This was published in Wait a Minute, I Have to Take Off My Bra, an anthology about breasts of every size, shape, and situation.
Everything changed the year before I turned twelve.
Spring started with first blood and turned to summer. Summer turned to fall when I got breasts.
The only changes that caught my mother’s attention were when my clothes were too tight and my skirts long enough to cover my knees. She constantly prodded me to “sit up straight” or “stand up straight” with the regularity of a metronome until I responded without thinking. Chin up, chest out, back straight, jaw tensed, teeth grinding, tense smile visibly in place, full lips in a tight thin line over just a hint of teeth. Her commands were accompanied by the look that said I’d better act right and stop embarrassing her.
One Saturday morning while lying in bed with one hand behind my head and the other holding a book on my chest, Mom burst into the bedroom I shared with my two younger sisters. “Get up out of that bed,” she commanded. My lips stretched and my jaw clenched as I slowly moved to obey. “Go wash under your arms. They’re filthy.”
I looked at my armpit and then back at her. “I took a bath last night.”
She strode closer and grabbed my arm. “How lazy can you…?” She stared at my armpit. What I had known for weeks she finally discovered; the dirt was hair. “Get dressed,” she hurled over her shoulder as she walked out of my room and down the hall.
Less than a month later, while standing in line outside my sixth grade classroom waiting for the teacher, the fact I was growing up shook me.
That day I wore another of my mother’s sensible clothing choices, a two-piece sailor outfit: navy blue pleated skirt and thin white sweater with a red scarf knotted at the point of a wide winged navy blue collar surrounding a vee neck. I was aware of the faint ache of the cloth pressed against the hard nubs on my chest but I ignored it just like all the other pains our family doctor called growing pains. It was there and not there. The boys were lined up along the wall opposite the girls and Rob Stokes acted up, making us laugh – until he targeted me.
“I can see Jackie’s nipples,” he crowed, “and they’re pink.”
Nipples? I didn’t have nipples. I had little pinky-brown circles on my chest like everyone else but not nipples. You had to have breasts to have nipples.
The boys crowded closer. The girls moved away.
“Wow,” Rob said, “they’re really pink. See?” He pointed at my chest.
I looked down. The white knit was translucent and I saw a faint blush of pink that was pale in comparison to the red that flamed my cheeks and the tips of my ears. I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at Rob. “Your barn door is open,” I shot back just as our teacher appeared at the end of the hall. Rob looked down and checked his zipper. I gritted my teeth and swallowed hard to keep the tears back.
As the teacher unlocked the door, I asked to go to the bathroom. He nodded. I walked through a gauntlet of whispers and down the hall. I opened the door and marched to the farthest stall from the door, went inside, carefully latched the door, sat down on the commode and burst into silent tears. When I got back to class all the boys stared and I stared right back, a defiant smile on my lips, my shoulders slightly hunched to keep my white knit top away from the blushing pink beneath.
Other girls in my sixth grade class bragged about wearing bras that were little more than bra-shaped tee shirts. I wasn’t about to ask mom for a training bra. I didn’t have anything to train, and neither did any of the other girls in my class.
When my mother got home from work I told her I needed new clothes. “We just bought you new clothes for school.”
“My clothes are too tight.” I had changed into play clothes as soon as I got home, wadding up the knit top and stuffing it back into a dark corner in the closet behind a shoe box.
“You look fine and you aren’t getting new clothes,” she said in her “that’s final” voice.
“I need new clothes.” The whole story tumbled out in a rush.
My mother looked at me as though seeing me for the first time. Her hand flew to her mouth and she stepped back. “Stand up straight.” I snapped to attention: chest out, chin up, shoulders back. “Oh,” she said with a look of shock in her eyes. “Go peel the potatoes for dinner.”
The subject was closed.
I dug out all my old tee shirts, locked the bathroom door and tried them on. They made my chest ache. Nothing fit. I waited for my parents to go to their Eastern Star meeting one night and tiptoed into their room to raid my father’s drawers. I took an old undershirt from the bottom of the neatly folded stack, balled it up and snuck past the living room where my brother and sisters were watching television with Grandma. “I’m going to do homework, Gram.” I took the stairs two at a time.
I closed and locked the bathroom door, took off my top and pulled the undershirt over my head, over my chest, smoothed it over my hips and let it cascade past my knees.
I raided my mother’s lingerie drawer. Her bras were impossibly huge and there was no way I could cut up one of her bras and not get caught. I’d have to stuff the cups or use the foam rubber breasts with the perfectly sculpted nipples I found in the bottom of the buffet in the dining room. I wanted camouflage not bigger breasts.
