Stalking over to the candy aisle, I looked furtively around in a way I’m sure was less than subtle, then inched my way slowwwwly down to floor level with my arm behind me, as if in the throes of Tai Chi meditation. Identifying and latching onto my prey, I palmed the small box and sneaked it into my pocket. Success! I was a bona fide thief! I felt daring and brilliant, a dashing young Robin Hood in Reeboks, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. “I could get used to this,” I smugly assured myself, high on the adrenaline of such a verboten act.
Rejoining my mother, I became excessively chatty, free associating while my mother answered with the occasional, “Hmm, hmmm? Is that so?” No guilt here! No sir! Of course I felt guilty. Raised since infancy in the Presbyterian church, my Calvinist upbringing was carved into my DNA. Thou shall not steal! Work is honorable! Honor thy mother!
What happened next may have been an act of God, or merely an act of Steve, the nice, but cold-sweat inducing security personnel who stopped us on our way out of the store. “Ma’am?” he said, as I threw up a little in my mouth. He explained my crime to my mother as I watched in abject horror. I would have given anything to escape at this point--a beating, consumption of a tomato, listening to smooth jazz--but there was no escape.
With tears in my eyes I handed over the contraband and apologized, internalizing his stern warning about future offences. “We’ll put a picture of you up in the office,” he warned, leaving me to imagine my mug shot gracing the walls of some tobacco-stained Interpol outlet. If he betrayed any surprise at the contents in his hand, he didn’t show it. Proof of my snobbery even then, he held a box of Lakrits--black licorice enrobed dark chocolates, imported from Sweden. If I was going to hell, it wouldn’t be for Rolos.
As we walked to the parking lot, my mother wouldn’t look at me. Wordlessly pushing the cart to our car, a 1982 Honda about the size of a bread loaf, she loaded the trunk with pursed lips and furrowed brow. “I have never been so ashamed of you,” she finally said, slamming the trunk with unnecessary force. I had never been so ashamed of me either. Thus ended my foray into the seedy underworld. I never stole anything ever again.
Even though theft was now out of the question, there still remained plenty of outlets to find and acquire sugar. My father, who I saw on weekends, and who adopted the stance of many divorced dads, indulged me with Dr. Pepper, sugar cereal, and Pudding Pops (R.I.P.). Friend’s houses provided me with rice crispy treats and “fruit” snacks, unless they were hippie parents, who would inevitably offer sunflower seeds and carob chips as an unsatisfying alternative. Of course I ate them anyway.
It came as no surprise to anyone, then, when I found myself in the very real position I had most feared. I was becoming a bit of a chub. When I look at fourth and fifth grade girls now, I can recognize my own former silhouette--that horribly awkward body shifting that comes as girls morph into the beginnings of their adult bodies. The hips spread, the boobs grow, and a tumescent belly joins in the fun, bestowing the dread “egg on legs” effect.
I have video footage of myself in fifth grade that it would take a few stiff drinks to face. I’m on stage as a participant in a lip-synch contest, and I’ve chosen The Beatles’ Maxwell Silver Hammer (my chubbiness notwithstanding, I always had great taste in music). I’ve enlisted a few friends as my backup singers, all of whom are in their own awkward stages of larval maturation. We are acting out the song, and I am acting as both the narrator and the title character, rocking side to side emphatically as I mouth along. I’m wearing shorts, since I refused to don long pants until high school, and a snuggish T-shirt with a picture of a cat sitting on the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge is only too apropos since I look about as big as one. Three distinct belly rolls are evident, each winking in unison as I slam down my air hammer to the dulcet tones of Paul McCartney.
It doesn’t help, too, that I have bangs of epic proportions. At this point, to save money, my mother still cuts my hair and is, God bless her, no Vidal Sassoon. Thick and long and wrapping halfway across my head, it looks like a broom was plucked from its handle and duct-taped to the top of my face. I am a mess.
It was during this era that my mom made two offhand comments that profoundly affected me. Although now that I’m a mother myself I know all too easily how this could happen. The first was in the dressing room of JC Penney, already a soul-crushing venue by itself. After begging for a pair of teal leggings I haaaad to have, my mother said she would buy them for me if I lost ten pounds. I didn’t.
