I learned a new word last week: “senescence.” It means growing old, the gradual loss of your cell’s abilities to accurately copy themselves. It’s the opposite of adolescence. I also learned last week my hearing and eyesight peaked around 20, and it’s all downhill from there.
Youth is wasted on the self-hating. While my eyesight and hearing were peaking I was going to my state university, letting frat boys call me fat, getting tanked as often as I could. Looking back I was beautiful in that 20 year old way- what is it about that unmarked, plump, radiant 20 year old skin? And like most twenty year old women I walked around the world like my whole self consituted one big defect.
I can’t think about adolescence without thinking about my breasts. I got them in a hurry- the summer between my eighth grade at a coed middle school and my ninth grade at an all girl’s school. They came streaked with red stretchmarks, the nipples hung down to the ground. They were nothing like the breasts I had seen on my Barbie dolls, in the pages of Cosmopolitan, on tv, and especially nothing like the taut balloons in the store displays at my local Victoria’s Secret.
Something big died when I got my breasts. Men, of course, started yelling at me on the street in a way they hadn’t before. I developed a rounded hunch. My dad stopped hugging me. Gym class was now embarassing- they are large enough only the most industrial bra can reduce the wild movement that is their natural way. But also, they weren’t good breasts. They weren’t good enough to ever let a man see. They had come in wrong.
I fantasized about cutting them off almost immediately. I wouldn’t meet a trans guy until college. When I met him my first thought was “I am so jealous he got to cut his breasts off.”
When I was 18 I told my first boyfriend I wanted a breast lift. He had grown up on the same pictures of breasts I had, he had a stack of Playboys in his bathroom, and he moved the skin of one of my breasts up and peered at it, to get a look at the potential there. I swear to you he had a good heart. Once he showed me a picture of one of the women in Playboy and said when I wasn’t around she was who he jacked off to, because she looked like me. I looked at that picture for a long time. My body looked like a couple of bags of milk stacked on top of eachother, her body was the lithe , long-limbed, tan with taut balloons body that a woman who could be in Playboy would have. She had a friendly face and a nice smile.
Men stare at my breasts a lot. I feel numb in response. I walk away if I can. It is such a head trip to both not be able to control being looked at and still feel like my naked breasts would be a disappointment, that they are still wrong, that a man couldn’t desire or love them.
When I went to fest I thought I’d wear a bra or shirt the whole time. What an amazing thing, to see big heavy breasts, nipples pointing low, and to see women carrying those breasts like they were signifiers of status, of being an elder, a visible sign they were one of the women who had built this Fest. I wondered how different being a teenager and a young woman would have been for me if I hadn’t had the idea that my breasts didn’t look like they should, didn’t measure up. I wondered if I had the idea that a breast that points down was a sign of authority what I would have thought about myself when mine came in that way.
Now I’m senescing. I won’t ever have an adolescence where the spectre of shame isn’t making my shoulders round. Once someone suggested to me I should be submitting my writing to places that get new writers buzz, such as Penthouse. I heard “Pen House” when she said that because I couldn’t believe someone could read my writing and think I wasn’t furious at magazines like that. It’s not that I think women shouldn’t pose naked, or that men shouldn’t want to see naked women. It’s that those magazines train us, men and women, to see a few women’s bodies as correct, and most women’s bodies as incorrect, and I was trained to think I had an incorrect one. And that wasn’t fair for me to have to deal with at 13. It wasn’t ok that that trip was laid on me. It’s not fair now either. At least these days I’m a woman and not a little kid, so I know to be angry.
This body I inherited from thousands of my grandma’s, this body that they gave birth to me through during famines and wars and plagues, these breasts that kept babies fed when the world seemed to be ending, these heavy thighs, these heavy breasts, they aren’t shaped in a way that would make Hefner or Flynt any richer, but they are my inheritance. They are older than magazines or money or Victoria’s Secret window displays. Some grand-daughter of mine will walk around with them generations after we have forgotten about money and bras and emerging writers. They are the riches I can give her. She will be perfectly correct.