Getting an 'F' in Biology

(Timothy Devine)
By Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, November 12, 2006

The first time I heard about the pencil test , I wasn't even remotely tempted to try it.

I'd read about it in a book.

The 13-year-old protagonist and her friends went off in secret to try to hold a pencil horizontally under a breast. If the pencil stayed, you were officially a woman, with all the attendant glories. If the pen-cil dropped, you could denounce the test and pencils and the patriarchal system. Despite these alluring options, I didn't attempt it. I knew that the pencil test for me would be as academic as the name implied.

I would fail this test. I was 10.

Things began to change profoundly a few years later. When I turned 13, you could have made a life-size model of me from one-inch dowels and a cantaloupe for a head. But by the time I was 14, it would have taken a couple more trips to the produce mart.

So when a friend recently reminded me about the pencil test, I looked around my room for a more challenging test object, given the dimensions of a pencil vis-a-vis the dimensions of me. One at a time, I passed the tests of: a bottle of vitamins, an unopened can of soda, a light bulb, the board game Boggle (in its box), a high-heeled shoe, a one-pound box of Wheat Chex, a set of "Veronica Mars" DVDs, an apple, an 18-ounce can of Lysol and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban , hardcover (448 pages).

It was a fun afternoon, a great moment for me and my breasts, working together toward a common goal. We don't always get along so well.

I'd been thinking evil things about them because of a shock I'd recently had. My housemate Christina noticed that my bra wasn't fitting (yes, a house full of college women is pretty much exactly as you picture it). It's not a comment you hear very often. I contended that, yes, it did fit. But no, as she exhorted me to look at it for half a second, I saw that she was clearly right. A homeless crest of flesh sat placidly on top of the cup like a beret on a softball. Apparently, I was one of the estimated 3 trillion women in America who wear the wrong size.

But that wasn't the most disturbing realization. I knew that when I purchased that bra, it had been the right size. Which could only mean one thing: At 21, officially a woman and all, I was still a project in development.

Puberty is such a strange thing to happen to people . Up to that point, you've been growing your whole life, but in a reasonable, measured way -- you can do more things each year, but you're still the kid with the high voice. You're figuring out what books and TV shows you like, what makes you laugh that doesn't make your mom or your best friend laugh. And then your body changes completely. It's not what you remember, and it has nothing to do with you, really. It's like meeting your roommate on the first day of summer camp: Aaand this will be your body! You guys are going to have so much fun together!

And mostly, you do. But meanwhile, you're an introspective kid whose body suddenly starts screaming SEX at innocent passersby. You conceal your agents of fascination in any way you can -- or you get tired of hiding and flaunt. And you start noticing that the guys you know are suddenly smelling really good. The breasts, though, get involved physically around Step 28 in the mating dance. Because at this tenuous moment in your development, Step 4 makes you blush uncontrollably, and you aren't likely to need your breasts in that capacity for quite some time, but there they are, waving like a red cape in a pasture full of bulls. They're your trump card but hardly a secret.

Meanwhile, they're still there, attached to you, as you go about your mundane life. Exercise affects them the way the tyrannosaurus affected the glass of water in "Jurassic Park." Sports bras are a maddening false promise: Above a cup size B, they are all marked for "low-impact" exercise, as if, for a woman above a B, there were any such thing. Breasts move if they want. They are extravagant, unserious things, largely parasitic, except for their application to certain steps of the survival of the human race. Otherwise, their main activity is to florp.

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