I stood in the shower and prepared myself for my regular ritual, angling my body to face the sunlight in slight parallel, illuminating the silhouette of my pubescent figure against the plastic wall. I lightly pressed my index finger into the middle of my burgeoning breasts, forcing them into the perfect, perky circle I knew my anatomy was supposed to mimic. I stood for a moment, shifting side to side with my head tilted down, admiring the rounded figure that magazines and movies told me most other women had. But knowing my non-invasive alteration was transient, I released my finger with a defeated sigh, my breasts and spirits dropping in tandem.
Later that year I would repeat this routine while standing in my mother's living room in my new boy-short bikini, tears gushing from my eyes, wetting my bathing suit for the first time. "They're pointy and floppy!" I gasped through sobs, gesturing to my chest that had betrayed me through the thin, unstructured cotton cloth. (I had confirmed they were floppy a few weeks earlier when I read in Cosmo about the pencil test, and anxiously rushed to my penguin pen-cup to find out once and for all if my body was worthy. "If you stick a pencil under your breast, and it stays, your breasts are saggy! You might want to consider a breast lift!" the magazine had advised. I didn't pass. Neither did my self-esteem.)
My mom let out an exasperated gush of air, with a slight chuckle of compassionate understanding of my early teenage self-loathing. "Honey, your breasts are fine. They are perfect. They are natural. That's what natural breasts look like. Trust me. There is nothing wrong with you. That's how all women's breasts are."
I wasn't convinced. I demonstrated my shower ritual for her, pushing at the center of each boob, expecting my mother to suddenly raise an eyebrow and nod with surprised resolve. "Ah, I do see what you mean now. Gosh, that's a pity!" Instead she just laughed and shook her head some more, pleading. "Please, sweetie. Listen to me. Your breasts are just like everyone else's. Those pictures you see in magazines are women in shaping bras touched up with airbrushing. Underneath it, they look just like you." I threw my hands up with a shriek and stormed to my room in frustration. Parents just don't understand.
After hurling myself on my bed and crying about it some more, I promptly threw away that traumatizing bathing suit and sprung for a new sexy underwire bikini with all the straps, clasps. and elastic an insecure teenage girl would need to reform her body into the shape society told her was acceptable. But if parents aren't your comrades in the fight against biology's assault on your body, then your peers who are engaged in puberty warfare alongside you are viscous double-crossing traders. When I nervously debuted my flashy new suit at our 8th grade graduation pool party, Kim Straiton passed by me arm-in-arm with her cohort of giggling popular girls and shot me a smug, disapproving look. "Jesus Christ, Alida. Put a shirt on. You're busting out." Their shrieks of laughter exploded sharply like broken glass, the shards cutting apart the fragile seams of my suit and self-worth, leaving me feeling stark naked and exposed. It was my first exposure to girl-on-girl slut-shaming, and it left me angry and confused. I knew at the time that what she did was wrong and her acrid attack on another woman's body spoke more of her issues than mine, but right then I wanted to lop off my breasts and throw them in the trash to keep company with the sticky lollipops and torn floaties of the pool's patrons.
See, the trouble with puberty is that you're going through the same process all adults have, yet you're hoping, praying that you'll be one time no one takes notice. Like the muscle tissue being ripped apart below the surface of my itching, budding breasts, I felt torn between wanting my body to stay frozen in an inconspicuous, Never-Never-Land state of prepubescence, and simultaneously wanting to be hurdled forward in time into trés cool, independent adulthood where I wore bright red lipstick with confidence and didn't have to ask permission for a second bowl of ice cream. (Because that's all there is to adulthood, right? Eating as much ice cream as you want? I couldn't wait!)
Meanwhile you're also commiserating with your peers, desperately seeking reassurance during the most terrifying, confusing time in your life ("You're growing hair there, too, right?"), while not wanting to reveal too much and voluntarily offer ammo for future locker room combat ("Wait... you're not?! Is something wrong with me?!"). I remember flopping down next to the beautiful and popular Myra Hyams after we finished running lap in 6th grade, both of us out of breath and sweaty, despite the cool air of our morning PE class. I waited a moment to build up courage as we recouped. I wanted what I said next to come out cool, casual, and distinctly teenage, with an air of "I noticed you have boobs. I have boobs, too. You know, whatevs. Just us girls doin' our thang" indifference.
