Puberty, Ready or Not | Part 2 of 2
First day of 7th grade, 1955. A giddy day! All the girls are furtively checking in with each other: Did your period start yet? Yes! (much quiet applause and excitement); Are you wearing a bra? No. (oops…). Definitely a less than stellar report.
No bra yet—even though I’ve been examining myself in the mirror wondering when this momentous day will come As much as I loathe having to wear something like that forever, I know that when I have one my status will go way up.
Why? Because being able to say Yes! to the two test questions above bestows high female status. It means you’ve now ‘graduated’ to nearly full womanhood—close to being ready for the Real World of Adults. Freedom. Dates. And all that Romantic Adult Stuff. The s-word is somewhere in there, too, I think.
Sadly, I’m still just a half-way-there little girl.
My First Bra
One day near my 11th birthday, Mother looks me over and says, “It’s time you were wearing a bra!”
It seems from the tone in her voice that I should have either delayed this reality or thought of it already so she wouldn’t have to. She sounds a little embarrassed and put out.
In a business-like yet slightly pained voice she tells me she’ll ‘have’ to pick me up after school and take me to buy one. The very next day! As planned, she picks me up and we go to J. C. Penney where we do most of our infrequent shopping for clothes.
- We walk through the door right into the middle of the ladies’ department.
- Not far from the entrance I see a huge table bin display of bras. Heaps of them. A Sale!
- Just behind me are HUGE display windows lining the sidewalk. Of course there are displays in the windows. But guess what? I can see right through them!
- So if I can see right through them to the sidewalk, anyone on the sidewalk can see right back through the window displays to ME!
- Besides, it’s a gray, cloudy day, so the light in the store feels like a spotlight—right on me!
- The last thing I want is for someone from my class or my church to walk by and see me even LOOKING at the piles of bras.
- I try hard to seem nonchalant.
Mother makes a beeline for the sale table. No shelves or racks to conceal anything at all! She tells me to take off my jacket. I comply.
She looks me over. Then, to my horror, she starts putting bras around the outside of my blouse, trying to figure out what might fit me!
Mortified. The word barely begins to describe how I feel. My mortification escalates when the female clerk comes bustling up (no pun intended) with a measuring tape and right there, before God and everybody else, proceeds to measure my ‘bust.’
She then announces to the whole world: ‘I think she’s ready for a quintuple A’—or whatever it was….
During this entire time Mother keeps up a dialogue with the clerk, including a somewhat negative-sounding comment about how quickly young girls are ‘developing’ these days.
It seems I am somehow responsible for getting myself into this situation, since it really shouldn’t have happened this soon!
No one consults me for one second about my opinion regarding this momentous purchase. Mother makes all the decisions for me. I feel like a mannequin being tricked out in the huge display window for everyone to look at.
Somehow we get through the ordeal. On the way home Mother tells me that beginning tomorrow [!] I am to wear one of these contraptions every day.
By now I’m feeling totally conflicted, embarrassed, and ashamed of my growing body.
According to my friends at school, this is supposed to be a Big Event. Something to celebrate! Definitely not like getting your first period–a total downer.
I should be proud! Excited! Happy. And, of course, a little embarrassed—especially the first day you show up in class and absolutely everybody finds out one way or another that you’re now wearing a bra!
Is Nothing Sacred? Random Observations
I can’t help wondering how my classmates’ mothers treated them. How did they feel about buying their first bras? Did they qualify for private changing rooms? Was absolutely everything transacted in the open-air theater of a department store? Did anyone offer a kind, upbeat word of encouragement to ease their way into this momentous transition?
As I see it, it’s business as usual: Mother is efficient and seems detached from me, my feelings, and our surroundings. Somehow I seem to have added to her day one more unwelcome task that needs to be done.
She isn’t mean. She’s just inappropriate, given the occasion, and I have no safe way or even proper words to let her know how I feel about what’s happening ‘to’ me, not with or for me.
I wonder what’s going on inside her? Without her mother at home, I wonder who told her about her first bra–or her first period? I also wonder whether her urgency about getting me a bra was connected to my father. Maybe she noticed him looking at me, making comments from time to time.
I dread the discipline of having to put this contraption around my body every day, and of having my classmates look at me differently. I also dread the reality that Daddy will be looking me over, as usual. Added attention to this particular part of my body is most unwelcome.
Recently Daddy warned me about men who might want to touch this particular part of my body. Unfortunately, he was too late. I’d already met the shopkeeper. Daddy didn’t know the half of it. Also unfortunately, he said the words, but his own behavior toward me when he said the words didn’t match his words. Getting a bra just made me even more self-conscious around him.
Then there are my parents’ adult friends. I can’t count the number of times some of them look me over and offer their unsought opinions about ‘how nicely Elouise is developing,’ with knowing looks at my blossoming young female body.
Of course I’m standing right there, but they aren’t talking to me. I might as well be on another planet. Sometimes I wish I were.
Inspection. The once-over. Up one side and down the other. Doesn’t every woman know and dread this routine? An object to be examined, commented upon, and too often lusted after.
It seems I’ve always had mixed feelings about my female body. I don’t remember even one safe, positive conversation with Mother or anyone else about female bodies. Especially mine.
I look back at family photos and see a slightly plump, round-faced adolescent with thin, fine hair who is obviously self-conscious about having her picture taken. I also see my sisters and make comparisons with them. I don’t have a sunny disposition, a petite body, golden-hair ringlets, or a ready smile for strangers, friends or the camera.
Painfully self-conscious and no raving beauty. That would be me. Even when I manage to smile into the camera at the right time.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 May 2014