TW: Puberty stuff, body image issues, misunderstanding.
Underwear has always been a difficult topic for me. It’s not the wearing of it that’s most problematic, in my case. Rather, the things I find most difficult are other people’s attitudes and expectations about underwear. Especially when they want to have a conversation with me about those things.
This is coming up now because I was asked this past week to *discuss one of my children’s undergarments for their chosen out of the home activity.
I couldn’t do it.
Husband offered to ask about it after I informed him that I really didn’t want to talk about my child’s undergarments with anyone. This despite me having extensively researched proper undergarments for sporty-kid’s sport only a few months previous.
So, it wasn’t the topic of underwear itself that bothered me, which brought me back to my memories to try and figure out whence (from where) my reaction was coming.
I was, thankfully, not body-shamed very much as a teenager other than by myself who saw my changing body as an imposition of the worst kind. I remember tearfully telling my mother as a nearly-teen that I’d rather just adopt babies or even not have any than have to deal with bleeding every month.
This was a huge statement for me to make because I loved babies and younger children immensely and had always wanted to have some of my own. My childhood imaginary friends were even my (future?) children.
The other intrusion into my life at around puberty was other people’s expectation that I would wear bras.
Aside from the newness of the expectation and the vitriol expressed if I even hinted at maybe not wanting to wear one, there were the myriad painful sensations associated with wearing a bra. I wasn’t super thrilled that I’d grown breasts in the first place, so there was that too. I saw them as ridiculous things that necessitated yet another uncomfortable item of clothing.
Nobody ever even really explained to me why I “needed” to wear a bra, but I did wear one most of the time mainly just to blend in and keep out of trouble with the adults in my life.
I had learned, pretty early on, that keeping a low profile was the best plan. The less attention on me, the less likely I was to get in trouble regularly.
So, I blended. Quite well, I thought.
But then, suddenly, while my family was staying with friends for a few days, I was approached by the mother in the house about, what she had assumed, was my lack of bra on a previous night.
These friends were people whom we’d known for over a decade at that point. I had looked up to the mother in this family for nearly all of that time. She was musically talented, her house was lovely, she made amazing food. For a while when I was a tween I dreamed of someday marrying her only son just so that I could be the next Mrs. Role Model (RM) and be just like her.
I wasn’t much like her though. I think that was part of the appeal. Also because I was raised in a fairly conservative Christian home and I just didn’t fit in with that paradigm much. I was nearly everything a girl “shouldn’t” be and I hated most of the things that they “should.” So, I had goals that someday I would be in line somehow with my family’s belief system.
Now, my role model in-aweness of her had largely disappeared over the previous years. I wasn’t a tween, I was an older teenager. I no longer had even the tiniest passing bit of interest in her son because I was engaged to someone else. I also knew that I didn’t need to share someone’s name in order to try and be like them. I did still look up to her, but it wasn’t quite as fervent as it had been.
So, I was pretty at ease when she approached me in the kitchen before breakfast that morning. Then her words seared through me.
Her: “You need to make sure you’re wearing a bra with that shirt today.”
Me: *utterly confused* “I am.”
Her: “Well, you didn’t wear one underneath it the other night.”
Me: “Yes, I did.”
Her: “Well, if you did, it didn’t work. You need to wear one that works”
Me: *beyond utterly confused* “Work? But I wore one….”
Her: “I have a teenage son in this house and you need to wear a bra.”
Me: “But I’m engaged, I have a fiancé…..” (trying to say I had no interest in her son – having no idea what on earth she was talking about)
Her: *walks away*
Looking back I understand that it was partially her belief in the modesty culture of US conservative Christianity that caused her to say those things. She was probably just wanting to “protect” her son from seeing unbound breasts. A completely different topic for not today.
But at the time? I was horribly hurt. I didn’t know what made one bra “work” and another not. I had previously thought that by just wearing one, I was good to go! There was no concept of a bra “not working” in my mind whatsoever, which left me open to the obvious conclusion that I was at fault, not my clothes or bra.
My clothes were even comfortable and I was completely covered. So, it had to be my body that was wrong.
Yet, I headed back to the room where I was staying and completely changed my clothes. I rarely wore that shirt again, despite the fact that it had been one of my favorites up until that day. The next time I cleared out my closet and donated clothes, it was one of the first things to go.
I have also never spoken to Mrs. RM ever again. Even today, thinking about that potential action causes me to feel anxious and hurt.
My parents wanted me to say “thank you” and “goodbye” to her when we left and I barely managed a generic one of each while not looking anywhere near her location just outside of our vehicle’s doorway.
To the outside I’m sure my actions and inability to speak looked terrible.
Cutting people off without being able to explain why is a painful thing. For everyone involved.
But I’m fairly certain that nobody had any idea at the time that I was unable to express myself. To the contrary, I was often chastised for expressing myself too frequently about the topics I find to be fascinating. I didn’t realize until last year that I sometimes physically can’t talk because I’d always masked it by leaving the room or suddenly taking interest in written words of some kind.
So, I never told anyone in my family what had happened. I was too ashamed.
I had internalized her comment and turned it onto myself. A metaphorical acid with which to burn my insides when I felt badly about myself or particularly hated having breasts.
This is why I believe I balked so much this last week when an authority figure in my child’s life wanted to talk to me about undergarments. One 2-minute conversation from around 15 years ago.
*In trying to be vague I think I ended up being a little confusing on what the discussion was about. It was a perfectly appropriate discussion (because this child’s chosen out of the home activity involves specific clothing that needs to be changed in and out of without much privacy) that I believe was discussed with my child first. The adult in change wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page 🙂
But still, my previous experience had me all worked up about the entire thing.