The boys in my seventh grade gym class really liked watching me run. I thought it was because I was fast. I would see them pointing at me and smiling on the side of the track and I ran even faster with great pride. I was strong and loved ending gym period with a shirt drenched through with sweat. What I didn’t know was that they had made up a nickname for me. “Jello.” As a dessert, it’s kitschy and delightful. As a metaphor for a developing 13 year old who doesn’t know enough to buy a bra, not so much.
I was vaguely aware that my body was going south on me but didn’t spend much time thinking about it and just threw a bulky maroon Harvard sweatshirt over my outfit every day that year. Who had time to think about the triviality of boobs when there were Roxette tapes to memorize? Trees to climb? Poems to write? I didn’t understand the enthusiasm of my friend Kelly who actually bragged to us at a slumber party about her pink lacey bra and showed us the exercises she’d been doing to increase her bust even more. Gross.
But as seventh grade was wrapping up, one of my friends sheepishly mentioned to me that she had overheard my cruel nickname being thrown around by the boys. This was shame as I’d never felt it before. Along with that shame came outrage and exposure. With all the things I wanted to spend my mental energy on, I really had to worry about this now? How could I ever face those boys again? I went from being a wildly outgoing tomboy to barely being able to look anyone in the eye for the last few weeks of school. How many of them were in on it? I stopped trying to fun faster than everyone else. I felt betrayed by my body. What was wrong with the body I had? Why the need for this ridiculous change? But I was smart enough to know I’d been beat and I finally understood that the Harvard sweatshirt had to go. I went to my mother in disgust. Could she buy me a bra? Even though I had five older sisters, I didn’t think to ask them for a loaner. We were an amazingly private group, I can’t remember ever once seeing one of them change in front of me growing up. Heaven forbid I ask them to share underwear with me. My mother of course was fine to add yet another thing to her shopping list for her nine children and picked up a B-cup on her next run into town. It fit perfectly.
The first time I put it on I was appalled at the constriction I felt. How was I expected to take in carefree lungfulls of the fresh Connecticut air with these straps all around my chest? I felt like the contraption was visible through anything I wore. All my white shirts simply had to go. Was this really how I was supposed to spend the rest of my life? Shackles around my heart? Terrified of a strap showing and evidencing my defeat? But they had called me Jello. So I wore it.
My family moved to a different state over summer break. I did not cry to leave the only place I’d known and loved since birth. In my new school in Texas, I did indeed rack up lots of nicknames, but they were all good-hearted and ones I was proud of. I ran fast. And my chest was bound.
A few months ago my second grader asked when she would need to wear a bra. Twenty four hours later she had a fully stocked dresser drawer. Bras with panda on them. Bras with peace signs. Bras in the technical sense only, those junior trainers don’t do any heavy duty. My fourth grader was similarly equipped. I made a big fuss over it and got excited for the new accessories they could add to their wardrobe. I lied to them about how delightful it was for me to get my first bra. They took it all in with excitement and now love to wear them to school, the neon straps making no efforts to hide on their shoulders. They will undoubtedly be called names at some point. I know this. As a mother, I often feel like I’m the little boy with his finger in the leaky dike trying to prevent the floods from overwhelming those I love. My seven year old already has pimples. Pixie’s teeth protrude at angles that make her unwilling to smile openly in pictures. Their body odor is impossible to hide despite layers of deodorants and frequent bathing. They are incredibly resistant to the idea of daily hair brushing. But their chests are bound. And my chest is bound to theirs. And God help the soul who ever calls one of them Jello.