Ever since my daughter was born, there’s been this worry in the back of my mind that she will develop some of the same health problems I’ve been battling since childhood. My mother first realized something was wrong with me when I needed to wear deodorant at just five years old.
She took me into the doctor, they ran a battery of tests, and I was referred to one of the few pediatric endocrinologists in Minnesota during the late 80s. By the time I was in first grade, I was diagnosed with a disease called central precocious puberty (CPP).
CPP meant my pituitary gland put out too many hormones and I was entering puberty too soon. Doctors at the time warned that there were health risks associated with early development, like mental or emotional trauma, and if they didn’t intervene I would likely end up being too short.
So, when I was my daughter’s age, I spent a great deal of my time going to the doctor and seeing specialists for early puberty. By the time I was 14, the same endocrinologist diagnosed me with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
Life with central precocious puberty meant daily Lupron injections which cost $2,500 a month, and frequent trips to the doctor for x-rays, blood tests, and uncomfortable gynecological exams. My mom was possibly one of the worst personalities to end up having a daughter develop too young.
We were already on welfare and medical assistance when I was diagnosed, yet she told me that I was the reason she couldn’t work. Throughout my entire childhood, she blamed me (though I’m sure she’d never see it that way) by telling me that if it weren’t for the cost of my medicine, she’d be working and making money. I was the reason we were so poor. It was my existence that made life so tough for my mother.
Much of this mentality runs parallel to her tendency toward munchausen’s syndrome. While she’s spent most of my life pretending to be sick and dying of one thing or another, she’s also had a strong martyr complex as a caregiver for as long as I can remember. Although I couldn’t verbalize it at just five or six years old, there was something about my being “sick,” needing the daily injections and recurring doctor appointments. Somehow, it felt as if it was all about her. Despite constantly saying that she hated any kind of attention, she always seemed to enjoy whatever attention she got from being the single mom of a kid with a burdensome medical condition.
All of that might have been “okay.” It could have been manageable, particularly if I had other adults to talk to, like a therapist. I needed some help to positively navigate the emotional toll of precocious puberty. But healthcare wasn’t that savvy back then.
We were fortunate to live in a city with one of the best children’s hospitals and that it was easily accessible by bus, but they completely dropped the ball with patients like me. I wasn’t just tall for my age, but developing too soon. The conversations about my body had the power to impact me for better or worse and unfortunately, it was often for the worse. My Lupron injections served to “halt” my early development, but it wouldn’t reverse what had already occurred.
Imagine at just five years old, you had to dread going to the doctor 16 to 24 times a year because the specialist treating you consistently told you to quit gaining weight.
“Oh, this isn’t good,” he’d say, looking at the numbers. “You’re ahead of the curve.” He’d tell my mom something about how she would restrict my diet to specific foods like chicken breast and salad. Nothing more.
Even though I was too young for the responsibility of feeding myself, I felt constantly guilty for eating. Silently, I ridiculed myself for eating at all and grew up thinking I was somehow deficient or “lacking the willpower to be anorexic.” I grew up wishing for an eating disorder and had nobody telling me there was a better way to live.
To make matters worse, having precocious puberty fed directly into a real fear for my mother: sexual sin. That’s because my mom is the sort of person who sees sexual abuse everywhere. She separated from my father before I was born, claiming he had sexually abused my sister. I was still in early grade school when she told me utterly inappropriate details about the abuse she said she walked in on when my sister was just five years old.
I was just as young when my mother told me that her grandfather had molested her and both of her siblings.
As I grew up and should have been dating boys my age, my mother suggested that any guy who wasn’t a committed Christian might also be a pedophile. When my sister had four young children of her own, our mom called child protective services and claimed they were being sexually abused. Even just a few years ago, my mom warned me to never leave my daughter alone with my ex for her fear of him molesting our daughter.
Mom later sent me an email accusing me of doing nothing, and even “allowing” my daughter to be sexually abused by some boyfriend of mine that she’d conjured up in her head. According to my mother, I was “going to face God” for what I’d done.
Or failed to do.
In more recent years, my mom insists that she would have never said such things. Must have been someone in the government, she shrugs.
But as you might imagine, having a body that developed breast buds too soon was pretty much hell in my house with a mother like that. She was constantly worried about grown men abusing me. (Though I was never alone with any grown man.)
The real irony about her fears, however, was how dirty they made me feel. It’s not like she worried for me because of any trauma or danger that might occur from my being sexualized too soon. No, she was more worried that I was going to grow up into a “slut.” That I’d have sex before marriage and have a baby outside of wedlock. In case you missed it, to my mother, all of these things made an otherwise “good girl” trash.
So, my mother did the only thing that made sense in her mind. When I was in first grade, she began covering up my nipples with Band-Aids.
