Sharon always was a good bit taller than I–at least until middle school. This was a fact whose implications were limited to my inheriting her old clothes (including one of those sweet t-shirt clips!) until a few years into our relationship, when she and a few other girls in our class started to look…well, much less like children.
It was in fourth grade that I first remember seeing our friend Cate* being harassed by boys on the playground for wearing a bra. Cate had begun to grow into her adult body earlier than many of us, and the white Peter Pan-collared uniform shirts we had to wear at the Unnamed Christian Private School didn’t exactly prepare for this eventuality. The girls who had begun to need more adult undergarments were thus effectively displayed for the world, a fact which the boys–usually led by some jerk whose older brother had already initiated him into the ways of catcalling and other such subtleties–never failed to remind them of. Thus, it was creepily evident to me (and probably everyone else) each time another one of my friends crossed over into the bra-wearing zone, leaving me behind in the land of pre-adolescence.
Of course, even in pre-adolescence, we weren’t exempt from the reminders of the ostensible weirdness of our bodies. One day in after-care, a boy named Scott, who was typically picked up right after school by his stay-at-home mom, sneaked into the girl’s bathroom with another girl who had alerted him to the existence of menstrual blood in the toilet. It was a bold transgression, to be sure, which only heightened the breathless giggling and pointed questions that followed. Scott was good-looking and popular, one of the elite members of our insular fourth-grade world. So when he demanded to know more about this bizarre sight, all of the girls in the class crowded around to offer their knowledge–such as it was in fourth grade.
“Tell me about it,” he said, with gleaming eyes and devilish smile.
“Well, whenever you don’t get pregnant–”
“No,” he interrupted, “tell me the bad part.”
“Um, well, the blood can get on–”
“No, I mean the bad part.”
And it was thus that we all jointly recounted what we knew, foggily, about the mechanism of sex and the apparent shamefulness of the female body. Ironically (or perhaps not), Scott’s mother showed up during this illicit story-time, and was alerted to its content by the hushed voices intermittently punctuated by squeals of laughter. Instructing Scott to leave immediately, she turned to the group of girls with the sort of tone you might take with someone who just taught your 3 year old the f-word:
“You do not tell boys about that!”
I spent the rest of the afternoon paralyzed with fear that my parents would find out that I’d been involved in such “bad” things.
At that age, so much of the world seemed to me a mystery, and despite the fact that growing up apparently meant having a body that was open for discussion by everyone and their brothers, I was desperately anxious for it. I remember grilling Sharon and our other similarly-developed friends on their experiences, filled with wonder over the realm of training bras and “sanitary” pads. Like Scott, I wanted first-hand knowledge of the secrets of puberty–but that knowledge was not forthcoming. On the other side of the puberty fence, of course, things don’t look quite so exciting…but on the monkey bars in fourth grade, the rumors of periods and undershirts were enough to make me wish and pray, in spite of the certain public humiliation that would accompany it, for my own “development.”
It was, interestingly, years before I learned that girls weren’t alone in undergoing bizarre bodily changes. In fact, it was only through illicit late-night sitcom watching that I began to get a vague clue that boys’ bodies did something potentially embarrassing around the years of adolescence, a shocking turn of events that left me so confused that I threw caution to the wind and asked my mother. She informed me that they went through something just as we did, even though no one really talked about it.
“But why,” I said, “Why does everyone make fun of us and not them?”
“Because,” she said matter-of-factly, “they’re sensitive about their privates. And, because they’re the ones who run everything.”
I didn’t stop hoping to join Sharon and everyone else in the gnostic cult of puberty then, and neither did I wish to become a boy. I did, however, feel that I had something, that I knew their secret, that this little bit of information had freed me from being forever shut up in the box of bad stuff. It definitely wasn’t anything like feminist consciousness–I still desperately wanted to have a bra and to have the other boys and girls know that I had a bra–but it was a little move out of the world of feeling trapped in my own girl-ness.
Really owning that girl-ness, though, took some time. But thankfully, for that there was Sharon, and Designing Women, and my mother, each of whom (it seemed to me then) saw the world with clear eyes, and just the right amount of defiance.
*Not her real name