From Early Puberty Body Shame to Progressive Parenting
Guest Post By Amanda Rose Adams
You Need a Bra!
When Erin Frank spilled the beans about my surprise slumber party for my 9th birthday, all I could think about was how awesome it would be to have all those girls at my house. They rode home on the school bus with me. We danced to music, watched a movie on ye olde VCR, played games, ate popcorn and drank soda. A couple of the girls gave me stuffed animals. I was turning nine, and stuffed animals were entirely appropriate gifts. It was a great night. The next morning in my bedroom all the fun ended when one of the girls caught sight of my bare chest and squealed, “You need a BRA!” I was officially in puberty, something that actually started without my knowledge well before my ninth birthday.
I didn’t notice my developing breasts. Maybe it’s because my Buddha-shaped dad had man-breasts and my chubby little sister and chubby older brother each had fleshy little lumps on their chests too. Even though I was rail thin, I just didn’t notice my budding breasts. Maybe it was because I was freaking nine-years-old. I did notice the sprouting hairs that followed the proclamation of my third grade peers that I needed a bra. Eleven months later, the month before I turned ten, I went to the school toilet, and there was blood. Not a lot of blood, but blood. I was still nine years old. I was terrified.
Are You There God? I’d Like to Be Like Margaret.
Some of my classmates were in the bathroom when it happened, and of course I freaked out. They ran and told our teacher, Miss Omen. Miss Omen (that was her real name) had this terrible habit of turning from beet red to turnip purple when she was embarrassed or uncomfortable, and she was positively violet as she tried to rationalize the blood. Maybe it was poop on the toilet paper? Um . . . no.
Miss Omen had to tell my mother because God knew I wasn’t going to do it. My mother had never said a word to me about periods, ever. Honestly, had our class not gone to the Denver Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Life just a few months earlier and had a male classmate not asked the tour guide about girls’ periods (his parents were artist types) I wouldn’t have even known what menses was. After Jamie asked that very public question, I read “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.” Being all of nine years old, I thought that if Margaret was worth writing a book about, then I should want to be like her. So, being a very good little Lutheran girl who went to a very tiny Lutheran school, I prayed and prayed for God to give me my period. God obliged.
I Do Need a Bra!
I had already spent the second half of fourth grade being tormented by eighth grade boys who wanted to know if I stuffed my bra. Despite my friends all declaring my need for the garment, my mom dismissed their grade-school wisdom and refused to buy me one. I got some hand-me-down training bras from a sympathetic neighbor girl, but I quickly outgrew them. My grandmother wanted to buy me a bra when I stayed with her over the summer between third and fourth grade, but I wanted pom-poms. I was nine; I wanted pom-poms.
My mother fought any notion that I needed bras as long as she could and only broke down and bought me one after her adult friends popped her delusional bubble. The subject of monthly blood was not something I could even imagine discussing with her.
Are You There God? I Take It Back!
The day after my first period, which lasted less than an hour, my mother drove us all home from school and made me wait in the van while my brother and sisters went inside. With her back to me, from the driver’s seat she handed me back a grocery sack containing a box of maxi-pads. She told me I had to use those, and she also told me she was angry that she had to hear it from a teacher and how embarrassed she was. . . This didn’t exactly leave the door open for further conversation.
My period did not return the following month, April, when I turned ten. So, I thought that I had prayed it away just like I prayed it there in the first place. I possessed a great faith in the power of prayer given my success so far. I gave my mom back the pads and told her I didn’t need them. I feared everyone would think I was lying. Then, just in time for Track and Field day the first weekend in May, my period came back . . . for three whole days. I told no one; not my classmates, not my teacher, not my mom. I’d given away the pads and was too scared to ask for them back. I used toilet paper and lost my favorite polka dot panties as a casualty to unpreparedness. I prayed it away again, and low and behold the summer Olympics came and went and no period all summer.
I really thought I had a direct line with God. Then, I was sitting on the couch when I started feeling a sharp pain in my lower belly. I smelled this sickly unmistakeable Field Day smell, and bolted to the bathroom . . . it was back, and it didn’t come late, didn’t miss a date for the next eighteen years. From August 1984 to August 2002, I was as regular as an atomic clock.
A Period Worse than Labor
I told my babysitter to tell my mom. I couldn’t do it. I got the pads back, and quickly went through them. Once regular, my cycles were heavy, cramped and lasted an average of eight to twelve days at a time. I never talked to my mom about this. I didn’t know until I was an adult that twelve day periods were not normal. I would complain of cramps only to be told that my mother had had four children without medication and to stop my “belly-aching,” an expression she learned from her own mother. I never got so much as a Tylenol or a kind word even as I cramped so badly that I cried and once even vomited yellow bile. I spent hours in the bathtub refilling it with hot water and missed school. I missed trips to the mountains with my friend and a trip to Bear Country when staying with my Grandparents, but my mom always treated me like I was a big faker. She accused me of trying to get attention, when all I wanted was to hide.
I’ve since had two children, labored for fourteen hours with one before having an emergency c-section. I can honestly say that the menstrual cycles I had from age ten, intensifying around age eleven through sixteen, were more painful than the early hours of labor or the recovery from my second scheduled c-section. Yes, my pre-teen periods hurt more than my second c-section, that is until I put my adult self on the pill. Oh, glorious pill, how I love you and will honor you all the days of my life.
