Sunday afternoon, two weeks before the first day of sixth grade. I milled around the Bon Marche, and Mom sat in the women’s lounge, book in hand, waiting for me to finish. The store was oddly quiet considering it was back-to-school shopping season, which left me to navigate the terrain with ease, my arms invisible beneath a mountain of color-block sweaters, oversized T-shirts, and Guess? jeans.
Just one last item and I had fall covered. Nearing the far wall of the girls’ department, I looked both ways. Not an employee in sight—perfect. I knew right where to go: end of the second row from the bottom, white silky, 30AA. I’d tried on that sweet little number repeatedly over the previous six months, and if I ignored the baggy cups, it fit me just fine. More importantly, standing in front of the dressing room mirror, chin up and chest puffed out, I felt mature.
What luck! It was right out in front. Stealing a final look around, I snatched it off its rack and stuffed it furtively between a couple of Generra tops.
I found Mom in the lounge, nodding off to some soft rock. Rifling through my selections, she seemed pleased enough. Then she reached white silky. She raised an eyebrow. “Honey, do you really need this?”
Yes, I did. I needed her to let me forget my lingering girlhood, to let me pretend I was someone I wasn’t. Because if not Mom, then who?
Seventh grade, day one. I had the rolled-up jeans, high-top Chucks, shoulder bag with “Esprit” spelled out in rainbow colors: I was trendy as they came, but I was missing something big.
As the bus pulled into the parking lot of Eisenhower Middle School, I turned to my best friend Kathryn. “Don’t leave me,” we pleaded with our eyes, all four lined crookedly in Aquamarine Dream. We stepped out onto a sidewalk clogged with fellow students, and it was just as I’d feared: breasts everywhere. I pulled my windbreaker tighter and snuck a sideways glance at my just-burgeoned friend, cursing a God I didn’t believe in that the months of June, July, and August had failed to deliver the breast fairy to my bedside. Clearly her time had been spent elsewhere. I frowned, willing Kathryn’s proud new bosom to deflate.
Understand my malice: I was a pancake. Flat as a Trapper Keeper.
Middle school was a sea of sharks preying bloodthirstily on the genetically weak. I slipped through the halls like a wary flounder using camouflage to fade into its surroundings. But unlike the smartly designed fish, I wasn’t interested in completely disappearing; only my chest required concealing. The brightly colored windbreakers of spring and fall, the parkas and bomber jackets worn through the chilly winter months… So long as it was cute and “in,” did outerwear really ever need to be removed?
“Hey there, Eskimo, what’d you do with Kristen? I know she’s hiding in there somewhere.”
Joe Cantrella: boy with implausibly large teeth and a demonstrated interest in tracking, out loud, the physical development of each and every girl, especially those whose progress placed them significantly ahead of or behind the curve. While I was a clear outlier, Teeth spared me his full arsenal, reserving it instead for girls like Laura Richmond, whose mouth was as loud as her chest was flat. But obviously, being quiet and dressed routinely for inclement weather didn’t mean I was off the hook.
As Teeth pointed a pretend magnifying glass down the front of my parka, I forced a weak smile, blazing with anxiety.
“How come you never take your coat off?”
My entire skull blushing, I managed a giggle. My eyes darted left to right, right to left, seeking something, anything, potentially more interesting to Joe than my overabundant apparel.
He saw her before I did: Ali Mattson, the most stacked girl in our grade, and the best distraction I could’ve hoped for. “Heeey, Ali, how’s it goin’?” For the time being, Joe and his magnifying glass were history.
And that was generally the way it went for me: always on the verge of blowing my cover, yet saved time and again. Sometimes it was via natural distraction (i.e., Ali), other times a fabricated distraction (“Hey Joe, Ali’s waving at you”), and still other times, the boredom of my would-be tormentor, whose goal of getting a reaction out of me besides “deer in headlights” regularly went unmet.
I had my friends to thank for the actual calling out of my deficiency.
“Don’t tell her I told you, but Kathryn came up with a new nickname for you,” said my second-best friend Stephanie in a hushed tone.
Right away my face grew hot; this was not sounding good. “What is it?”
“The other day we were talking and she called you ‘toddler.’ I was like, ‘that’s so mean,’ but she was all laughing about it.”
Now, I’d come to understand the politics of friendship. I knew that Kathryn and I—and Stephanie and I—were still friends, that they were just putting me down to raise themselves up some. But the words still stung. Kathryn hadn’t called me a slut, a bitch or a brownnoser. She’d called me a two-year-old, which, honestly, I would’ve traded for any of the others. Especially slut. Because at least sluts had tits. Most bitches probably did, too.
My breastlessness and I escaped the seventh grade with less targeting than some of my peers, but the fear factor alone, the threat of I-could-be-next, took a toll. I sometimes wondered if I really had it that much better than Laura Richmond. Living in constant fear of being teased, even without actually being teased, was no picnic either.
