My Own Private Guantanamo

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Tits

December 21, 2011

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.

Keep it classy, Gawker

I’m reminded of this today, 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.”

One of the many comments Huffpo didn’t delete.

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.

PETA is a habitual offender

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?

  • molly

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this, and for describing your process of reclaiming your body through your work. Your honesty is inspiring.

  • No better than a girl?

    From your essay: “He was also reminding me that I was no better than a girl. I was beneath him.”

    I’m wondering if you intended to place any “quotes” around the phrase “I was no better than a girl.” It seems to imply that being a girl is degrading. Do you agree with the statement that if you were equal to being a girl, that you would have been beneath your bully? I’m just trying to piece that out, since it sounds pretty misogynist.

  • admin

    Thanks for your comment. I was summarizing his attitude, which was misogynistic. I didn’t think quotes were necessary, but I’m sorry for any confusion.

    I hope it’s clear from my post that I understand hatred of women and female bodies to be key factors in the stigma against “man boobs.”

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. I was summarizing his attitude, which was misogynistic. I didn’t think quotes were necessary, but I’m sorry for any confusion.
    I hope it’s clear from my post that I understand hatred of women and female bodies to be key factors in the stigma against “man boobs.”

  • Arf

    Saw your story on Jezbel.com and had to come here and look around. Its a profound story you are telling and it made med ponder for a while why we humans always seems to have a tendency towards cruelty?

    I had serious skin acne on my chest and back and neck as a teenager, so bad it turned into sores. I still have scars like poxmarks…. so removing the shirt in public was not an option. But i never got teased or bullied about it since i was quite massive and strong. So i am nowhere near what you had to suffer through evene if i can relate.

    Thank you for a very well written piece that really got to me!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for reading!

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad you connected with it. I had severe acne, but nothing like what you experienced. I took Accutane, which it turns out, had more significant health risks than we knew. 

  • Gina

    Hi, This is a great article. I’m Intersexed (its biological so I’ve always been IS) and one of the major issues I had to deal with as a ‘guy’ was growing up with what was a female form including breasts. I wasn’t fat, at times I was under weight, but I still had and have breasts. I didn’t have reduction surgery, and because of my biological differences and some other issues I’m really glad I never did.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Katherine

    More than a few men in my life have dismissed the idea of men being able to truly sympathize with women on misogynistic issues arguing that that they’re guys, and guys are just like that, misogynistic. So it makes me so happy to read your words and know that there are men in this world that not only understand these issues but fight for them as well. Anyway, I’m just trying to say that I like you and you’re awesome. 

  • http://thorthehamma.blogspot.com/ Thor_The_Hamma

    there are real problems in the world and THIS is the unmitigated trash you chose to write about? and the cloying comments here? made me puke. ugh.

  • Anonymous

    You puked, bro? Get that checked out. Might be something serious.

  • Ryan

    I had very similar issues during school years. I had severe asthma so I had to take steroids a lot starting in 5th grade; the doctor didn’t warn us that I could gain lots of weight if I wasn’t careful with my diet. I ballooned up and my “man-boobs” also did, aided by a hyperextended chest cavity (related to my asthma) which made my breasts appear to stick out more. On top of this, I also have nipples that are larger than what is considered normal. I had several bullies throughout middle and high school who would grab those areas like my breasts, neck fat, stomach, and love handles and say things like “Tits” or (their favorite, for whatever reason) “Jam” as in jelly-jam. I can still hear them yelling, “Jaaaaaaaammm!!!” as they grouped around me and grabbed and squeezed repeatedly. All their greedy groping hands just reaching in at me, attacking me, belittling me…. As you also said, I was constantly being reminded that I was, in their estimation, no better than they thought a female to be. For all I know, they got some perverse pleasure out of squeezing my breasts; in lieu of opportunities to squeeze a woman’s breasts, they turned me into their woman to abuse.

    I would stand up for myself as often as I could, but it was nearly impossible when they were attacking me as a group, and all of them were older than me. Also, they were all friends of my older brother so it was very hard for me to escape them. It got to where I was terrified to take off my shirt in public, so I quit going to the pool or beaches even though I’ve always loved swimming and I’m practically a fish once I get into water. I also just stopped going out as much in general–I couldn’t even play baseball or basketball in the front yard because they would all be there–so I pursued hobbies that I could do in my bedroom, like playing guitar. I reordered my life to cope with the world these bullies created for me.

    I know that those guys who did this to me were just sad, sick bastards who felt unaccepted at home and took it out on me, but knowing that doesn’t change it because it has affected me at a subconscious level. I think when a person is picked on as a child/adolescent, their brain restructures itself during development to make sense of and get by in the cruel world they find themselves immersed in, and that is really hard to change.

    I’ve never even thought about having any kind of corrective surgery, and I’m still struggling to lose the weight. Fortunately I have had a good amount of success in the past year after becoming a vegan, and now I just have about 40 pounds left until I reach my goal. But I still feel basically the same. Even though I can read the scale and see that I’ve lost about 60 pounds already, I still see the exact same thing when I look in the mirror. I feel a little bit more confident, I guess, when I find myself having to buy smaller jeans and stuff like that, but so far it’s not enough.

