There were the whispers: who does, who doesn’t, followed by the giggles. I shouldn’t have cared. But I was obsessed. And it was the early 60s. Jane Russell. Marilyn Monroe. Bullet bosoms. For readers too young to relate to these images, just check out Joan on Mad Men. See what I mean?
All the cool girls in my 6th grade class, need it or not, had graduated to a bra. In those days they were called “training bras” – who, exactly, were they training? I ached to have a bra, training or already trained, I didn’t care.
I had really close friends, but did we ever discuss this burning issue? Nope. I was sure it was because, in all their abra’d glory, they felt sorry for me. During the school week my bra-less agony was less intense. My industrial-strength, Roman Catholic navy blue serge jumper hid most of the clues as to the bra’d vs. the not-yet-bra’d. But on the weekends … I’d scan the backs of every girl I played with for the tell-tale signs.
Every weekend revealed a new convert. Under thin cotton blouses with Peter Pan collars, replacing the shadow of undershirt – the familiar gentle U near the shoulder-blades, edged delicately in lace or tatting – would be a new and daring shape – no longer soft and child-like. This shape was bold, squared, adult.
Under the blouse, two verticals marched defiantly south from shoulders to mid-back, where they connected with a slightly wider horizontal – side streets flowing into the 4-lane highway. The sight made me queasy because all who beheld that womanly outline must be beholding my back as well. My pitiful, childish, whisper-worthy undershirted back.
All along, my front was doing exactly what an 11-year-old girl’s front should be doing – blossoming, bursting forth, pink nubs dancing gaily on twin soft clouds. My ungiving school uniform flattened them painfully against my ribcage. I scanned the clothing of my mom and her friends – darts at the side allowed ample space for their bullet-bras. There were no darts in the navy-blue St. Matthew School jumpers. No room for growth. Apparently, while one was in Catholic elementary school, it was unseemly to begin the trek into puberty.
But trek we did. Girls began having cramps – still a mystery to me. And wearing bras. But they all had modern, with-it moms. My mother was 20 years older on average than most of the other mothers. She was trapped in a Victorian mind-set of her own making. A first-generation Polish-American, she fought modernity while secretly hungering after it. She’d blush at the sight of any pregnant relative (all properly married) because it indicated they’d done the deed. At the same time, she secretly squirreled away second-hand copies of movie magazines from my aunt’s beauty parlor, stuffing them in grocery bags in a dark cabinet in the corner of the garage.
I’d once overheard a conversation between my mom and Mrs. Toomey, a much younger neighbor, pregnant with her fourth child. I was camped out under the dining room table, my favorite eavesdropping hangout. “When Mother tried to tell me the facts of life,” my mom started. Mrs. Toomey must have initiated the topic. But ever the polite hostess, Mom soldiered on. “I ran out of the house, down the steps and didn’t stop running for two blocks, my hands over my ears, screaming.” From my vantage point, I could see the red stripes rising on her neck, a sure sign that Mom’s discomfort would send her to bed with her “nervous condition” as soon as she could ditch Mrs. Toomey.
Under the table, this newsflash sunk in: “She doesn’t know ANYTHING!” I would have to cultivate new sources.
I was to spend most of the summer between 6th and 7th grade with my best friend Linda on her grandparents’ farm. While the idea delighted me – The Farm was my favorite place in the entire world – I just couldn’t face the whole summer wearing an undershirt, knowing that Linda would be slipping into that magical undergarment that put her on a completely different plane.
A few days before the trip, my mom was out shopping. I snuck into my parent’s bedroom. The curtains were drawn against the warm June sun, but I dared not turn on a light. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. Certainly not one of my mom’s bras – her matronly bosom was quite generous – she was always trying and failing to “reduce” into her once svelte figure. Still, I headed for her underwear drawer. I wasn’t worried about messing things up; the drawer was always a tangled jumble of corsets, girdles, white cotton panties and enormous bras. It smelled faintly of Mum cream deodorant and cedar.
I shoved things around and eventually hit upon an unopened package. A confident woman in a bra looked back at me. “The Revolutionary Sleeping Bra” said the package. “Keep your figure while you sleep!” it urged. The package was yellowed with age, but it had never been opened. With trembling fingers, I carefully separated the crinkly cellophane. A small, grayish bra slipped out. Just looking at it, I knew it would fit my 11-year-old breasts. From the size of it, my mom had probably purchased this “sleeping bra” some 30 years earlier as a newlywed determined to battle gravity. Here was the solution to my dilemma.
Holding my breath, I shoved the package into my shorts and skulked out of the room. It would probably be hours before Mom would get home, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Excited as I was that I’d found this bra, I was awash in the guilt of my actions. I just stole! How was I going to articulate that one in Confession? Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. I stole a bra from my mother. Not happening. I’d just have to gamble on this being a venial sin and take my lumps in Purgatory.
My blue vinyl suitcase was partially packed. I lifted the cardboard lining and slid the package under it, just in case my mom decided to inventory my packing before I left. The lump it made was barely noticeable.
On the morning of the trip, still wearing my dreaded undershirt, I threw a sweater over my not-opaque-enough shirt, lest Linda notice the outline. My plan was to make the big switcheroo as soon as we got to the farm. When we arrived, I dug through my suitcase, flushed out the package and locked myself in the bathroom. As I’d calculated, the bra fit perfectly. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, replicating Sears Catalog models, thrusting my chest forward and tossing my hair. I felt … complete. Now that I’d pulled off the deed, I could forget about it. I folded the bra package as tiny as possible, wrapped my undershirt around it, and ran upstairs to the bedroom that Linda and I were sharing. She was on the bed, reading a Nancy Drew mystery. “You sure were in there long,” she commented, not looking up. “You didn’t stink it up, did you?”
