It’s a few weeks after #Metoo left social media feeds full of accounts of sexual harassment and assault, but accounts about those harassed and assaulted by men in positions of power continue to dot the news and remind all of the pervasive nature of these wrongs. My sharings here are some of the small offenses in the bigger picture of my life as a woman, yet they carry a weight of their own to this day.
“Hey, are you wearing a bra?!”
Warmth crept to my cheeks, and my mouth dried. The voice repeated the question.
“Are you wearing a bra?! It looks like you are! Sarah’s wearing a BRA!!” whispered the fourth-grader behind me in gym class, where we sat in evenly spaced rows. We were an arm’s length away from our neighbors, allowing plenty of room for jumping jacks but apparently not enough room for the boy behind me to ogle (hopefully?) at the outline thin straps of my undershirt, which was –as the name indicates — under my shirt.
I was nine. While there were girls in my class with bras and the budding breasts that go in them, I was all of seventy pounds and flat as the gym floor upon which I was seated. I wore children’s shoe sizes, although others around me had crossed into women’s sizes already. I was a child in a child’s body. Bras and breasts were not on my mind. Neither was discussing underwear with classmates.
“NO!!” I whispered hotly as I twisted around (tricky in the full lotus we were in). “NO!! I am NOT wearing a bra!”
“Sarah’s wearing a bra,” sang the voice behind me.
I’ve never been so grateful for a demoralizing game of dodgeball to start.
I’d not thought about that day in gym class for decades. The boy who taunted me was, otherwise, a nice kid, a generally shy kid who even cried when teased. He wasn’t exactly a friend, but he wasn’t someone who’d ever been unkind. And I don’t recall thinking of him as unkind much after that day. I simply awoke to the unpleasant reality that my personal underclothing and what they contained was going to be a matter of public scrutiny and comment all too soon.
I started to think about bras looking like undershirt straps, and so returned to undershirts with sleeves, the kind that without straps that could be mistaken for bra straps. It was two years before I actually wore a bra, giving me plenty of time to put that gym-class event behind me. And, in ways, I did. And, in other ways, I didn’t. From that gym day forward, hiding undergarment status became part of the task of getting dressed.
Fast forward a few years to junior high. I’ve moved from public school to Catholic school, and my clothing choices shrunk thanks to school uniforms. Blue uniform pants or the uniform skirt? A short-sleeved, lightweight white button-up blouse or the long sleeved, Oxford cloth shirt? Navy cardigan or not? The pants/skirt issue was easy. I didn’t like skirts, as they required a responsible way of sitting and just were more restrictive. But the shirt…oh, the shirt. See, the long-sleeved shirt was too warm for our unairconditioned school, but the short-sleeved shirt, well, through it — in just the right light — one could almost see bra straps. So it was back and forth, trying all three (identical) short-sleeved shirts, looking for the one that might be thicker, that might not bring a snicker or comment. I sometimes settled for a t-shirt under my shirt, which certainly didn’t keep me cooler but did minimize my concerns and hide that marker of the presence of my breasts, if not entirely deny their existence.
Jump another few years to high school, sophomore year. My first kiss and first break up were in the past (and just days apart), and uniforms have given way to dress codes. White shirts aren’t required, and layering is in, leaving the bra strap issue as a non-issue. Bras are still issues, and no one with any authority seems to care if boys snap a girl’s bra, or perhaps no one wants to acknowledge that good Catholic boys snap bras with the apparent hope that they’ll open, leaving the wearer embarrassed and the forbidden breasts free. Either way, bras, hidden or not, still matter, but mine isn’t visible.
My breasts, however, are quite visible, or at least they were in a particular dark green, wool pullover that, on reflection, I might have outgrown in ninth grade yet continued to wear in tenth. The boy who’d kissed me and dumped me, now a platonic friend, noticed my breasts, which were enclosed in a padded bra (so nipples don’t show) which was then covered with the requisite shirt with a collar and the aforementioned green sweater.
“Whoa! When did you get those, Sarah? You sure didn’t have those freshman year!” he proclaimed in a classroom devoid of a teacher but half-full of students. He didn’t mean the sweater and shirt combo.
I don’t know what I said. No one had ever commented on my breasts or any other part of my body, not that I could recall. I had no template for this sort of pronouncement, which I’m sure was intended as a compliment. I’d not the presence or words (or nerve, had I thought of words) to note that he was sporting more under his fly lately, and I’m guessing my response was simply a flushed face and downward glance.
Uneventful as these events may seem, I remembered them. And both of these events, the fourth-grade taunt and the tenth-grade harassment-disguised-as-complement, left their marks. Breasts were something powerful, obviously, as were whatever contained them. Breasts mattered to men, sometimes more than to the person who owned them. And, oddly, bras were public property, there for the snapping and snagging, and breasts, therefore, were also communal property of sorts. I wish I’d wondered then why the same wasn’t true for jock straps and their contents.
Nipples held a strange place in the female body parts melee. They seemed to be the tattletale part of the breast, indicating to all if one was cold or, possibly (hopefully?!) sexually aroused. I’ve never confused those two conditions myself, nor have I ever thought differentiating those states cause for discussion, but apparently, to the teen boy, this is worthy of great debate. So, to be safe, I kept them under a layer of padding, safely in a bra thick enough to give away nothing, and then under clothing that covered any hint of the bra. And forty years later, even after breastfeeding two boys (often in public), I still do the same. I can’t explain it.
This is, to be sure, the small stuff. This is not rape. This is not assault. But this seemingly small stuff matters. Girls experience their bodies as public property from an early age. Comments from boys are part of that, but so are dress codes that focus on covering girls so boys aren’t tempted, stripping boys of personal responsibility along the way. We end up raising our girls to expect, dodge, and ignore these small slights, and we too often fail to remember that blaming victims is never the path to justice or change.
Yes, this is the small stuff. It’s the polyp before the cancer. It’s the smoke before the fire. It’s the fever before the plague. The small stuff, it turns out, matters.