Your body is talking to you. Can you hear it? Learn to tune in to your body and hear its warnings. If your body says it’s thirsty, drink more water. If your body is tired, give it a rest.
–The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls
The plastic surgeon asks if I am sure. After all, aren’t I a little young? And these kinds of things are pretty much permanent. I am sure, and I am not that young. She clarifies that, from her perspective, I am young.
I turn thirty in September.
The surgeon leaves, and the photographer enters. I stand in front of a dark blue background and open the front of the gown. The camera flashes. In that flash, I join a long history of the gender nonnormative. Bodies in front of cameras. Bodies to be figured out, resolved, unwound—ascribed to this or that category.
Am I sure? Bist du dir sicher? Bitte, überlege dir das.
But my body is talking to me. I can hear it. I am sure.
In 1998, American Girl published The Body Book for Girls, their guide to the “care and keeping of you.” In 2002, I checked out the book from my local library. I was in the fourth grade. I was concerned. I am still concerned, but now I have anxiety medication. In 2002, I had a lot of questions—questions I’d rather not ask the adults in my life. “Your parents were there for you when you were little,” The Body Book for Girls told me, “and they can still be there for you now.”
But the Body Book was my guide. In a few months, I’ll have my Ph.D. in literature. It strikes me now that the line from the Body Book would be better rewritten as, “Books were there for you when you were little, and they can still be there for you now.”
It is December 2022, twenty years since I last consulted this volume. The surgery date is scheduled. I open a PDF of the Body Book. Twenty years ago, I was longing for full breasts to come in. But, dear American Girl, I am getting top surgery soon.
It isn’t a Race: A girl’s body changes to a woman’s body gradually, not overnight. […] And it’s important to remember that growing up isn’t a race. There are no prizes for being the first—or last—girl to lose all her baby teeth or to wear a bra.
I stare at the images in the Body Book: 5 stages of breast development. Stage 5 was the most exciting one for me in the fourth grade, the one I hope to achieve and soon. “Breasts are fully developed, with a rounder, fuller shape. The areola blends into the breast. The nipple is raised above it.” The picture above the “Stage 5” header shows a white girl with blonde hair. Her breasts are full and perfect. That evening, with the bathroom door locked, I approached the bathroom mirror. I lifted my arms above my head to see if my breasts were taking on the “rounder, fuller shape.” Would they ever?
In school, a girl in my class said that her sister found the trick to getting big boobs. We all leaned in, ready to receive this secret. “She wears a bra to bed every night! And hers became huge.” American Girl must have missed this secret trick. That night, I fell asleep in a bra.
Gradually, gradually. I cannot tell you when they reached Stage 5, when they took on a rounder shape. They were perfect, and they were mine. Or were they?
Late in high school, I realized people could perceive me. It seems a silly thing to say. Aren’t we always perceived by others? But one afternoon, my brother made a remark. He was annoyed because some of his friends had been talking about me. He said they were talking about my breasts. I was surprised.
For the first time in my life, I felt my breasts were not my own. I felt violated. How dare they perceive me. At that time, I did not realize how queer I was, or that part of this issue might have been that men were the ones perceiving me and I didn’t want them thinking of my body in any way, shape, or form. In college, nothing would feel so right as removing my shirt for a woman, seeing her look upon me, feeling her hands on my skin. But in that moment, I didn’t know this future. All I knew was that I felt terrible.
At the end of college, I came out as agender, but that feeling still returned again and again. My pronouns shifted to they/them. I asked my parents to call me their “child” and not their “daughter”—a request that has still not been honored these many years later. I bought a binder, but it was uncomfortable and remained in my closet.
In the fall of 2018, I had just finished teaching my first semester of a college literature course. There were things I wanted to improve upon for next semester, to be sure. The students probably picked up on a few of these things too. As I scrolled through the anonymous comments, I felt a walnut-sized knot form in my gut.
“The Proffessor [sic] is by far, the worst I have ever had. […] She threatens to take points off of assignments for misgendering her even though she is clearly a woman. […] This teacher is absolutley [sic] pathetic and shoud [sic] not be offered a job next year. Penn State is a prestigious school and I am honored to go here but having a person with such a low intellect attempt to teach me makes me feel ashamed.”
The anonymized compilation of student comments could not disguise this voice. I know who wrote it. But that knowledge did not dam up the tears that fell when I read this.