The second was my mother’s ongoing amazement at my relatively normal, but to her, excessively early puberty. Shock at my breast size and subsequent arrival of my period the first week of sixth grade, she told me I had surely developed early because I was overweight. Thus, forever equating breasts=fat, period=fat in my head. Much has come out in later years about links between early menstruation and being overweight, so it isn’t even that my mom was particularly wrong in her assumption. It’s just that, for an overly sensitive, neurotic, self-critical child, the weight (har har) of this correlation was like stamping “Fat and being punished” on my psyche.
As evidence, my sister’s rate of development was held in contrast, as she didn’t get Aunt Flow until she was 14. Seeing as how she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 11 and spent much of her 5th grade year in the hospital, and her early adolescence on steroids, her experience was hardly the gold standard for normal maturation.
The irony was that by sixth grade I was starting to look better. As I shot up in height and my hips and shoulders widened, I began to look almost normal, and then, finally, quite good. I didn’t know it, of course. In my mind I was fat, fat, fat, and being tall didn’t help my self-imposed image as a “big girl.”
For some cosmic joke of a reason I have always had tiny friends. Over and over throughout my life, my BFFs have often been these wee little folks--the type of girls who grow to loathe the word “cute” and tire of being picked up and tossed around like midgets at the circus. I wanted nothing more than to be picked up; but no one, and I do mean no one, ever picked me up. I was 5’5” by sixth grade, and my full height of 5’7” by 7th grade. I was also a D-cup.
The arrival of breasts aren’t easy for young women, whatever development timeline they face. I have yet to talk to a grown woman who thinks her rack showed up at the right time and in the right proportions. Early puberty? Sucks to be you. Late? Also sucks to be you. Kids in that general age group are little assholes and no one is going to be spared humiliation.
That being said, I can only comment on being large chested quite young and confirm it was hell. When my knockers showed up I simply wasn’t prepared. It was nothing like the movies. I didn’t develop little breast buds and skip off to the store for my training bra to wear under my stylishly coordinated outfits. I essentially woke up one day with a B-cup worth of boobs, as if the titty fairy had come down in the night and given me a present. Seized with a crippling fear that anyone might notice, or god forbid, question me about it, I took a covert route and stole a bra from my sister, then combed my wardrobe for my biggest shirts.
Wearing men’s large and extra-large shirts at all times made me look like I was setting up camp in my clothes. Most of these shirts were also black and as punk rock as I could muster at the time. These were the days before Hot Topic was a staple for every burgeoning baby goth; and before Target sold Anarchy patches on their mass-market duds. One of my favorites was my “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” shirt I scored at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland Oregon, a garment deemed too inflammatory for my Central Seattle Middle School, where junior gang members shared Now and Laters with the hookers around the corner. Paired with pleated school girl skirts, army jackets, and plaid low top Converse sneakers, my outfit may have been the prototype of early 90s Seattle grunge, but it was hardly figure flattering.
My other strategy was to adopt poor posture and keep something over my chest as much as possible. This tried-and-true method worked for the most part, but lent a hunchback-like quality to my physique that was hardly endearing to my would-be love interests.
And there were no love interests. You’d think being a blond with a big rack would be enough, but apparently a macabre sense of humor, a constant stream of snarky witticisms, and the aforementioned lack of style were enough to keep the lads at bay. That is, until Meanie LaBitchy, a budding sociopath if I’ve ever met one, took it upon herself to spread the rumor I stuffed my bra. At the time I was mystified. “Why” I thought, “would anyone want to look like this?”
The rumor was held that I had leaned over in the locker room after gym class and tissues had fallen out of my bra. As a constant allergy-ridden nose blower, tissues hidden on my person was hardly out of the question, but the actual scenario was ludicrous.
First came the bra snapping. then came the taunts, and finally, the challenges. “Why don’t you prove you don’t stuff your bra,” they jeered. “Yeah, prove it. Prove it!”
I had never been kissed. I had never even held hands with a boy. I was hardly going to bare myself like some Mardi Gras whore to make the accusations stop. So instead I learned how to swear. Really, really well. “F*** you you sad sack piece of sh*t, nasty, stinky, ugly-pants wearing mother-f***er” would roll out of my mouth like a former Marine. Eventually, they backed off, and I was left alone with a mouth not even Purell could clean.