I found out that I was flat-chested in 6th grade. I am both naive and a slow learner; however, when I looked at the other girls changing out of their gym clothes, I couldn’t miss the obvious: I was the only girl wearing a tee-shirt and Grandma pull-up cotton panties. All the other girls in my class were strutting around the locker room in their matching bras and panties.
Apparently, I missed the memo.
After school, I had a clear mission in which I would get a training bra, too. But first, I had to go through my mother. See, my mother was old-school, tough as nails, parochial-schooled Shanty-Irish-Catholic ruler with an iron fist and a biting tongue. No poetic blarney ever came from her; she fancied herself a straight-shooter and you either withstood her heat-seeking missiles or you hid.
I opted to approach her after dinner, after the eight of us sat down to a home-cooked meal, after the dishes had been cleared, the leftovers lovingly stored away to later metamorph into something vaguely recognizable in a day or two, and the pots and pans were scoured, dried, and put away.
The next phase of the evening was homework, but I had been honing my speech (my plea, actually) since school let out and during the 3:00-4:00 soap opera, “The Guiding Light.” My plan was simple and reckless: just get my mother alone and ask her to bring me to The Mart for…mumble…mumble…, which is where I lost my nerve based on her lack of accessibility, interest, or investment in my crisis du jour.
She stepped back to gain perspective. Looked at me with a critical and jaundiced eye, and proclaimed, “but you don’t need one: you haven’t developed yet.” I admit I’ve suppressed what came next. I know there was no blood. There may have been teeth-gnashing, rending clothes, pulling hanks of hair out and such histrionics, but what I do remember is that we did get in the car with the intention of getting me an unnecessary training bra (her words, not mine).
So. The Mart: old school department store. Some fossils had been there since the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Grease, carbon-dated hot dogs, and rancid popcorn butter added to its dubious allure. But to me, it was Nirvana, I was going to get a bra, wear it the next day, and casually and pointedly change in full view of the other girls so I could show them I belonged to the pack.
Couldn’t have written the script for what happened next, though.
The Mart was a small-town department store in which there was no clear division (walls) between departments. Ladies lingerie may as well been next to fishing tackle, which may as well been next to the snack bar. It was a bargain-basement store and what you see was what you got.
Well, the whole store got an eye full when my mother stopped rummaging through bras, mumbling, “28A, 28A, 28A.” She handed me this stripped-down, sexless, utilitarian scrap of fabric and told me to try it on. I asked her where the dressing rooms were. She shot me a funny look and said, “No, just try it on over your clothes.”
That phrase still reverberates nearly 40 years later.
The only way I was going to score this bra was to stand in the middle of the store, in the center of the aisle, next to machinists and housewives, and sniggering teens and try on that Goddamned bra.
And I did it. And I’m not proud of it. Sweat was pouring down my back from the humiliation. I must have smelled like a locker room, but I did it: pride be damned. I took off my jacket, unhooked the bra, wrapped it around my chest, and adjusted it while I stood rooted to the spot while my mother adjusted my breasts in full view of the other shoppers. And…lest we forget, she was saying, “…well, you know you don’t really need one….”
She did buy it for me but by that time, it could have been a hair shirt. I wore my new bra to school the next day to gym class. Made sure I was noticed while changing, but no one noticed it. No acknowledgement. No comments. Things were no different than the day before: other than my mother was $6.00 poorer and I was 100% more bitter and cynical.
That’s how I learned I was flat-chested and would remain so. Luckily, I hadn’t been exposed to any snide remarks or jokes…but it was merely a matter of time.