Earlier in the semester, I had called the student into my office hours to discuss a paper. A colleague sat in the next cubicle over. I asked her to be there to hear our conversation, because I wanted to confront the student about his persistent misgendering of me. It is important to have witnesses. After giving him feedback on the content of his paper, I transitioned as casually as I possibly could. Attempting to take on a laid-back persona, I heard myself say: “This is one of several papers where you write Ms. Schoppelrei in the beginning info required by MLA. I know I’ve corrected this on the other papers, but I just want to iterate that this is incorrect. You’re welcome to write Mx. Schoppelrei, or, if you feel uncomfortable with this, you can write Professor Schoppelrei. But please do not write Ms. or Mrs.” He nodded his head, confirming he heard me.
After he left the office, I walked over to my colleague. “Do you think that went okay?” I asked her. She assured me it was as good as it could have been. A few months later, though, and I could not stop crying as I drove back to Ohio for the holidays. The phrase “even though she is clearly a woman” comes back again and again. How useless a Ph.D. in gender studies feels against the blunt instrument of “clearly.”
You may be eager for your body to get growing, or you may be worried about the changes ahead. […] Remember, the grown-ups in your life were once your age, too, and have experience and wisdom to share with you.
The water from the shower is hot on my skin. I lean into it. I am in my early twenties and at my Oma’s (grandma’s) house. This is before grad school, before my German is good enough to practice with her, before she dies. I have a new piercing and realize all too late that my antibiotic soap is still in my luggage. I call out to my Oma and ask her to bring it to me.
When she enters the bathroom, my Oma reaches around the curtain to hand it to me. She catches a glimpse of my body and pauses. “Oh wow,” she says, her accent catching on each word, “you are really something, you know? I mean, wow.”
I often struggle to tell this story to others. I worry that it seems strange, that the sweetness of this moment doesn’t translate well to a culture of modesty. When I think about top surgery, I know I will miss my breasts ever so slightly—not because they were perfect (they are), nor because of how wonderful they were to reveal to lovers (who weren’t men)—but because they were a part of my body that my Oma knew, and she is gone now.
When I first began rereading the American Girl Body Book, the text stung at places. Not the places you’d expect for a nonbinary person reflecting on puberty and womanhood. Instead it stung here: “your parents were there for you.” And there: “adults you trust.” And here: “talking it out with an adult who has ‘been there, done that.’” My academic research is on queer and trans communities, kinships, and connections. Do we research the things we long for most?
The phrase “adult you trust” (or some variation of it) appears in the Body Book seven times. But now I am an adult, and the adult I trusted most passed away in 2021. I talk to her sister in Munich about my top surgery, a surgery I never had the chance to bring up with my Oma. My great aunt is a kind person, the kindest I know. But she says over and again, “Bist du dir sicher? Bitte, überlege dir das.” (Are you sure? Please, think about it.) Would my Oma have said the same thing?
When I came out to my Oma as a lesbian, she said: “maybe I am too—I never really liked men.” When I came out as queer, she took it in stride. When I came out as agender, she replied: “maybe I am too.” What would she say now?
Dear American Girl,
I realize all too late that you are not the one I should be writing to. I want to write to the person I always want to write to, the person I always want to call, the person who is gone. But since she is not here, I will write to you—the adult book I trusted.
You write, “remember that your body is a work in progress.” I am in the process of saying goodbye. How do you say goodbye?
A work in progress
P.S. Your book is for girls who become women—what about the ones who don’t? Do you ever write to them?
The camera flashes, casting light on my exposed chest. Here there is no doctor’s office, no photos that will be submitted to insurance for approval. On the other side of the camera is a dear queer friend and artist. Many years ago, I asked them in a nonchalant way if they would take photos of my breasts—if I ever got top surgery. When I asked them this, it was an impulse. It was a question whose origin I couldn’t quite trace. It seemed like an important question, but a silly one. I was never going to have top surgery.
Now, many years later, I hear my friend say, “You know I have a ton of papier-mâché materials. Maybe we could cast your breasts?” I laugh, and I reply that the photos are probably enough. On the window are sheets of plastic in blue, red, and yellow. As the sun reaches its height, my skin is overwhelmed with color. I look down at my chest, and I hold my breasts close.
Liz Schoppelrei recently defended their doctoral dissertation for their Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, German, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In their work—both creative and academic—they focus on queer and trans histories, narratives, representations, and lives throughout the Anglophone and Germanophone world. Their research can be found in Fat Studies and QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking. In their spare time, they can be found birding, reading, and perpetually considering whether to get a cat.