I remember standing in the movie theater staring at a game I couldn’t take my eyes off. It was there, wedged in between the spiral wishing well funnel you dropped coins into and what was essentially a glorified mood ring, where you’d press as hard as you could, and it would tell you how stressed you were — or how good in bed — based on your body temperature. The name escapes me now, but I was fixated on the racing game that stood next to it. And what wowed me wasn’t the accurate physics, the cool cars, or the sweet graphics.
No, I was there for the bikini-clad girls holding trophies. Busty as hell, with three small triangles of American flag-patterned fabric barely covering the parts I really wanted to see. Smirking smiles peeking out from underneath cowboy hats.
For me, it was the secret upside of going to the movies with my family. Seeing those women.
I’d feel the same way as I walked around the video store, ogling cheesetastic and overtly sexual cover art. In the 80s, movie marketing was shameless about objectifying women.
And frankly, it excited me. A lot.
I was a young girl and lived in an extremely conservative area. What sexual education I had was rudimentary at best. So I didn’t quite understand what was going on with me then. Or why exactly it was so impossible to stop staring. But when my family went to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I got a double dose of busty vixen. My arcade women, sure, but also Jessica Rabbit. Oh God, Jessica Rabbit.
I couldn’t get her out of my mind. In the weeks following, big-breasted torsos in strapless dresses filled my notebooks. I couldn’t stop drawing women’s breasts. Or thinking about them as I hummed “Why Don’t You Do Right” under my breath.
Judy Blume’s Ridiculous Chant
I’d later read Judy Blume’s book Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. In the book, a girl instructs her friends through a series of stretching exercises that she tells them will make their chests grow. And as they do the exercises, they all chant, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.”
Mentally going through the adult women in my life, I knew some of them had stayed flat chested. But others became cartoonishly busty. Had some of them not done these exercises? Or did the exercises not work?
As I read Blume’s book, I began to wonder: Which group would I belong to, Team Bikini Trophy or Team Must Increase My Bust?
Given the choice, I wasn’t sure which one I would pick. I was strangely drawn to the busty women, but I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to be them. That seemed to me like an awful lot of attention and an awful lot to live up to. It seemed safer and more practical to be flat chested. Easier to climb trees and run.
I refrained from doing any chants and instead left the decision to fate — and what I would later discover to be nature.
All of a Sudden, I Was Fair Game as a Sexual Object
I was more surprised that anyone else when I was the first girl in my class to develop. That I needed a bra in fourth grade.
This wasn’t the plan. The straps dug into my shoulders. Having the extra layer of fabric underneath my shirt was uncomfortable, as was the sudden attention from boys and girls alike.
Boys more often told jokes or mocked. Nicknamed me “Jiggle,” chanting it as I rounded the bases in Little League. Felt me up in a dark coat room when all I wanted to do was get my damn jacket on.
Girls were even more bold. Ordering you to strip at slumber parties so they could see your tits. Interrogating you about your habits, trying to get to the bottom of why you, of all people, had grown breasts. Each interaction ending with some disparaging comment like “Well, I’m glad I don’t have all that boob fat. It’s gross.” Just so you didn’t get the idea that you weren’t any better than them and so that you knew you should be ashamed of what your body had done.
All of a sudden, I was a sexual object, the class bombshell. It didn’t square at all with my internal picture of myself, a goofball, a reader, a writer of stories. A girl so extroverted that she was somewhat bossy. A kid who loved sports.
The shaming of my body from others was relentless. I sharply drew into myself, wanting to hide.
It was a lot to deal with, especially with a child’s limited tools for emotional coping. And it had all happened so soon.
Nature Sorted Us Arbitrarily
One by one, other girls in my class joined me — or didn’t. Nature sorted us into separate categories. It was rather arbitrary, which “team” you were suddenly on. And yet to a lot of people, my growing breasts signaled to them that my brain was concomitantly atrophying. That being busty meant I must be a bimbo.
I tried wearing baggy clothing to camouflage my shape with disappointing results, since the clothes hid my breasts but made me look heavier. And fat kids received the same treatment — people assumed they were slow.
Sports became increasingly more difficult as I became self-conscious in the face of taunts from other people about the way my breasts bounced. And frankly, even with a good sports bra, it hurt.
I found that while my own breasts did little or nothing for me (kind of like how holding your own hand is a non-event) that I still couldn’t stop thinking about women. And not just the busty ones. I was now staring at all the girls in my class as we changed for gym and trying not to get caught.
Whenever I’d watch TV, I’d see that there was this idea that busty girls had an easier time dating, and I’d laugh and laugh. Perhaps it was true with straight girls? Or at least with some straight girls?
In my own life, I’d found that the boys I approached ran away from me. And the girls… well, the ones I loved would be with me in spite of my large breasts, never because. When I did eventually manage to have girlfriends, they were much smaller chested, meaning we were on different “teams,” a reality that caused a lot of tension:
“Keep your top on,” she said.
“Sure,” I said, dropping my arms to my sides and then quickly wrapping them around her waist. And as we kissed, I moved my hands up her torso, feeling her body through her shirt. Her chest had its own topography. Subtle places where she came in. Went out.
We certainly had different shapes. But I loved hers as much as my own. Even more so, really. Some would call her flat chested, but that would be wrong. She had plenty of curves and dimensions. Hers were just less readily apparent to a casual observer. But that was the thing, you see: The way I observed her was anything but casual.
I would have known her body with my eyes closed.
“You can take my shirt off,” she said. I smiled, started to slide her shirt off, undid the back of her bra. I half-gasped as it fell away from her, revealing her bare chest. God, she was beautiful.
“But please,” she said. “Keep your top on.”
She Kept Comparing Our Bodies
Her aversion to my breasts was disappointing. But it didn’t come as a surprise, really.
I’d seen her wincing when I’d undressed in front of her, the way that friends often do. Quickly, casually.
And once we’d become something more than friends, I couldn’t help but note the way she pointedly avoided my breasts. They weren’t destinations but obstacles, a large barrier between her and feeling secure about her own.
It didn’t matter how many times I told her I loved her small breasts. How much attention I lavished upon them, her.
She thought she was deficient. Incomplete somehow. There was no getting around it.
Unlearning Those Roles
It’s been decades now since those crazy years when we were arbitrarily sorted into teams. And even though I’m part of a very sex-positive community, looking around at every woman I know, I feel like we’re all still unlearning those roles. That it’s been difficult to shake what the world bestowed on us by an accident of nature: Whether we were thrust into the role of sex object or tomboy. Whether we were driven mad by the places our bodies chose (or didn’t choose) to store fat.
Or the names people called us.
Or the disconnect between what the world showed us would happen when we came of age and what was waiting for us instead.