"Sandra, you don't wear a bra?"
"How come?" He was incredulous. All the other girls wore bras. I hadn't taken a poll, so I didn't know for sure, but I think that was true.
"Because I don't need to." And that just makes me laugh now. What an incredibly honest, frank, and un-self-conscious thing to say. That's the way I felt about it. Half the other girls who were susceptible to having straps popped didn't need to be. I didn't think of myself as less developed, just more practical.
Sixth grade, though, was different. Did our hormones actually start raging all of a sudden or was it just being around seventh and eighth graders, who were in the full throes of the horror that is puberty? Still, I did not wear a bra. I needed it a little more than I had before, but I certainly wasn't experiencing any back pain from the unsupported weight of my chest.
A nurse came to the school to do scoliosis screenings. We were lectured about posture and even told that good posture made your boobs look bigger, which made the eighth grade girls instantly sit up straight. Then the nurse met with us one by one in the locker room, told us to take off our shirts and then touch our toes so she could examine the alignment of our spine. I was determined to keep cool and not let on how embarrassed I was that I was completely topless, while the other girls had the benefit of a Maidenform to hide their shame.
I don't know how I started wearing bras. Did I, fueled by the shame of the scoliosis screening, ask my mom to take me to the store? Or did she notice that I was becoming a woman and that it was high time I started wearing uncomfortable undergarments to go along with it? I don't remember. But there was a day when we planned to go into town with the specific purpose of buying me bras.
I was not looking forward to it, no, I was dreading it. The fact that all the other girls had gone through this ordeal much earlier led me to believe that they had been excited to wear grown-up underwear. Surely they had initiated the trip, because their mothers were adults and had enough sense to see that additional support garments were not yet required. I thought something was wrong with me. Wasn't I supposed to be happy? Instead I was confused that my body was growing attachments that I didn't know what to do with.
My sister, who was eighteen at the time, wanted to come, too. I was adamantly against it. I protested loudly, while she lobbied just as hard to go, promising not to say anything the whole time. Mama ruled in her favor. I felt betrayed, not understanding why Mama would do that to me.
We went to Wal-Mart, picked out some bras, and I tried them on. Mama helped me, while my sister sat in the corner of the dressing room floor quietly, seeming to stare into space. I couldn't figure out why she had wanted to come so badly if she was just going to act bored the whole time. I was trying to get it all over with as quickly as possible. We bought two matching white, soft-cup, lightly-padded bras.
My side of the story: I was embarrassed and didn't want the attention. I thought my sister, with whom I often fought, just wanted to come so she could make fun of me. I could not imagine any reason why she would possibly want to tag along so badly. Her presence could only make an unpleasant experience worse.
Her side of the story (a guess): She thought we could all bond over her little sister becoming a woman. Faced with my protesting, she demanded to go along, driven (maybe?) by stubbornness. But the fact that I argued so vehemently against it hurt her feelings.
Last week, a woman on NPR read a poem about shopping for her first bra.
I stand there wasting away in a sea of bras, feeling like a rag doll under interrogation with mama on one side and the bra women on the other, fixing straps, poking me, snapping the back, underwire begins to dig my breasts a grave. The bra shapes my breasts into pristine bullets. No movement, no pulse, no life, they just sit there like shelves.
After we are half-way through the bra inventory we check-out. Oh honey, you picked some beautiful bras. The bra lady says. Remember, hand wash. How about burned and buried, I think to myself.
The bra lady and my mother discuss how the bras fit just right and will do the trick with no bouncing at all. Mama thanks the lady for torturing me and we leave the nightmare that is the bra department. My mother turns and looks at me. Now really, was that so bad?
"Bra Shopping" by Parneshia Jones
And I realize that maybe all the other girls were just as humiliated as I was, that maybe their mothers were not sensible adults after all. I think that when I have to take my daughter bra shopping for the first time that it will be a special day with just the two of us, where the focus will be having a mother-daughter lunch out or maybe seeing a matinee, not her chest. The bra thing will be just a side trip that we do because we're out. If she asks, I will tell her about the fifth grade boy, the scoliosis nurse, and my sister sitting in the corner of the dressing room floor. If she doesn't, I won't.