"I wish I'd worn my bra today," I quietly exhaled through pants of exhaustion. I tensed up my tired muscles waiting for her response. Did she hear me? Silence. I repeated it a little louder, with less breathiness. "I wish I'd worn my bra today." I angled my head slightly to look at her, to gauge her reaction. Still nothing. I repeated it a third time, this time more firmly. "I WISH I'D WORN MY BRA TODAY."
Now, if you're wondering what exactly this even means, you're in the same boat as Myra. See, as a result of me trying to be ultra cool and all-knowing, I disguised my puberty olive branch in cryptic, teenage girl subtlety, assuming that she, being cooler than me, would understand the implied conclusion of that sentence. "I wish I'd worn my bra today, because my MATURE, SUPER RAD ALMOST TEENAGE BREASTS now hurt from running without proper support. I know you feel me!"
I was hoping for a "I hear that, girlfriend!" and maybe even a high-five of solidarity between two girls fumbling through the same bewildering biological process, but all I got was a look of annoyed confusion as she wrinkled her nose and let out a confident, "What?" that put my quiet, cowardly confession to shame. I shrunk down, feeling embarrassed for breaching the subject, and with a popular girl, no less. I, alone, navigated the crimson seas of puberty.
And oh, those crimson seas were lonely, if not at times terrifying. In fact, the first time I got my period I cried. This wasn't a "Oh, what a special gift! I am a woman now! This the most beautiful, precious moment of my life!" outpouring of emotion. This was a "Oh my god, the elevator doors are opening in The Overlook Hotel and blood is pouring out in waves from some unseen source and can't be stopped AND OH GOD WHAT ARE THOSE CREEPY TWINS DOING?!" paralyzing sense of dread and doom. A dark stone in my stomach sunk me to the bathroom floor as waves of panic overcame me and I took it all in. I was a woman now. And I was bleeding internally.
But it wasn't for lack of practical preparation. Several months earlier my mom had handed me an unmarked, brown paper bag filled with tampons and pads, like a shoulder-tapping hand-off of cheap liquor to underage youth in a back alley. I think my mom tried to open up dialogue about it, but I promptly shoved the bag in the dark, depths of my closet, too embarrassed and afraid to acknowledge the impending implications of this care package.
So you see, my deep-seeded fear of menstrual onset wasn't because I'd been caught off guard without the necessary supplies. No. It was the intangibles that shook me. The sudden tremendous responsibility I felt. The foreboding sense that nothing would ever be the same again, and there was no going back.
I thought of rape, of leering men, of the great burden of unwanted, unplanned pregnancies. I thought of groping in hallways, shouts of sexist slurs, the complex process my body was undergoing to prepare me to produce life, and what exactly that meant for me. In just a moment I had taken on centuries worth of problems too complicated for even the world's NGOs and political leaders to solve. I was just twelve years old. And I was a woman now. And oh my god, I really am bleeding out of my vagina. I was frightened and alone and a woman. Bleeding.
So on International Women's Day, this one goes out to my Mom. Thanks for teaching me to love my body, and loving it for me even when I didn't. And to Kim. For the record, I wasn't busting out. That's just what a woman's body in a bathing suit looks like. I shouldn't have been shamed into tucking away my breasts, but your indignant degradation of a vulnerable girl's body probably should have been. You did a disservice to women everywhere that day. And to Myra, for always reminding me that I have a voice, and I should use it, especiallywhen it comes to speaking about women's health and sexuality. To Anthony, Travis, and Christian, who pinned me down in the back of our 8th grade science class and unlaced my shirt against my will. To every guy that every laid a hand on my breasts as I passed them in the hallways at school, or shouted some cutesy nickname you created for me that meant "big boobs" in another language, or a similarly charming acronym, like BTL (Big-Tittied Lady). You didn't have my permission to touch me, and I have a name my parents gave me. Relish it on your tongue because that's the closest you'll ever get to tasting me. And to all 1,381 of you who made some reference to my tits when you signed my yearbook. Every.god.damn.year. (You couldn't just leave it at "Have a great summer! See you next year!"?)
And to my dad and brother, men to whom I was always Alida. Nothing more, nothing less, before and after puberty. But also for all the years I secretly borrowed your razor to shave my legs because I was too embarrassed to signal that I was now at an age when I needed to do that. I probably dulled the shit out of them. I owe you one.