    I’ve never really talked about this with any one before, and your post here marks the only time I’ve ever seen anyone write about it in this manner, though I’m sure many other boys/men have had similar experiences. This has affected me deeply, such that I’m 26 years old right now and still so ashamed/scared of my body that I automatically assume no one wants to be with me and I’ve practically never dated any one. Seriously, never. All I’ve ever known is being single, and I’ve slept alone every night of my life. Just last night I was at my local coffee shop/bar with my roommate and he saw my being oblivious to a girl who was trying to flirt with me; he said later, “That girl was trying to ‘put out the vibe’, man. She liked you, I can tell these things,” and I actually found myself saying out loud, “No way, that’s impossible, that just doesn’t happen. She was really cute. Those girls aren’t into me, I don’t believe you.” I sounded like an idiot, sure, but that’s how deep it runs; that’s my default, ingrained response to everything related to dating. Though I feel plenty of self-worth regarding other aspects of myself, when it comes to my body and anything involving physical interaction, I have this huge wall that I’m constantly trying to tear down, with little success yet.

    Thanks for writing about this.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Ryan. Thanks for sharing your story here. Since I wrote it, I’ve had a number of men email me or post comments at Jezebel, saying they’d had similar experiences. I think this type of bullying is far more common than anyone wants to admit and YES, there’s a deep current of misogyny in it. 

    I’m sorry that you have gone through all of that, and are still living with many of the same feelings. I still struggle with body acceptance from time to time. I’m not sure I’ll ever completely be free of it, but then very few of us are, even those with “ideal” or “normal” bodies. At the risk of invoking a cliche, I can only say that it gets better as you get older. 

    You should also know that a couple of women here and at Jezebel indicated that they are attracted to men for their “man boobs,” not in spite of them. It’s a different kind of androgyny, not the one promoted by the fashion industry, but still one that can be attractive. Life is full of surprises.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Gina. Somehow I missed replying to your comment. Thanks for sharing. I’m moved that this story connected with you, and very happy to hear that you chose to keep and love the body you have.

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  • William

    I was a fat kid with large mobs and I remember doing man of
    the things you mention like wearing loose shirts and pulling on tee-shirts and
    pull over shirts. I also remember wear a jacket until it was positively too
    warm to continue wearing it.

     

    I never lost weight like you did,  so my breasts continued to grow and I did not qualify for
    surgery.. I remember finding Gynecomastia support groups when I got online, but
    they also focused on fat as sin and most did not understand about living with
    very large male breasts. Besides most of the talk was centered on having
    surgery.

     

    In the case of the negativity surrounding male breasts I do
    not think that misogyny is as much of a cause as many people here claim it to
    be. I think for most males it is what they thing women think of men with
    breasts.

     

    In the gay community men with breasts do not seem to be a
    problem and in the heterosexual world women may be just or more negative than
    men in regards to male breasts. Add to that some feminists use male breasts as
    a foil in arguing the case for women going topless.  

     

    Most men with breasts are silent, never sharing their
    thoughts on the matter. Something that I have not figured out is why so many men
    who do come out and admit that they do have breasts tend to do so as a kind of fetish.

     

    Another group of men that talk about their breasts are men
    on the Gynecomastia Surgery forums, what is strange is that not many of them
    have surgery, maybe by talking about the surgery they feel better about
    themselves.

     

  • suvgrant

    I am using the teases of your bully now in my language and gender course term paper. Basically, the paper is trying to explain exactly how, linguistically and culturally (read: gender ideologically) men with breasts are in such a difficult situation when they are labeled in insults as having breasts.
    Really, I’m using this paper as an opportunity to examine my own experience as a man with breasts. Its been similar to yours in a lot of ways. It’s been hell. And what is hell? It’s not my body, it’s other people. 

  • Anonymous

    I would love to read the paper when you’re done. Thanks for commenting. 

  • Renofaberdeen

    Polylogism runs amok in the thought that:
    All men are misogynistic
    Matt is a man
    Matt is misogynistic
    Sorry to use the name “Matt” for this demonstration Mr. Cornell.

  • twhittemore

    Thank you from a fellow fat kid.  It has been many years since I was called “Tittymore”, but I still hear the name in my head every time I go to the beach or the gym or the dressing room. Your post made me angry, sad, embarrassed, and so very grateful.  Thank you for talking about it and calling these folks on their bullshit.

  • http://goodmenproject.com/guy-talk/dude-looks-like-a-lady-living-with-man-boobs/ Dude Looks Like A Lady: Living With Man Boobs — The Good Men Project

    [...] at My Own Private Guantanamo and [...]

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for reading and sharing your experiences.

  • http://mattcornell.org/blog/2012/05/i-am-not-a-good-man/ My Own Private Guantanamo

    [...] real end came just a few weeks ago when Brand contacted me about running my article on gynecomastia on the Good Men Project. Of course I wanted my article to reach a wider audience. And, I [...]

  • paul

    never be ashamed you have breast, i am 64 and have an awesome set of 48DD tits and very proud of them i am bi and my lovers like them and so do my female friends and most are in their early 30′s and we love fondling each other and sucking each others. They have even got me to wear bras which feel good and i actually enjoy it. It turns my male lovers on and my lady friends really love them, so never be ashamed you have tits, enjoy them and show them off, i do everyday 

  • Forking Spoons

    I got man tits too, not because of overweight problems I’m slender, but because i don’t know why. I got balls, penis and boobs so wtf? I was beat up bullied and laughed at in school, so much that now I am an anti-social hermit incapable of leaving my moms house at the age of 29, its been 13 years since I last went outside literally and there’s no way to get better because 99.9% of humanity doesn’t give a shit.

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