Mosquito bites. That’s what my older brother called them, taunting me the day I got my first “training” bra: two flat cotton triangles sewn to a thin strap, which clasped around my torso with a single hook. It was meant to conceal—or coax along—the twin buds protruding on my twelve-year-old chest. Probing the hardened discs at night, I knew my prepubescent days playing shirtless like a boy, unbridled, were behind me. I wondered about the womanly form my body would blossom into.
Turns out, I was a late bloomer.
Before I entered ninth grade, the girls in my cabin at summer camp stared while I changed clothes. At a slumber party celebrating my fourteenth birthday, all my friends talked about their periods while I was still the only one without mine. When I hadn’t menstruated by my sophomore year, my mother took me to our family pediatrician. He explained that females need a certain percentage of body fat to bleed. With a paternal pat to my knee, he chuckled, “You’ll start once your body fills out a little.”
A few months later, during a weekend stay at my father’s apartment, I awoke to a thick, sticky substance painting my thighs. The onset of menses happened without warning—no premenstrual moodiness, no pink spotting in my panties as a precursor. I wasn’t prepared for so much blood. Sneaking into the bathroom, I stuffed a wad of toilet paper into my crotch then retreated, like a wounded animal, to the comfort of the couch.
“Ew, what reeks?” my brother asked when he walked past.
“You do smell funny,” my father confirmed.
Clutching a pillow to my belly in my own bed the next day, I found nothing soothed the burning sensation. Not herbal tea or Midol or my mother’s words: “Welcome to womanhood!”
Or partial womanhood, as I viewed it. The long-awaited rite of passage had arrived, but the slope of my upper torso did not follow. A diary entry written the summer before my junior year reads: Today I got my braces off. I thought I’d look better, with my hair permed and a tan. But I don’t. I have so many zits. And the grossest boobs: tiny and pointy. Every year I say, ‘This year they’ll grow.’ Then I say, ‘This summer they’ll grow.’ Now I’m back to ‘By the end of the year they’ll grow.’ I hope nobody reads this.
The following spring, I met Steve. It was another restless Saturday night in suburbia when his Alfa Romeo convertible pulled up near my best friend’s Volkswagen in a McDonald’s parking lot. I teetered over in my white pumps, pegged jeans, and shoulder-padded blazer, took one look at his ice-blue eyes and gel-spiked blond hair, and accepted the invitation to a party at his house. We ended up on his bed, drinking wine coolers until my midnight curfew. I had suffered the sloppy tongues of several guys before, but Steve demonstrated the fine art of French kissing.
“Be careful with a man,” my post-divorce single mother had warned. “Once you get them started, they can’t always stop.” That awkward talk was the extent of her guidance in sexual matters.
Boys were forbidden in my own bedroom. But my mother often worked late, so Steve would come over to my house to fool around. She would have been relieved to know we never went beyond first base. After a few months of these make-out sessions, which comprised our “going together,” Steve asked me to attend the prom at his Catholic high school.
My mother took me shopping for a strapless bra to fit under my satin pink dress. She scoured the department store racks brimming with busty brassieres and granny girdles, then pulled aside a sales clerk.
“Excuse me, where can we find a smaller size?” she inquired. The woman peered at me over the top of her glasses and dropped her gaze to my chest.
“Have you tried the pre-teen section?” she asked.
“I’m sixteen!” I protested.
“Don’t worry, dear,” my mother said, laughing at my blushing cheeks. “She just means you have a petite figure.”
Finally we found a lined bra in beige. It offered more padding than push-up for my nearly nonexistent bosom. When the highly anticipated evening arrived, my date hovered over the scallop shapes of my gown and pinned a requisite rosebud in place. Then I climbed into a rented limousine where his football-player friend positioned one beefy arm around the buxom other half of our double date. “Oh look, here comes Pretty in Pink,” he sneered. His reference to that year’s coming-of-age blockbuster and his mockery of its protagonist, another teen misfit attending the prom, did nothing to quell my uncertainty.
Bas-relief sculptures of bare-breasted women adorned the art deco auditorium where the formal event took place. When it came time for portraits, I lined up in the ladies lounge to fix my hair in the gilded mirror. Only then did I realize the bra I secured around my midriff had dislodged. It now encircled my waist. I should have discarded the useless garment. Instead, in the privacy of a bathroom stall, I shimmied it back up and prayed it would stay in its proper place.
My usually restrictive mother let me stay over at Steve’s house that night—as long as we slept in the living room where his parents could check on us, which they did only once. Lying on the scratchy sofa, I wore sweatpants and an oversize orange Crush tee shirt, borrowed from my brother, which drooped off my shoulders. For hours, Steve and I kissed as usual, fully clothed. Eventually, his hands snuck under my baggy shirt. I held my breath as his fingers crept up my belly then inched over my bony ribcage to rest over bare nipples for the first time.
