A Beginner’s Guide to Corporeal Cartography


17th century anatomical illustration by Adriaan van de Spiegel and Giulio Casseri

“Want to hear something super weird?” I asked my husband, over the phone. “I have no idea where my nipples are.”

My chest is cocooned in bandages tight and thick enough to conceal topography even from touch. Drains snake out either side. Below, the surface is a mystery, an alien landscape unsurveyed.

I’m three thousand miles from home, sleeping in a recliner in my parents’ living room while I recover from what’s popularly known as top surgery–female-to-male chest reconstruction. That I’m staying at my parents’ house extends my sense of limbo beyond the boundaries of my own body. Like me, the house has been cut and respliced from the shape I know best, my childhood bedroom long since lost to a cracked foundation.

My relationship to my breasts was always strained, impersonal. As a teenager, I anticipated them because books and peers told me that I should; because having a body that matched expectations might make the expectations make more sense. In college and my early 20s, they were fun, a novel fashion accessory that forced me out of my familiar comfort zone. By the time 30 hit, I had exhausted the novelty, and they were just in the way: of clothes, of movement, of me.

“Imagine a garment that you recognize is really nice, but that you’d never pick out for yourself,” I told my girlfriend. I was trying to describe dysphoria as I experienced it: less the dramatic revulsion of popular narrative than ongoing frustration, subtle but continuous friction. “Imagine that you have to wear it, and it’s central and ostentatious enough that you have to plan every outfit around it–either complementing it or minimizing it–and it’ll be one of the first things people notice when they look at you. Again, it’s not that you don’t like it–it’s well crafted, it’s nice, you’d love it on someone else. But it’s not you, and you’re stuck with it.”

How bad would it be if I ran? I thought, wandering around the neighborhood. Just a block. Half a block. A few steps. Four days in the recliner, and I’m desperate to move. I’ve been knitting furiously in front of the TV, pinballing surreally between modern sitcoms and the Valencia Ring Cycle. I read–comics, books, blogs. I walk and walk–the only form of exercise I’m allowed, now and for the next five weeks. I hold my arms close to my sides to remind myself not to reach.

“Don’t expect to do anything the first couple weeks,” friends told me. Apparently, I’m a fast healer: the day after surgery, I woke up antsy and alert; and a day later, I had traded in Vicodin for Tylenol, carefully negotiating movement in a body constrained more by what I’m supposed to do than what I can.

The most present physical reminder of convalescence takes the form of the bandages, heavy and tight around my chest. Even drifting off to sleep, I never stop being at least peripherally aware of them, in much the same way that I never stopped being at least peripherally aware of binders. The bandages, at least, are marginally more comfortable.

I do have some sense of what my body looks like; or what it should look like, or what it will look like: my surgeon is known, among other things, for incredibly consistent results. I know that there are two incisions tracing the lower edges of my pectoral muscles; nipples and areolas grafted above, trimmed and re-combined in proportion with the new contours of a body that–even bandaged, even with the drain tubes looping to brush my hipbones–makes more sense to me than it did a week ago.

There’s something comforting about physical transformation, metaphor made flesh. I am not the same as I was last week. This house is not the house of my childhood. Sixteen years of sprawl and aggressive gentrification have left my hometown as alien in form as it’s always felt in spirit.

Other transformations are less tangible. On the phone, my parents use my new name. In person, we all backslide, sink comfortably into a lifetime of habit. They remember to call me Jay roughly as frequently as I remember to correct them when they use Rachel.

Last night, tornadoes ripped through Sarasota, leveling houses while I slept; I only found out in the morning, when I went to check the news.

Today, my dad and I will drive back to the other coast of Florida and check into the same hotel where we stayed before the surgery. Tomorrow morning, the bandages come off, and I see myself for the first time.



  1. I appreciate your work on the podcast Jay and this was an interesting read!

    I hope things will progress smoothly for you.


  2. I feel bad about how curious I was about what you were going through with this transition when you and Miles talked a little bit about this on the podcast. I really really stoked for you and I hope you have a great recovery. The waiting during these next few weeks is probably going to be the worst!



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