a certain breasts-to-waist-to-hips ratio (or the “slim-thick” variety). Often, that's the kind of body many could get only from having some type of surgery. There’s such a small box in which black women can exist peacefully and without shame.
Beyond the personal self-esteem benefits a breast augmentation would bring, I anticipated being able to pass more easily among other women. Beyond conforming to beauty standards, having a “passable” body would allow me to move through the world without drawing as much negative attention to myself. For so many trans people, living as closely to mainstream beauty standards as possible can be a major key to survival. Before hundreds of hormone shots, I didn’t have that privilege. Walking out of the door was a daily game of Russian roulette. From awkward stares to rude interactions to a heightened threat of violence, the results of not blending in were hard to bear.
To eschew archetypal transition goals is courageous in a society that stipulates we must all identify as either a man or a woman, and fit into the narrow scripts of what those categories “should” look like. And even though I don't subscribe to the flawed binary of masculine and feminine, my own femininity is something I’ve reclaimed after spending much of my life being punished for it.
By considering breast augmentation, I wasn’t intentionally seeking to fit more into a cisnormative, patriarchy-approved beauty ideal — but that’s exactly the direction my surgery would push me in. And as someone so open about my trans experience and who embraces owning this identity, I struggled with finding power and strength in this decision. But after spending so long asking others about what they thought I should do and worrying what others might think, I’d stopped actually listening to myself, or considering the power of my own choices.
Plenty of theorists critique choice feminism as both a tool of capitalism and an empty promise. But I still think the decisions we make for ourselves matter. What’s the point of kowtowing to any kind of ideology that requires living with shame and self-hate? Yes, we live in a culture that bombards us with images of a perfect body — it would be ridiculous for me to act like I’m somehow immune to this phenomenon. But for this queer black trans woman, the expectation to live up to the illusion of the perfect feminist — in an age of feminism that still privileges whiteness and cisheteronormativity — is just as oppressive to me.
In the end, I made the choice to move forward with the surgery — for me, and no one else.
I’m a few months post-op now, and I couldn’t feel any happier about my breast augmentation. My life is hardly any different on a macro scale, but I feel more “real” to me, and freer than ever before. No more doubling up on too-small bras that leave indentations in my skin; no more stuffing bras with balled-up socks and nearly suffocating from the pressure. No more angst.
Outside of my family and close friends, I haven’t really received a measurable amount of attention because of my breasts. This only makes me feel more confident that I made this choice for me, and me alone.
I don’t think most of us are given a chance to own our insecurities respectfully. For me, this decision was deeper than the surface. I wanted to be able to feel more at home in my body. I think of my body as something that was stolen from me, and my gender transition is a means to reclaim it. I had to endure most of my life feeling like an outsider, but with every transition milestone — changing my name, correcting my gender marker, hormones, surgeries — I have stepped more and more into a truer self.
How can we claim, as feminists, to believe in autonomy and agency when we so harshly critique other women’s choices? We can’t operate as if beauty is a level playing field. Intersectionality matters when we discuss beauty standards — and for a black trans woman, the forces of antiblackness, the patriarchy, and cissexism are co-adversaries.
I am not a perfect woman, nor am I a perfect feminist, but not because I had cosmetic surgery. I don’t believe that the perfect feminist exists, and I don’t believe “realness” can be gauged. What’s real for me is embracing my desires and goals for myself. I deserve to be happy when I look in the mirror, when I’m lying alone in my bed, or even when I’m getting intimate with another person.
My body is the house in which I live. I own it, and I will decide how to adorn it. I am no longer ashamed of my body, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of yours. I am no longer ashamed of my desires for my body, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of yours. This is what true liberation looks like.