I started wearing a bra in 4th grade. I briefly sported a training bra and then, within a few months, had moved straight up to the standard wires-and-padding, full-fledged, technically complicated bras. We could no longer find my size at the store where they sold our school uniforms. We had to venture to Dillards and buy the kind that came in boxes and had frolicking buxom women on the covers. I think they were Playtex, and even then I understood that they looked like something an old lady would wear.
I also remember the first day that I learned the bra was visible, as Erin mentioned, through our extremely translucent uniform shirts. At least five boys popped my straps that day. At recess Erin and I stood on the tennis courts, pondering solutions. “I think you have to unhook it,” she said, staring at it through my shirt and considering alternatives with a thoughtful, 9-year-old gaze. She probably had a yarn ribbon in her hair. We were still young enough for ribbons, but we were getting old enough for bras. I agreed, but confessed that I wasn’t adept enough to unhook it myself, through my shirt. So we found a fairly unobtrusive (we thought) corner of the yard where my best friend worked tirelessly to unhook my bra for me, through the slippery fabric of my shirt. After she managed it, she stood back to look at me and declared that “I can still kind of see it, but only if I try hard.”
Little did I know that the absence of my bra would be just as obvious as its presence. As we took our seats back in class, I heard Scott (yes, him again) whisper something to a friend. (I don’t remember who the friend was, although I imagine it being a big kid named Jordan who was always up for trouble. Although it might also have been Mike, who was new that year and once punched me in the arm.) They asked me, “Did you take it off?”
They knew I knew what they meant. But somehow, I honestly didn’t understand that I was supposed to be ashamed, that the bra was like a Scarlet Letter. “So?” I said. And I went back to my work.
I was a kid who walked around with my head someplace else most of the time. All of the time, really. I had a fairly elaborate fantasy life, and I was happy with that life. I didn’t venture very often into understanding what other kids were discussing. I’m sure that there was already a lot of talk about sex and puberty around campus, but I honestly remember only two incidences of this: the bra struggle mentioned above and one other strange item that I’ll get to in a later post (it involves accusations of lesbianism and therefore deserves its own section). But first, I want to make a point that I consider vital to an understanding of my elementary school psyche: I had breasts and hips and various sexually connotative features LONG before I understood what those things meant to other people. Frankly, I had barely noticed them beyond the practical fact that they required new clothes. I just didn’t care much. There were books I needed to bury myself in, and various elaborate stories I needed to tell, and games I needed to play with my neighbors outside after school. My breasts seemed completely irrelevant to anything. In other words, people read my body like a text, and they learned to interpret it long before I did. (This can likely be attributed at least in part to my mother, who is one of the few people I know who genuinely believes that appearances shouldn’t matter. When she would be diagnosed with breast cancer 5 or 6 years later, she did not hesitate to request a double mastectomy. And when she explained to me what this surgery would involve, she did not do so with the standard lamentation for lost femininity. It was a surgery, plain and simple. It would help her get better, and breasts weren’t a big deal anyway. I imagine – although I don’t remember for sure – that this is also what she told me about them when I grew some. They just aren’t a big deal.)
One extremely bizarre memory of my disconnect stands out, but even now I have no idea what this memory means. It’s one of the few moments from elementary school that I wish I could revisit through an objective eye, so that I could understand how and why it happened. I’m hoping Erin will remember this too, but somehow I doubt it. I’m not sure I ever told her about it – ever told anyone. Which is strange, because in and of itself it seems harmless and off-beat.
Our 3rd and 4th grade worlds involved lots of activities that required choosing students at random – pop quizzes, presentations, doing math problems on the board. The teacher needed an easy way to pick students/victims, and so she wrote each of our names on a popsicle stick. Anytime she needed a “volunteer,” she could pull out one of the sticks and call a name – easy and fair, no arguments. One day during recess there was rain coming down hard (as it often does in South Louisiana), and the girls in the class had wrangled permission to stay indoors and work on art projects rather than venturing outside and getting wet and muddy. Sometime during this indoor session, I noticed a small group of probably 3-4 girls standing around the teacher’s desk. (I have no idea where she had gone; it’s likely that the boys – who must have been outdoors – were deemed less trustworthy than the girls and that she left us unsupervised while she watched them. These sorts of things happened often, even though the girls would frequently come close to tears every time they were all left alone in a room. At Unnamed Religious Schools, boys = bad and girls = good/angelic.) I started to walk over to them to find out why they were snickering when the Lead Girl, Melissa *, broke away from the crowd and marched over to me. “Look, Sharon. Look what somebody wrote on your stick.” She held up the popsicle stick with my name across it and flipped over. Across the back, in pencil, someone had neatly scripted the words “Cindy Crawford.”