I personally found the whole thing humiliating and uncomfortable. There was nothing wrong with a little girl who’d begun to develop breasts. Right?The Lupron stunted their growth, so it’s not as if my mother was actually dealing with a six-year-old in some grown-up body. And it’s not as if it would have been my fault if my body did look more like an adult’s. Still, my mom took issue with the fact that the edge of my nipple could be noticeable through my shirts.
She’d complain that my nipples were “poking through again,” as if I’d made that happen. As if that was such a terrible thing. Like a lot of other overzealous Christian parents, my mother seemed to think that any bit of nipple protrusion was a sign of sexual thoughts or Satan at work. It didn’t matter that I knew nothing about sex aside from the horror stories she told me about abuse in our family. Not to mention her very vocal philosophy about “sexual sin” being the worst thing in the world.
Sexual sin, in case you haven’t heard, is a “gateway sin” to all other vices. So, of course, my mom had to make me cover my nipples. (Something like that.)
With the way sex and puberty were approached in my home, being forced to wear the Band-Aids was definitely a shameful thing. Like my body had done something bad. I didn’t want to wear them and told my mother so. She responded in horror as if I was some terribly rebellious — or possibly demon-possessed — child.
In our family, disobedience was never an option. Talking things out wasn't available either. I did what my mother expected of me, or she hit me with a hairbrush or washed my mouth out with soap. As I got older, she accosted me with bible verses about witchcraft. Often, she threatened to take me in for “prayer and deliverance” if I didn’t comply with her demands.
The Band-Aids on my breast buds stayed. Of course, we got our adhesive bandages from the local dollar store. Back then, they usually only carried the “cool colors,” like fluorescent green and pink. I hated everything about wearing them and felt like they only made me more conspicuous.
One day, on a field trip with the rest of my first-grade class, it began to rain, and my white t-shirt was soaked. We had just gotten on the school bus when I realized the rain had made my neon bandages totally visible through my wet shirt. I awkwardly maneuvered m hands through the neck of my shirt to take off the generic Band-Aids.
When I got home, I cried in embarrassment. I hated the stress I felt about the visibility of my body. I didn’t like the way I had to painfully remove adhesive bandages every day. Like lots of kids my age, I hated removing any Band-Aid. Some days, it left that annoying gummed-up adhesive residue on my sensitive skin, and obviously, the whole thing only made me more self-conscious about my body.
If a woman wants to wear a Band-Aid over her nipple to help cover it up beneath her shirt, that’s her damn prerogative. But I find it very shitty to suggest that a child should have to wear adhesive bandages on her chest just to make the adults around her feel more comfortable. Ultimately, that’s all this was. It was never about me, but my mom and her issues.
If a child or teenager is uncomfortable about their nipples, then sure, that warrants a conversation with their parents or guardians about what actions (if any) should be taken to help them feel better in their own skin. But it’s pretty problematic to start our kids out young with body issues just because we have our own hangups about sex.
We owe it to our kids to do our very best to not pass down our personally unresolved issues. While my mother thinks she acted in my best interest to protect me from unnecessary harm, she actually set me up on a path filled with needless hangups about sex and my own bodily autonomy.
My mom comes from that unfortunately common camp of folks who believe women and girls can somehow stop the sexual deviance of grown men by dressing “appropriately.” Purity culture, the modesty mindset — it’s all connected. Unfortunately, it does nothing about preventing sex crimes. Instead, it sends out the completely wrong message: that those poor men can’t help themselves.
And whether parents realize it or not, all their awkward, bumbling fears about sex and their child end up sexualizing their kids — often at a very young age. Such worries about sex and my appearance never should have been on my radar at six years old. When I look at the ways my mom approached the topic of sex from such a young age, I don’t think it’s any wonder that I grew up unable to have sex when I got married.
If we want our kids to make healthy decisions, we’ve got to give them healthy foundations.
My daughter is six years old and her childhood is already so different from mine. I’m glad. At her age, I was worried about money, worried about eating too much and still not having enough food at home. At just six years old, I didn’t know what sex was, but I had plenty of reason to suspect it was something bad and shameful, and something that happened when it shouldn’t within my family.
When I was my daughter’s age, I already felt guilty about practically everything. I felt guilty about getting presents at Christmas because I knew we were poor. And I felt deeply ashamed of my body for doing things it wasn’t supposed to do.
Fortunately, it doesn’t look like we’ll be dealing with early puberty anytime soon. I’m relieved for my kid’s sake. There’s a lot of shit that I’ve been through and if my kid can avoid some of that, I’ll be happy.
On a couple occasions, I’ve noticed that my daughter’s nipples were noticeable through a shirt or dress, usually after I’ve taken a picture and am cropping the shot. And do you know what I did each time?
Nothing. I have never commented on her nipples nor made her change clothes or anything like that.
Here’s why. Because she didn’t do anything wrong and there’s nothing wrong with a nipple in the first place. Men’s nipples have also been known to make themselves visible and we’re not in a tizzy about it. There’s nothing inherently sexual about anyone’s nipple, and my kid sure doesn’t need her own mom sexualizing her body out of misguided fear.