My 9-year-old daughter lay down next to me in my bed one evening, still warm and damp from her bath and wrapped in a towel. She rested her head on my arm. “Can we talk?” she asked, her voice high and sweet.
“Sure. About what?”
“About body parts? And bullies?”
Recently, her chest has started to develop a little, and the left side aches constantly.
I haven’t felt ready for so many of her milestones. When she started losing teeth, it felt like my round little dumpling of a baby was gone. Every time I think I’m finally getting the hang of who she is, she transforms again. And this time feels worse, because it’s the first step onto a path — of physical changes, of confusion, of peer pressure and cultural expectations — that I’m not sure how to prepare her for.
She has asked about bullies because they’ve already started hounding her at school. Because she’s shorter than most of the other kids, they’ve called her “baby,” and there are a couple of boys who follow her on the playground, yelling and refusing to give her space. I worry that it will get worse, and feel more invasive, as her body changes — because that’s what happened to me. And I worry about how to tell her my stories.
My breasts started developing when I was 9, too, and I begged my mom to buy me training bras. My mom and I drove to the local Mervyn’s and sifted through a small rack of bras. They were no more than little white triangles of stretchy fabric held together with elastic, but I brimmed with pride and promise when we got home and I put one on, like a secret, under my shirt.
My daughter has her first bras, too. Hers are like little tank tops of soft cotton that end at her rib cage. We got them mostly to help with chafing, which was making it hard to run around or swing on the monkey bars, two of her favorite recess activities.
“I was one of the first girls at my school to wear a bra, and some of the kids would tease me about it. They would snap the straps, or try to unhook it in back. It was really embarrassing,” I tell her. In response, she sticks out her tongue and makes a disapproving raspberry noise.
“I don’t think anyone has noticed my bras,” she shrugs. “I told a couple of my friends, and they’re okay with it.” Another girl in her grade is wearing them, too, she says — she has noticed the shape under the girl’s shirt, or the straps occasionally peeking out from her collar.
By the time I was 10, I was wearing a C-cup while the other girls in school still had chests like ironing boards. One day, I noticed my swelling chest was veined with scarlet lines. I ran to my mom, my heart stuttering, and found her sitting at the kitchen table. “Mommy, what are these red streaks?” I asked, tugging my collar open. I turned pink as she — a former nurse — gently but efficiently pulled up my shirt and peeked inside my bra.
“They’re stretch marks, sweetie,” she sighed. “You’re growing so fast, the skin can’t keep up.”
It’s too soon to know whether my daughter will grow in the same way. Nobody else in my family had a chest like mine. At least, I didn’t think so until my mom’s eldest sister came to visit for the first time since I was a baby. She took one look at me and shared that their dad’s mom had been generous of bust, too. For the first time, I didn’t feel like my development was a cruel trick of nature. There was a genetic thread, like a secret passed down, a seed that took a few generations to sprout again.
I tell my daughter, “After kids at school started snapping my bras and teasing me, I decided not to wear them for a while.” But that wasn’t any better. One day, I was sitting with friends in the auditorium, gossiping, when a teacher whispered to me — a little too loudly — “you really need to wear a bra.” I’d felt so ashamed, my face hot, tears like glass in my eyes.
“What did you do?” my daughter asks.
“I started wearing them again,” I say. She leans more heavily on my arm, eyes sleepy. “You should go to bed.”
“I want to stay with Mama,” she says, putting her arm around me. “She understands me.” But, a few minutes later, she slips off to her bedroom for the night.
Alone, my mind is still tracing my story, the parts I’m not sure how to tell her about yet. In high school, my chest grew even more — and the boys at school remarked as often as they could. One nicknamed me “Tits,” saying it to get my attention from across the classroom. This was the late 1980s, when girls were encouraged to take such remarks as compliments, and teachers tended to look the other way.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized it wasn’t a compliment; it was another form of bullying, a way for him to make me feel small. It didn’t feel good, like a compliment should. It made me ashamed to be in my body, suddenly more adult than I was ready for. Adult men were no better. They stared hard at my chest as they walked past me on the street. One time, as I watched a parade of musicians at a Renaissance fair, a man old enough to be my grandfather gestured at my corseted breasts with his cymbals just to get a laugh from the audience.
The adults in my life never warned me about the kinds of attention my body might attract, never told me that most of it was going to be uncomfortable or inappropriate. My mother’s advice on bullying generally amounted to, “They just want to be noticed — ignore them and they’ll stop.” But I couldn’t hide it when I blushed, or when tears stung my eyes. For the kids who snapped my bra, the boy who called me “Tits,” or the old man with the cymbals, those reactions were all the reward they needed.
We’ve watched the video of a waitress throwing a customer to the ground after he grabbed her butt. And I’ve practiced consent with her, asking permission before I give her hugs or touch her. When I forget, she reminds me. But will these lessons stick when she’s in the throes of a crush — when she wants to please a boyfriend, when she’s eager to explore tempting new territory? Will she be able to stand up for herself when a stranger harasses her on the sidewalk or grabs her on the bus, which happens to almost all girls by the time they’re teenagers?
There’s no way to protect her from every possibility. Our culture hasn’t changed enough yet for women and girls to get through their lives without experiencing these things. But I want her to understand and cherish her body and her heart, to know they are hers to protect — and to share when she feels ready.
Beth Winegarner is a journalist and author based in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter @bethwinegarner.