“Oh my god,” he said. “You’re so small!”
My body froze.
I would like to say I came back with some witticism to counter his accusation, a one-liner wisecrack that hit him where it hurts. Instead, I simply apologized for not measuring up. As if I owed him more, something he could really get his hands on.
By the end of high school, my periods were irregular and my body hadn’t filled out much, despite the doctor’s predictions. Meanwhile, my best friend’s copious chest drew the lecherous stares of our male classmates. She told me how her boyfriend had confided his concern over whether my diminutive size would be enough to nourish the babies I might someday birth.
Aside from my brother’s Encyclopedia A-Z, which explained the mechanics of human development and reproduction, I was largely left alone to grapple with my slowly emerging womanhood. However, my mother did send me off to college with what she described as two essential references: Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, 1984 edition. I hardly even peeked into the pages of the weighty tome. The title alone was enough to mortify me.
It wasn’t until the next summer that I dared to reveal my nakedness to another. Hiding behind my hands, I slowly warmed to my boyfriend’s touch as he traced the contours of my collarbone then tenderly caressed my chest. The awe in his eyes belied the long-held belief that I was insufficient. His assurances lessened the impact of those prior convictions.
One semester my Women’s Studies major offered a course in female physiology and gynecology. The literature shed light on many mysteries, including the wet spots I sometimes noticed when I went braless. In addition to sporadic periods, this spontaneous nipple discharge, called galactorrhea, indicated a noncancerous pituitary tumor that secreted prolactin. A blood test at the local health clinic revealed excess levels of the hormone that causes lactation. An MRI confirmed a micro-tumor in the marble-size gland at the base of my brain. Following graduation I underwent neurosurgery to remove it. My body resumed bleeding after twenty-eight days.
In my twenties I filled solid B cups of cotton bras in bold colors—more bikini-top than brassiere. Self-identified as bisexual, I dabbled in a few relationships with guys while most of my girl crushes went unrequited. I may no longer have believed my body inadequate, but self-confidence took some time to take root.
In my thirties I hit my sexual stride. While traveling solo, from the Americas to Australasia, I tried on lovers like pairs of shoes. One night, rolling around the tussock grass under a full moon at the edge of the sea, a young admirer assessed my breasts: Perfect. “Have you had them done?” he asked.
I saw the irony of his appraisal—one that measured a woman’s size and shape against a plastic surgeon’s specifications. Despite my third-wave feminism, however, I wasn’t immune to the power of the male gaze. I couldn’t help but feel triumphant. He rated my breasts flawless! Then he ejaculated onto them.
I recently turned fifty. The boobs I once believed too small are beginning to lose their buoyancy. With a thickening belly and widened hips, I need a sports bra for support when bouncing around my Zumba class. On occasion, I open my lingerie drawer and slip into French lace before entering the bedroom where my wife waits. “You’re the sexiest woman I know,” she insists, despite my puffy eyelids as I pry a night guard from my mouth in the morning. She reassures me it’s fine when a low-cut shirt bares cleavage, but I can still feel self-conscious revealing my not-so-newfound voluptuousness.
In truth, I sometimes yearn for the slender suppleness of youth, when I could wear a sundress in summer without sweat dripping from the folds beneath my breasts. But that’s the thing: just when you’ve arrived at some semblance of self-acceptance, your body continues changing. Forget those months of braces. The snaggletooth my brother’s elbow knocked loose while playing in a swimming pool has found its way back into my crooked smile. The toned skin once sprinkled with pimples is spotted from sun damage. Maybe aging isn’t simply a matter of altering perceptions, but of shifting priorities. Now I’m just relieved when my mammogram results indicate that the dense tissue, while possibly associated with an increased risk of cancer, is “otherwise normal.”
I realize that learning to love one’s body through its iterations is lifelong. Yet I wouldn’t trade the equanimity that comes with middle age for the cruel insecurities of adolescence. If I could only time travel, I would reassure that young woman-in-the-making of her worth, no matter how she’s sized up.
NICOLE R. ZIMMERMAN holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. She is a 2019 recipient of the Discovered Awards for Emerging Literary Artists produced by Creative Sonoma and funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work, including a Pushcart nomination, has appeared in literary journals such as Cagibi, Toho, Ruminate, Origins, and Creative Nonfiction. She lives with her wife in Northern California where she hosts writing sessions and workshops. Read more at nicolerzimmerman.com.
© 2020, Nicole R. Zimmerman