Now, I have tried as best I can to tell you only the things that I am CERTAIN were true about this memory, without adding in what I imagine in my head. Because how you view this story is all in the details. I have a very solid interpretation of this scenario, which is that the girls – lead by Melissa – had written this to mock me in some way. I was not a cool kid, nor was I a pretty kid. There were girls in our class who already wore makeup and had neatly combed, brightly colored hair. Melissa was one of these. I was not. I had a fairly awkward, childlike appearance – except for the slowly widening hips and the now bra-necessitating chest. I cannot fathom a situation in which a smitten boy would compare me to an adult supermodel – but I assume that that’s what I was meant to think had happened. In my memory, the neat cursive on the stick was clearly a girl’s handwriting – probably Melissa’s herself. Her tone was knowing and mocking, as though she had some knowledge I did not. And the snickering girls huddled around the table had to have been the perpretrators.
So this part is open to interpretation. I have no idea how Cindy Crawford’s name got on that stick, or why it was put there. All I have is my best guess. But there’s an added bonus to the story: whatever intended effect Melissa wanted to have by showing me her find/creation, she failed miserably. Because I hadn’t the foggiest idea who Cindy Crawford was, or why her name was being shoved in my face.
Melissa grew quickly frustrated. “You know,” she said. “She’s a supermodel.”
“What’s a supermodel?” (Really. I mean, why would I need to have known this in the 4th grade? Did YOU know this in the 4th grade?)
Groan from Melissa, the all-knowing cool kid. “She’s on tv sometimes. She’s on that Pepsi commercial. You know, on the cruise ship.”
This part is true. There was a Pepsi commercial out at that time featuring Cindy Crawford. But I don’t know that I’d ever seen this commercial. Or if I had, it hadn’t stuck with me. I’d had no reason to remember the buxom lady in the bathing suit.
So in the end I was laughed at for new reasons – for my complete ignorance of pop culture, a state I occupied happily until well into middle school. And I bumbled my way into an awareness that somehow, somewhere, some discussion about me was occurring that I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until at least ten years later that I would hit on this memory and recognize that, for all its weirdness, no matter how you interpreted it, this story had something to do with my body.
No one will remember this now, but being among the first to develop is a little like being the sick gazelle. Sure, breasts are powerful things later in life, when you know what they can do and what fascination they hold. But when you’re young – especially if you’re the kind of kid I was – they can be confusing and dangerous. People suddenly hold intimate knowledge of you.
The same happens, I’m sure, to girls who develop later. People have knowledge of them too – but it’s knowledge of a lack rather than a gain. Either way, our assets are suddenly visible and on display. And we have NO IDEA what to do about that.
I got lucky, I think, in my cluelessness. At the time I didn’t care at all what Melissa meant by her taunts, nor did I care all that much about the bra strap popping. It stopped fairly quickly – the boys got bored and moved onto something else, like hanging pairs of underwear out the window of a speeding car on their way to a field trip at the Livingston Parish Safari Park. And I think this might be the clear-headedness Erin references in her post. I’m proud to be remembered this way, and I suppose she’s kind of right. When I was very young, I didn’t let things like this get to me for very long. There were times later in life when I would fight hard with my body, try to suppress it and change it into something long and lean and lanky, something without all those external markings of sexuality. But those years wouldn’t come until much, much later – very near my graduation from high school. Right now we’re concerned with childhood, and in my childhood breasts just weren’t an issue. For me. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized they had been for everyone else, boys and girls alike. And I’m thankful for the good friends who continued to let me live in oblivion, and for the strange, insular mind that let me ignore most of the talk that surrounded me.
I sure do wish I could go back and ask who wrote that on my stick, though.
*Also not her real name. I wonder why it is that we’ve protected the girls from specific names but haven’t shrouded the boys quite as much. For some reason I feel completely comfortable in saying that “scott” is Scott’s real name, and that I am sorely tempted to tell you his last name too. Also, I’m amazed at how much coverage he gets here. I never realized except in retrospect how big a part of that school he was. You’ll learn that Melissa is a similar character, part of the cultural elite and also the absolute wealthiest kid at the school, at least as far as we were aware. We have many, MANY stories about her. Some of those stories may even be a part of this sexuality thread. More to come.