To be fair, that day in March of 1984, my mother (who had me, her second child, exactly one week after her nineteenth birthday) was only twenty-eight years old. I’m sure she didn’t imagine she’d have a nine year old who could get pregnant. I don’t even know what must have been going through her head, and while I suffered for her lack of skill, I cannot judge her for it. When I was twenty-eight, I was pregnant for the first time, not raising a child entering womanhood.
A Vulnerable Target
Yet, it felt like my parents punished me for my body, like it was something I could control. Certain items of clothing were taken away from me. Once my dad thought the shorts that my own mother had sewn for me were too short so he made me go change and bring them too him. Then he cut them to pieces with a knife. When I was ten, a thirteen year old boy asked me to go to the arcade at the Boys and Girls Club. My parents ran him off and then berated me for talking to him at all. I was forbidden to play outside until he moved away. He was really a nice little boy who was smaller than other boys his age. Knowing what I know now, I really think he just wanted to go play Pac Man with someone who was nice to him. Ironically, though my parents were suspicious of all little boys, they left me alone with a convicted felon whose wife was a friend of theirs. He took full advantage of my then sized C eleven-year-old breasts and rubbed himself against the small of my back until I locked myself away in a bathroom. I got in trouble for not helping clean up the cookie-baking rouse he’d used to get a very literal hold on me.
Of course I couldn’t tell my parents about that. I couldn’t even tell my mom I’d had my period, how could I explain the unexplainable. I spent the net few years being seen by strangers as much older than I was. I’d shot up to 5′ 2″ in fifth grade and immediately stopped growing. People always thought I was fourteen or sixteen when I wasn’t even out of elementary school. When these incidents happened my parents got angry and their anger seemed directed at me. They lacked the skills to deal with me changing shape so soon.
When the boy I liked most in the whole world ganged up on me with his older friend at the pool and put their fingers inside my swimsuit, inside my body, I did complain to my mother that they wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t tell her what they were doing, exactly when they dragged me under the water and pulled down the top of my swimsuit and reached up the bottom. But I wanted her to make them stop. Instead, she claimed I liked the attention and if I didn’t want them grabbing me to stay out of the pool. I stopped going in the water.
Still in the fifth grade, bleeding, budding, breaking down, an eighth grade girl terrorized me. One day she insisted that I prove I wasn’t stuffing my bra. I’d already been molested by a grown man, I wasn’t interested in pulling up my shirt in the library for the older girls to gawk. I refused, and I cried. Everyone in the school said I stuffed my bra, and the irony of ironies was that I wasn’t even wearing a bra that day. I only owned two at that time, and they were both dirty. If I wasn’t being accused of stuffing my bra, I was being called Dolly Parton. I was terrified of grown men, and I thought no boy would ever like me. It seemed everyone wanted to punish me for changing and all I wanted to do was disappear. I felt like a freak.
In my teen years I did disappear. I started harming myself with tweezers, gouging at my skin leaving deep scars and creeping scabs that I pulled off and watched bleed. The bleeding was how I dealt with my suicidal thoughts; it was how I stayed alive. It was a blood I could control. I gained a several pounds by tenth grade. I hid in bulky clothes so no one would see my hips or breasts. I hated my breasts. which were a D-cup by high school. My sister and I always had the cheapest $2.99 Wal-Mart bras with straps that came undone and my mom refused to believe me when I said they were too small because then I would need larger bras than her. I had many miserable walks to and from high school with the world’s worst bras and my melons for breasts, straps flying free beneath my bulky sweaters.
I learned early on to be ashamed of my body and what it did. I never talked about it. I learned early not to trust men or boys and I hid my body and covered my face with hair, hiding in the stairwell at lunch, hiding from living. I believed I was too ugly to be loved. I wanted a boyfriend who liked me, but I was terrified of boys. I was so embarrassed about my very being. Sometimes, I instinctively revert to those feelings of shame, so deeply ingrained was my loneliness and self hatred. It’s like a song you haven’t heard for years but still know by heart.
Yet, I’m trying to take that basket of tangled memories and knit a new truth for my children. When my eight-year-old daughter or my nine-year-old son asks me questions, I tell the truth and invite more questions. I always use the words penis and vagina with both of my kids since potty training. I’ve told them that they can touch themselves but only in the privacy of their own room, but that no one else can touch them. I’ve preached that secrets are bad. I half fear and half long for my daughter’s coming of age. I fear it will come too soon and so soon like my own, so I have never bought or served hormone-treated meats or milk and seriously limit the kind of crap food that causes the obesity I fight myself. She takes gymnastics to stay active and healthy. I’ve done all I can in our environment to delay the inevitable, but I don’t control genetics. My little girl will be nine six months from today. Could she be the girl with the too-soon lumps? Will she bleed before she’s ten? I pray and pray and pray that she won’t be like me, but I’ve long given up faith that I hold sway over the higher powers.
Yet, my child runs around naked and shameless, something I could never do, and I would have it no other way. She knows more about health and the human body at eight than I did at twelve. I would never, ever leave her alone with a strange man. If a boy grabbed her body I would tear his head off. I would never blame her for what her body does. I leave plenty of room for conversation and no space for secrets. I hope and pray that when her time comes to bloom, that I will do everything for her that I wish had been done for me. I will do whatever I can so that she blooms beautiful and not broken, and maybe then I will bloom beautiful and become unbroken too.
Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and has written for Scrubs, a nursing magazine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics. Her publication history varies between poetry and science and she is eager to complete her next two books, one about adults who were born with heart defects and one about growing up in a trailer park while attending a parochial school. You can follow her on twitter @amandaroseadams or at her blog www.amandaroseadams.com/blog.
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