I was told I had a nice back: I made sure my 8th grade graduation dress had an eyelet between my shoulder blades. This was what I held on to during those scary adolescent years because I had been called many other things, not very confidence-boosting-things: mosquito bites, 2 X 4, and boy chest were others terms to describe the development that seemed to not be happening---but happening to everyone else. This was the problem. (I was a full year younger than everyone else in my class.)
I let my mom know I wanted a bra. Yes, I didn’t need one, but really I totally did if I didn’t want to commit social suicide in the 7th grade locker room Actually it wasn’t suicide I feared, but rather murder by the “popular girl” firing squad. (Most of the popular girls had about the same amount of breast development, but no one bothered to point this out: they managed to make me their whipping boy.)
My mom took me shopping. I was embarrassed. She should have handed me a twenty, let me go into Penny’s myself, and waited in the car. But instead, she walked in with me, talking loudly as she fingered the various styles, “This one has a pretty flower in the center. Now, this bra you’re wanting is more for looks than for function, right.” Mortification. A friend of mine, equally as flat, had been able to persuade her mother into buying her a padded number. This is really what I wanted, but could not vocalize. Then the worst thing happened, my mother ran into one of her friends, “Oh Terry, how are you?” They exchanged pleasantries. Then my mother announced, “Yep, we are buying a bra. Not like she really needs one yet, but you know how it is when you are the only one in the locker room.....” I quickly dove into the dressing room to let my mother broadcast my development issues to anyone who happened to be passing by the lingerie section.
One night at youth group I even attempted to stuff my bra. My sister knew, helped, and said it looked good, natural. But the whole night I couldn’t relax. I was sure tissue was creeping out and crawling on to my neck, exposing me as a boob fraud. I frantically excused myself from the scripture discussion, dove into the bathroom, removed my tissue, and cried.
Well, my dad had said I had a nice back. I’d focus on that. I made sure all my swimsuits had low-backs. Hopefully this feature of mine was so stellar that all eyes would be drawn to that side, and my chest would get upstaged.
I survived junior high and got some breasts somewhere in the middle of high school. I was smart, witty, and feeling even a bit pretty by my senior year. I was in drama and one of the better actresses. The last play of my senior year, the spring play, was days away from opening night. We thespians were taking a break out on the lawn, eating our early dinner before dress rehearsal. A fellow actress, two years younger than me, was staring at me. I found it a bit strange, but kept up with my humorous chatter until she interrupted me with an epiphany, “You know, you’d be pretty if you didn’t have all those freckles.”
Wow, not sure how to respond. As always, the best comebacks came later as I replayed the scene in my mind.
Freckles, I thought, added coloring to my face. I had never been informed they were an uglifier. I knew I had pale skin, and society had told me that was unattractive, but no one had ripped on my freckles before. Luckily I didn’t invest in some strange face cream guaranteed to wash away my facial blemishes, only to turn my skin some strange alien color. But I did try plenty of fake tanning lotions that only made me look orange and always left streaks no matter how closely I followed the instructions. In college I worked at a yogurt shop and one of the male workers let me know that I would have sexy legs if they weren’t so white. This time I did have the confidence to reply on the spot and shut him down.
Still, it wasn’t until my late 20’s that I threw out my last bottle of fake tanner and embraced the white that is me. (While traveling in Italy a local vendor told me that I needed to go to the beach. I flashed him my glowing stomach, and that shut him up. In Hawaii another tourist asked if I’d spent any of the vacation in the sun. I informed him that there are many shades of white and that in fact I had and was quite tan in comparison to the Oregon me....thank you very much.)
I’m very cautious with my own sons. They hear all the comments and observations. My husband and I are careful that we don’t discuss them when they are near. I cringe when someone points out that my oldest is, “So skinny!” He’s not to me. He’s “slender” and “lean”. My middle son isn’t emotional, but “passionate”. My youngest isn’t a handful, but instead extremely “athletic”.
When I hear other parents describe their children as lazy or chunky, I cringe. (Yes, this has happened and the children heard.) Our kids are going to get enough critique without us adding to the mix. I tell me sons how handsome they are. I tell my oldest what a great nose he has. We count their new crops of freckles with great excitement and anticipation. I always let them know that I still have the most, and doesn’t it make mommy pretty? They always agree.
Hopefully, when they are 13 and feeling less-than-perfect, they will remember all the times I gave them affirmation and praise. I know I relied heavily on that “great back” my dad said I had; I think it is how I survived. He probably had no idea how much I needed that compliment.