As a pre-teen/teen, I was, to say the very least, physically late blooming. What I had in bizarre mental wisdom and fortitude, I lacked in evidence of pubescence until I was about 16. And I was completely ashamed of it.
When I started 6th grade, I came to class to find that many of the girls who had looked just like me the year before had started to really grow up, and all of them were obsessed with breasts and the potential for a first period. It was relentless. It was all they talked about. Everyone wanted to know what bra size everyone else was and whether they had “gotten it” yet. I always tried to hide during these onslaughts of maturation discussion because I was exemplifying nothing and couldn’t relate.
As I didn’t have any boobs for a long time, I didn’t wear a bra. This seems pretty obvious and logical to me, but the other girls had moms who were all about getting their daughters ready to be women and apparently a bra signified that. I’ve always thought that the concept of the training bra was sort of hilarious because I don’t really think there’s much too it, other than remembering to put one on. But the girls who had one were proud of it and made those of us who didn’t have one feel like toddlers or simply defective.
When I was in 8th grade, every girl in my class was forced to go to an all day seminar/workshop about how to be proud to be a woman and to not feel shame about it. However, it ended up being a day when I felt possibly the most body/development shame that I had ever felt up to that point. According to the workshops, all there was to being a woman was boobs and periods. After watching an assembly that consisted of popular oldies sung with rewritten lyrics (like “Walk like a girl. You can rule the world. Walk like a girl, my friend”) and reassurance that we can do anything we put our minds to, we had to go to these workshops. The workshops began with an icebreaker activity called Girl Bingo (or something) and you had to go around asking people things in the squares to see what you all had in common. If you found someone with a matching answer to yours, you got to check it off. Of course, one square was “Bra Size” and another square was “When did you get your first period?” Having had experienced neither of these things, I felt mortified every time someone came over to me to ask. The rest of the workshop was more of the same, talking about breasts, blood, and how cruel boys are. I was ridiculously anxious the entire time and left feeling worse about my own femininity than I ever could have dreamed.
At home, there wasn’t a lot of body shaming per se, but my mother was constantly worried about her weight. She managed to not exactly pass this on to me, but one thing I was aware of was that she was oddly uncomfortable with the subject of breasts. Hers were small (she is a generally petite woman) and she often seemed to judge larger busted women for some unknown reason. The easy explanation is that she was likely uncomfortable with her own, and anything that made her uncomfortable was cause for judgment of others, seemingly. She used to get on my sister’s case (behind her back) about my sister referencing her boobs all the time. It was true that my sister was sort of bizarre about it, always pointing out how often she got food on her shirt, right on her boobs! But, like, whatever, she was sort of bizarre about a lot of things.
What I’m saying is, boobs were a really uncomfortable subject for me and apparently my entire family. For a bunch of hippie/sort of pagan types, this really seems ridiculous, but someday I will write my memoirs and it will be titled, “This All Seems Pretty Ridiculous, Honestly”.
Gym class was the worst. As all students have had to do, we were forced to change into gym uniforms in a locker room together where there was no privacy. And everyone loved to comment on everyone else’s underwear, especially if it was to demean and draw attention to the fact that you were underdeveloped.
At some point though, my pituitary gland kicked in and the things all those strange health class films talk about started to happen to even me. Before that, I learned about the pituitary in said health class and, since it was at the base of the brain, I thought that maybe I could manipulate it through my head, pressing on my hair hoping to give it a message to get going with the hormone action already.
Yes, I was getting pretty desperate for the mocking to stop. I was also 14 and didn’t really understand science or logic yet.
And kick into gear it did, slowly but surely and by the time I was 16, I looked pretty much like I do now. But I was pretty ashamed of my body and was carrying it like someone who would get mocked. While I wore interesting clothes, they were not form fitting and I kept the fact that I didn’t wear a bra yet as much of a secret as I could.
But gym still sucked. And I was getting really tired of having to either hide in a bathroom stall or have people stare at me and comment (these people were my friends, by the way…ugh).
So, I decided that I was going to be brave and ask my mom to buy me a bra. I didn’t have any of my own money (I only got that a few times a year), so I couldn’t take myself at the time. Also, I figured that this was one of those things that parents do for their kids. And yet, I was terrified and completely embarrassed by the thought of asking. But not as embarrassed as I was to not be wearing one in the locker room.
One morning, I mustered all the courage I could, and I was leaving for school, I said, “Hey, Mom. Do you think we could go out and get me a bra?”
She heard me and looked at me with this strange, skeptical look on her face. “What do you need that for?” she asked in a sort of adversarial tone.
“Well, um, I, uh, have to change in front of people for gym class and it’s embarrassing.”
“Why? You’re just changing in front of a bunch of girls, right?”
“Yeah…but…I…it’s still embarrassing.”
“Yeah, fine, we can go out and get you one.”
She seemed exasperated by the notion and I felt mortified once again by the subject. I was quickly learning the lesson that there was no way to not be uncomfortable about breasts.
The next weekend, my mom took me to go get a bra. For whatever reason, she thought it was more appropriate to go to the King of Prussia Mall for it, instead of The Gallery. KOP was a 45 minute drive from our house and The Gallery was a 30 minute walk. Who knows?
So we get to the Mall and walk over to Macy’s and find the lingerie section. I was amazed, looking around at all the options. I was under the impression that we went to this place for a professional fitting or something, since I had zero clue what I needed to get. My mother also had zero clue, having never worn a bra in her life either. But apparently, she decided she was an expert and eyeballed what I would need. She grabbed a bra said, “This will fit you,” based on looking at my chest through a baggy t-shirt, bought it and we were on our way.
I got home, and was not shocked to find that the bra did not remotely fit me. It was a 34B and it felt like a corset without any of the flattering aspects. So, basically, I didn’t have a bra STILL.
I decided that asking my mom for help in this regard was a lost cause, given the Mad Dash Through the Bra Racks I had endured. So I started saving my money that I got every now and again and finally, after several months had enough to take myself to Kmart (of all places) and get myself something. I had no clue how a bra was supposed to fit and was too embarrassed to ask anyone who worked there for help, so I found something that felt comfortable and looked fine (I guess) and purchased it in three different colors and walked out of the store having accomplished something that really shouldn’t be all that much of an accomplishment.
It would be years until a friend would take me to an actual professional place and I would be informed that I was wearing the completely wrong size for 15 years. But whatever, those bras that I bought myself were triumphant purchases. It was a time when I had a nagging problem that was causing me a lot of stress and I found a solution.
Of course, looking back, this was definitely one of those times when I learned more shame than I needed to. I told this story to my therapist last night and we were laughing and she said, “If it wasn’t so absurd, I’d cry.”
I think this is a pretty apt description of my youth.
These days, I am generally told that my boobs are my best physical feature. This is sort of a bittersweet thing for me given elements of the stories I just told you. It’s like, “well, that’s great, I guess, but can’t you see that it is shameful to acknowledge them?” In addition, as an American woman, I fear that if I did not have them no one would look at me ever. Media, old “friends”, experiences like the ones described above had resulted in my internalizing this idea that I am ugly and not much to look at other than THOSE BOOB OMG and, while it might sound absurd, I fear that I would be nothing without them. I know this is a lie, but sometimes it feels incredibly true.
A large part of my current therapeutic work is about understanding and ridding myself of the immense shame I feel for all kinds of things. It is unsurprising that I have this, since I grew up around all kinds of body shaming, fat shaming, food shaming, job shaming, money shaming, art shaming, sex/slut shaming…really, anything you can think of, I was around shaming of it. So, it’s going to take a while.
But, it’s super worth it, you know?