“Please, God, let Mom buy me bigger clothes,” I prayed each night without success. I put my legs through the arms of my sweaters and pulled them up, spreading my legs with all my might in hopes of stretching them enough. I ripped the seams and put them in the mending pile. Mom complained.
“I must be growing really fast,” I said hopefully.
“Wear something else,” my mother ordered.
As my clothing choices shrank and the mending pile grew, I was desperate. Dad’s undershirt looked better and better.
“Where’s the top that goes to this skirt?” Mom asked as she held up the navy blue pleated skirt.
“I don’t know,” I said, holding my breath while she rummaged in the closet.
She tossed a pile of clothes on the bed. “Hang those up. We’ll clean out that closet later.”
I hurriedly hung up the dresses and tops that would normally have sat on the foot of my bed for a week or more. I had to get that white knit top out of the house for good. I’d hide it in the barrel where Dad burned the trash, under the ashes and rusted, burnt tin cans.
Meanwhile, I experimented with holey sheets destined for dusting rags, borrowed thread and needles “to make doll clothes” and ripped, cut and sewed the strips of sheet together to wrap around my chest, using safety pins to hold it all together. I ended up getting stuck or the binding slipped slowly down to my hips. Everything called attention to the hard knots on my chest that ached whenever something touched them. The hard little knot beneath my swelling nipples got bigger and I slouched more to hide them.
I breathed a sigh of relief when Christmas vacation finally arrived. A whole week of wearing play clothes and no one to worry about my chest . . . I thought.
Christmas morning my sisters and brother and I crept down the stairs in the dark toward the black irregular triangle of the tree with the dark boxy shapes beneath its branches. We stood in the foyer as close to the tree as we dared and whispered about what we’d get. Our whispers were calculated to be just loud enough to rouse our parents slowly.
Mom appeared through the curtain separating their room from the living room, her face shiny in the nightlight. “Get back upstairs,” her voice a rasping whisper.
We went as far as the top landing, hunkered down and waited.
“I said, get back upstairs.”
Huddled together on my bed, we whispered and waited, and anxiously watched for some sign of dawn.
As we finally gathered around the lighted tree, patiently waiting for our gifts, Mom and Dad handed out presents. Then Dad handed me the rectangular box Mom had held on her lap while we had opened our gifts.
It was probably clothes. I wanted to try out the sketch pad and the watercolors but the way my parents looked… “Just get it over with,” I thought, and I opened the box.
I resisted the urge to throw the box as though it contained a poisonous snake. It was worse.
Inside was a navy blue sweater. On top of the sweater was a bra, a real bra with hooks and cups and straps—and cups. The cups were rumpled cotton mounds of air and cloth with rigid circles of stitching pointing up at me.
Mom and Dad beamed.
I cringed inside.
“Go put it on,” Mom urged.
“But I wanted to…”
“We want to see if it fits,” she said in her “obey or else” tone.
I went upstairs like I was walking the last mile to the electric chair.
I put on the bra with my eyes closed. When I opened my eyes and looked down the enormous cups were filled.
The cups were filled.
The tag scratched my arm where it dangled from the strap and I jerked it off and read it. They were only A cups, but the cups were filled.
I pulled the soft navy blue sweater over my head and smoothed it down over my pajama bottoms. I stared down at the front of the sweater where it swelled softly over the bra, over me in the bra. I couldn’t go to school like this. There would be talk of Kleenex stuffing and foam rubber boobs.
“Don’t take all day,” my mother yelled.
I pulled the sweater down and walked the rest of the last mile back down to the living room. My sisters giggled and my brother pushed his new Tonka truck around the living room. My sister, Carol, pointed to the curtain that led to my parents’ room. I hunched my shoulders, hung my head and went in.
“Let’s have a look.”
I stepped through.
“Stand up straight.”
I snapped to attention: head up, chin out, shoulders back. Flames engulfed my cheeks and the tips of my ears as Mom smoothed and tugged the sweater into place. “Turn around.” I moved slowly, my parents discussing me as though I were a mannequin. “She won’t wear that long,” Mom said as she pulled up the back of my sweater and checked the hooks.
She spun me around. “You look all grown up,” Dad said. For the first time I smiled a real smile and stood up straight without urging.
When I went back to school wearing my new sweater over the new bra no one noticed. Rob Stokes didn’t give me a second glance and life went on as usual. I didn’t slouch or hunch and my friends noticed I was taller.
My lingerie drawers are full of sexy and decadently luxurious jewel-colored satin and lace confections, supportive sports bras and comfortable soft, shapeless cotton bras with their DD cups. As much as I love the feel of fabric and lace and pretty embroidery, it is still that first cotton bra and the first full A cups that make me smile.