Harden/Soften: Finding Sensuality After Top Surgery

After years pockmarked with epilepsy, I’m too aware of what dry mouth signals, especially when my fingers tingle too: another full seizure is coming. The peach fuzz on the back of my neck rises, my fists clench into rocks. You’re the year of the dog, like your ông ngoại. Is this really a seizure? Instead of fighting spasms, I come into a deep, trembling awareness of my own breasts. Heaving, snarling breathing. So stubborn, both of you. The shuffling of bodies moving near me and the whispers and loud cackles alike start to sound filtered through cup-and-string calls, fading into the background. My breasts are still on my body, somehow. I cannot fall apart. No one around me knows what’s happening, no one can know. Stubborn, but always loyal.

When I dreamt of coming home to my chest without fear, I thought of a flat and bony chest, of showering at age eleven. After that first panic attack, dread bubbled in my stomach and I doubted my body’s ask. I bargained repeatedly with my body to keep my breasts, to find compromise. But binding didn’t stop the panic attacks. I stayed up late scanning top surgery forums, a few minutes at a time before an internal voice shamed me to stop. But I couldn’t fight against gut instinct forever. At each stage of exhaustion from fighting my body, more of that dread gave way to relentless focus on an escape. Like a working animal, I followed the learned motions: herd the feelings, corral them into a plan, get the job done. I forced myself through the stomach-turning diagrams, learned the procedures. When I think of dogs, the one chained outside the family farm near Hà Nội comes to mind. At age seven I lurched back when he snarled at our eager approach. A decade and a half later, as I hardened against my body, I understood. Don’t bring softness here. It’ll ruin what I know.

The author is wearing pink and seated next to their and older brother.

attr: author

The goal with double incision is like plastic wrap over leftovers: keep the surface taut, the edges from shrinking into one another, the layers separate. The nipples cannot speak, and the shifted pigment and hard scar tissue suggests they will never quite be the same. The fixation on ‘contouring to the pectoral muscle wall’ is so clinically precise that the simple goal of warm and feeling human flesh seems an afterthought. It evoked numbness, lovers’ hands finding no reaction, unchanging in cold rooms. The surgeon’s gruff explanation that any surgery option risked losing sensation let me breathe easier, as if he could release me from the responsibility for what would change in me. To move towards a “masculinized” chest as someone with breast tissue, then, is inherently to sign up for a possible loss of all sensation. We harden, agree, move forward. This feels like a familiar reflex of how we survive. When I gather with queer Vietnamese people my age, it’s clear how many of us live with shields up, learned stoicism against the outside world and within our homes. Even now as we come together and learn anew how to laugh and love, we still know the bitterness of watching our families clench their jaws and forgo vulnerability. In the face of this country that never wanted us, we harden and move forward.

The night before surgery, I was to drip an antiseptic solution all over my body and come out smelling like a hospital tray. I ran my hands in figure eights and held my breasts as the shower poured onto them. A chest in its “original” form was the only one to feel soft about. I braced for the last time I would look down at my chest and see it as a place of living, breathing sensation. I could seek relief in surgery, but mostly as an end to pain. This is what has to be done. My body as a tool, with no real space for care, tenderness, or questions of what leads our bodies to burnout in the first place. Don’t bring softness here. It’ll ruin what I know.

As my inner working animal ran out of steps to plan for surgery, I readied myself for an easier life. After painful, constant focus on it, I looked forward to ignoring that part of my body entirely.

Then, smearing lotion one night, I trace fingertips along my chest. A new spot activates sensation closer to my armpit, far from where my fingertips moved. It echoes under my left scar, sends tingles along an entire belly fold. There are rivers running under my skin. I felt there was nothing else in this world but the entire village underneath my skin, lit up by flashing festival lights. The previous time I’d been so taken by my reborn chest also caught me by surprise. When the shower hissed on for my first unassisted wash since surgery, I stood with my back dutifully against the water stream, ran soap over my stomach and looked down. My cells remembered the thousand showers I’d taken before—my last memory of being flat-chested at eleven, this moment now. The wind blew out of me as I started laughing, laughing so hard I started to sob. When I looked through the curtain at the fogged mirror I asked how that reflection could be mine. Full-bodied laughing again, and through the gap in the curtains I saw my little dog, adopted the month prior, poke his snout through the steaming door frame, curious. I’m sobbing again.

The author and their dog, meeting at the animal shelter. attr: M. Kidd

My chest continued to breathe new life, even when I was no longer alone. Physical affinity suddenly cropped up in corners I never anticipated. A coworker put their palm on my new chest and playfully pushed me away. My chest kept the outline of that electric handprint. Did they feel that lingering sensation too? In intimate settings, I felt brighter and more myself, but had yet to know how that’d feel with someone else. A year after recovery, I was under covers with someone who doubted I could want them, when their dysphoria didn’t let them want themselves. I wanted to show them how when I woke up with heavy eyelids and hot nostrils, I’d lifted the neck of the hospital gown, tucked my nose below it and saw — YES. How the only sound was my own internal voice, saying “this is right.” I’d let out a contented puppy sigh thinking: this is right. I thought about telling them that their nipples looked like mine did, before everything changed. Back in that bed, I saw their body, one that had every nerve intact. I asked them to kiss not just my unfeeling scar lines, but the whole valley of my chest, even though I doubted it would feel like much. It’s ok that I won’t meet you in that tingling place, just kiss me so I know I’m here in this moment. The kisses found sensation across every inch. The rivers ran down my spine, through my fingertips. The kissed spots bloomed outward, like drops of food coloring that have just touched the water’s surface. Squirming, my back arched like that farmhouse dog did, years ago.

Softness does not come easily into my quiet talks with myself. If I prayed regularly, it would begin with: is that you, ancestors? Do you see me easing open? We harden, until spring blossoms into our very bodies. When I first noticed spring flowers coming up in my chest, I tore out the young stems. Yet every time, they emerged more determined and multiplied, until I couldn’t rip out the flowers fast enough to keep them from sprawling all over me. Giving in to what my body demanded, I let that garden grow, and saved my life. I thought saving my life was about cutting away tissue and more pushups. Every day, I learn how wrong I was. What saved my life was an opening to every feeling that I have yet to experience. I wonder how many ancestors chuckle, or knew all along that the answer was to let yourself feel it all. To drown in the soft, sobbing joy of being alive. I think of my small dog, sprinting down the sidewalks with me as if to say, Can you believe it? Another day, we’re here another beautiful day. His soft animal body knew long before I did.

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17 Comments

  1. I love reading the details of your reactions, decisions, and celebration of your body.”The kissed spots bloomed outward, like drops of food coloring that have just touched the water’s surface.” Beautiful writing! Thank you for writing so others know they are not alone. I am impressed with your willingness to share the struggle that you overcame.

  2. It’s taken me a year since surgery to reconnect with my chest. But every time I breathe I’m reminded what this new chest allows me to do. I can stand up straight now. I can roll my shoulders back. This body is taller than it once was.

  3. I’m crying from reading this and I don’t even really know why. I had top surgery 8 months ago and had the same experience of looking at myself and thinking, “This is right”. Thank you for writing this, and so beautifully. Thank you.

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