By eighth grade, I was tired of tempting fate, weary of the techniques I’d employed as a sixth- and seventh-grader:
“Hey, what’s that?” squealed Kathryn, her arms dangling off the side of our Fun Island adrift in the center of Forest Park Pool. Curious, I twisted my head in the direction she was pointing: toward a small white clump riding the waters. It was all too familiar. Nooo! The answer to her question—it’s my breast bud!—rang silently between my ears and I lost my tread on the mattress. As I slid backward into the water, I intuitively clutched at my chest. Ack! The other one was MIA, too!
Kathryn’s cry faded into the background, her discovery floating unaddressed for the time being. All I could think about was locating its mate, for if I succeeded in doing so, maybe Kathryn wouldn’t put two and two together and reach the inevitable conclusion: I’d stuffed my tankini with a pair of cotton balls, and then stupidly gone swimming.
Then I saw it—bobbing two feet to my left. Noting Kathryn’s preoccupation with the guy she was crushing on, I lunged at the offensive clump. Where do you think you’re going? In my possession once again, its potential to humiliate me was snuffed. But I was still flat.
In the wake of this and other near-disasters, facades ceased to interest me. I was ready—so ready it hurt—for the real thing. In my dreams, it happened repeatedly.
“Kristen, time to get up!” shouted Mom from the other side of my bedroom door.
“Mmmm.” Caught in that fleeting stretch between sleep and wakefulness, the words sounded to me like gibberish. I was still in fantasyland. And it was awfully pleasant.
I stirred. My forearms rose (is it… could it really be true?), my hands moved toward my chest. The excitement was palpable, it was dizzying. Lower, lower, still lower… Finally, my hands met their target. Flat—from outermost concentric circle to bull’s eye center. Damn breast fairy. When? When??
Over the course of this waiting game, I’d grown increasingly self-conscious, even disbelieving, envisioning myself as a probability equation like those on the dittos handed out in math class: If X seventh-grade girls at Eisenhower Middle School have started developing breasts and Y have not, what is the probability that seventh-grader Kristen Elde has, in the very least, entered the first stage of breast development?
I defied logic. Against the odds, I had nothing, not even the stage-one breast buds discussed and depicted in the literature my mom had prematurely buried me in two years before.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if looking younger than my peers hadn’t equated with being treated as younger than them.
I was a bona fide teenager, still flat, and on a retreat with my church youth group.
“Okay Starr, I’m putting you in charge today.”
“Okay Kim, I’m putting you in charge today.”
“Sarah, your turn to take the reins.”
Every girl in my cabin got a turn at orchestrating the day’s events; every girl but me. Every girl in my cabin had breasts; every girl but me. Coincidence? I knew better.
My cabin mates followed suit. Whether or not their actions were influenced by our counselor’s obvious mistrust of late-bloomers like me, the result was the same.
“So my parents were like, ‘we’re going camping,’ and I was like, ‘what? But I’m on my peeeriod!'” said Dana, halfway into the captivating bedtime tale she’d chosen to foist on the rest of us.
Oops, did I say “us”? I meant “them.” Because a second after it was out of her mouth, Dana regretted it. “Oh, sorry, Kristen. I forgot you’re young.” Muffled laughter.
But I was their age! Older, even, than several of them. Worse, they knew this; we’d gone through introductions on day one. And while Dana, damn her, had been correct in assuming I hadn’t yet begun menstruating—another sore point, but I could always lie there—how dare she imply that I was unfit for related conversation.
Tearing up, I tried to lose myself in the sound of the river rushing beyond my window. But more than anything, I wanted to join it.
Fast-forward eighteen years.
My mom and I are talking about all this, recalling episodes of pubertal anguish. Like me, Mom didn’t spring tits until well into her teenage years. Accordingly, there’d been some overlap, like the shared experience of poring over the bra section of the Sears catalog, longing for a fraction of the resplendent cleavage therein.
Mom reflects on a particularly humiliating event, which had gone down as a result of her being too embarrassed to ask her own mother for a bra. Next best, she’d figured, was a creative approach: an artfully constructed paper bra, held together with tape and embellished with what she calls “Playtex circles” drawn on the makeshift cups—”you know, that 50s style.” Well, artistry be damned, her scheme fell, please pardon, flat. Because while sitting at the dining room table doing homework and basking sweetly in the glow of “next-best,” her dad sauntered by, pausing to give his daughter an affectionate shoulder squeeze and crinkling the tenuous undergarment in the process. “He pulled my whole little creation out of my shirt, not knowing what it was,” she recalls. “I was horrified.”
Cringing, laughing, I ask Mom if she recalls my actual solicitation of support (ha) back in the day. The “white silky.” She has no memory of it, and she’s perplexed to hear how she’d responded.
In the days to come, it occurs to me: how poignant and strange and isolating, the blunting effect of time. That my mom, twenty-odd years after Project DIY Brassiere and other coping strategies, had failed to summon her inner eleven-year-old, failed to pull from her personal database of retired longings when faced with my silent and hopeful plea to grow up already, to fit in—this strikes a sad chord, if not a predictable one. After all, to remember is not the same as to relive.
I would like for it to go differently for me. And I will do my damndest to hold on to some of the old longing, if that’s what it takes. Then, when my future daughter presents to me, with feigned nonchalance, her own white silky? I’ll say, in my most casual voice, “Well sure, honey—of course.”