“You’re crude!” I admonished, while deftly slipping the rolled up undershirt into a corner of my suitcase. Linda took no notice. “Let’s go get the ponies,” I said. I galloped down the stairs, Linda following. I knew she could see the outline of my bra beneath my shirt. It was going to be a great summer.
Until the phone call. I wasn’t one to get homesick. Whether at the farm or at camp, I relished the freedom from my over-protective mother. I’d heard the phone ring before Linda and I had gotten up; as I bounded downstairs for breakfast, Linda’s grandmother greeted me. “Guess who’s coming on Sunday?” she asked, smiling warmly.
“Your parents! They’re coming to spend the whole day! Isn’t that wonderful?” While it was true that I wanted to show off my riding skills, such as they were, my thoughts went right to the undergarment conundrum. If I wore the bra, my mom would surely notice and give me the third degree. On the other hand, going back to the undershirt would seem weird to Linda. It’s amazing to me that I put so much energy into worrying about this issue. But I did.
Sunday morning came. Linda and I were getting dressed. “Um, I think I’m gonna wear my undershirt today,” I mumbled, as if to myself. “It’s a little chilly.”
Linda was sitting at the dressing table, dotting Noxema onto a nearly invisible zit. She didn’t respond.
“Maybe,” I continued, “I’ll wear both.” Linda engaged with her microscopic zit, dabbed away. I sighed. I put on the bra, which after two weeks of continual wear, was starting to get a bit rank. Over the bra went the undershirt, and then my thickest shirt. Hopefully, my mom wouldn’t see the bra outline.
I rushed to the bathroom and twisted around, trying to view my back in the mirror. I may be able to pull this off.
The day went fine. We girls giggled as my parents praised the luscious “fried chicken” that we knew was really squirrel, although considering the kinds of meat my family ate, squirrel was, in a word, pretty tame.
I loved showing off to my parents, hurdling onto the Shetland pony Sugarfoot from behind with a running leap; jumping the larger Welsh pony Nellie over the 18 inch barrier we’d built in the driveway. When it was time to say goodbye, I made sure that my mom’s hug didn’t come in contact with the middle of my back. For the time being, I was safe.
Eventually, though, I’d have to go home. And a two-week Girl Scout camp was coming up. I couldn’t keep wearing this stolen bra forever. I would have to confront my mom.
Back at home, it was undershirt time again. I hid the bra under my mattress, planning to slip it into the suitcase right before I left for camp. But, yuck! It stank. Four weeks of pre-teen sweat had stiffened the fabric; it was black at the armpits. I couldn’t figure out how to get it washed without my mom finding out. I needed to get my own bras. I had to confront my mom. I was terrified. Of what? Historically, any time anything upset my mom, she’d take to her room, sometimes for days on end, with her “nervous condition.” I was often on tenterhooks, concerned that I might do something that would make my mom ill. I was sure that asking for a bra would do her in. After all, if she thought I needed one, wouldn’t it already have happened?
Time ticked by. It was Sunday morning, right before Mass. We were leaving for camp right after Mass. I weighed my options: total humiliation at camp because I’d be the most developed girl there and the only one wearing an undershirt … versus making my Mom sick. As we walked down the steps of the church, I tugged at my mom’s arm. “Uh, Mom,” I began, “I think … uh, can I … would you … I need a bra.”
This stopped my mom short. She looked at me strangely. “What?”
“Bra, Mom. We need to go buy a bra.”
“But it’s Sunday,” she said, after collecting herself. “And besides, you’re still a little girl.” At this point, height-wise, we were eye to eye, both about 5’5”. No one else would mistake me for a “little” girl.
“Uh, the Five and Dime is open,” I reminded her. I had scoped it out. They had all manner of bra.
My mom closed her eyes and sighed. This was hard for her. But it didn’t seem like it was going to make her sick. For this I was relieved. “Steve,” she said to my dad. “Let’s go up to the Five and Dime. Marilyn wants to start wearing a bra.”
I could feel my face go scarlet as my Dad looked at my bosom, analyzing. “Okay,” he said.
Dad and my little sister waited in the car while my mom and I went to the lingerie department. Boxed bras in rows offered a variety options: lifting, separating, accentuating, caressing, pointing. I’d already analyzed the selections and headed to the bras I knew would work for me. A young salesclerk greeted us. “Is there anything I can help you with?” she asked. I towered over her. She was a petite high school girl with tiny, perky breasts.
My mom spoke, pointing at me: “She wants a bra,” she said, still incredulous. “Do you think she needs one?”
My breasts were about eye-level with the salesclerk. Her eyes widened as if she couldn’t believe the question. Was this woman with the giant busty girl in tow trying to be funny?
The salesclerk regained her composure. “Why I’m sure we have something just right,” she chirped. She removed the measuring tape from around her neck. “Let’s just do some measuring.”
She measured under my breasts and then over my nipples. My mother’s neck was starting to stripe. “Oh God,” I thought. “This is too much for her.”
“Thirty-six B looks about right,” said the salesclerk. She led us to the “teen” section – more modest coverage, less torpedoes. Pulling out two packages, she said, “these styles will work just fine.” My mom seemed shell-shocked. She took the packages to the check-out and paid for them.
“Open the trunk, Steve,” she said to my dad when we got to the parking lot. Wordlessly, she handed me the bag and I unzipped my suitcase. A great weight had lifted off my shoulders. Months of worry evaporated. I knew that the moment I got to camp I’d be heading to the latrines with one of the bras, changing before anyone at camp noticed. I was no longer an outcast, even though most of it had probably been in my own mind. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of my journey through puberty, a journey that I would be taking on my own, tripping over my mom’s fears and attitudes along the way.
© 2010 Marilyn Stevens