Let’s go back for a moment to my 6th grade class. It’s in one of those bungalows set high above the asphalt so no one but the principal can see inside. If he’s riding a horse.
Thirty six sweaty kids hurry to finish their spelling assignments so the boys can go out for a rousing game of basketball. The girls will stay inside for “Girl Talk!”
When the teacher got her brainstorm and started Girl Talk!, everybody had to get permission slips signed. The boys so they could have an extra hour of PE every week, the girls so they could discuss the mysteries of poo-ber-tee. That’s what Mrs. Forrest called it, anyway. With her face screwed up like she’d got lemons in her mouth.
When she makes the announcement that Tuesday will be Girl Talk! day, the class explodes–boys guffaw, arms flail, they fall off their chairs, and girls giggle themselves to tears.The whole thing was sparked by the observation that some girls were wearing heels far too high for health (it was the go-go boot era), and some had gotten bras. Whether they needed them or not.
This did not describe most of us. Or me. The worst of it was that the girls who talked to the cutest boys (the ones with Donny Osmond hair), were the ones already beginning to “develop.” Like Polaroid film, I guessed. The kind my dad used to shoot pictures of naked ladies before he painted them. I knew all about that. They had breasts, but then they weren’t in sixth grade. The rest of us were. Goofy. With braces and headgear.
The boys elbow and snicker their way through the door as the teacher’s pet, a little thing not four feet tall (she didn’t have go-go boots), stands on a chair and reaches high to write our topic on the blackboard in big, embarrassing letters: Girl Talk! Every third boy in line bends over as he passes, miming a look under her skirt. Thankfully, she had no idea.
The permission slips were bad enough. Everybody saw those, from old Mrs. Ross in the office where they got mimeographed, to the hippie janitor, Fred. And I just knew Mom would tell my dad about “Girl Talk!” No mother-daughter secrets here. No implicit understanding that some things are simply too embarrassing to be borne. And what if she said puberty? To my father?
I was mortified. But utterly fascinated, if truth be told.
What was this business about seeing whether or not a No. 7 pencil would stick under your breast to prove you deserved a bra? What the heck was a cup size? Why, in this upside down world, was it suddenly better to have a “C” than an “A” in anything? And when would I get a waist? I sometimes fiddled with a tape measure, but it just slid down my seat when I followed the directions on a sewing pattern to get a “high hip” measurement.
So far as periods went (I refused to even think men-stroo-a-shun), the idea was frightening. Tentative explorations down there hadn’t yet yielded a vagina. Oh god. Maybe I didn’t have one. Could I ask when we talked about tampons? Would we talk about tampons? And what if I didn’t have one? That would be fine with me, but would Mrs. Forrest send my mother one of her famous notes? Only this time it’s not about refusing to play tetherball, but: “Mrs. Boyle, I’m sorry to say your daughter has no vagina. She is dismissed from class until she gets one.” It’s no surprise we all awaited puberty with angst. Especially me. My mom was going to tell my dad I had no vagina. I suffered agonies.
But waited breathlessly for breasts and bras. Mom insisted I didn’t need a brassiere, and that was the end of that. Of course I didn’t. I was twelve years old and built for speed. And for awhile I was on a swim team. Which only enhanced my metabolism to the point I’d probably never need one. If I’d known then what I know now about the dampening effect of athletics on female development I’d have quit in a minute. I was so desperate I wouldn’t even have minded one of those goofy training bras. They were kind of pretty, though universally sneered at because their cups weren’t sized A through C, but were simple flat discs of stretchy lace.I learned later my best friend (whom my mother chose because she got straight A’s and would be a good influence), found the whole discussion so distasteful she decided to divorce herself from it. She stopped eating to get rid of her breasts (Mom was right–my friend was a helluva lot smarter than me). No bras for her, thank you very much. And none of the misery of modeling one in front of her mother. She’d just reverse the process and not be bothered. I saw her years later when she was little more than a shadow, having reversed herself right back to 72 lbs.
I was thirteen when my grandmother came to the rescue. We were shopping and passed a rack of training bras. The flat, cup-less, lacy kind. I couldn’t help but look. Mom didn’t notice, but Nana pulled me back and started thumbing through them. “What about this one?” she asked. “So dainty. And much more modest than being all bare under a shirt.” In a single moment my mother became a convert. Without realizing it–or maybe she did, being a teacher (one of the good ones) from way back–Nana helped the two of us breach a wall that had existed for years.
I don’t know what happened to the friend who was so put off by puberty that she figured a way around it, but her specter haunts me. While I was anxious but enthralled, she was utterly disgusted. A deadly brew when combined with control issues and shame. It’s something I try, try, try, to keep in mind when dealing with women. The younger ones, the ones in the middle, and the ones after that. Each one is a unique individual with her own fears and anxieties, realistic or not.
So I get new breasts (today, September 11, yay!) And when I’m all healed up, I’ll get new bras. Doctor’s orders. And I don’t have to do chemo. I won’t wear underwires ever again. I am one lucky gal. As a fellow blogger said: “See you on the other side!”
(Love and kisses to all of you.)