As a kid in a fundamentalist family, church and popular culture simultaneously tantalized and shamed me with sexual knowledge I would learn when I “grew up”. Fashion magazines in the checkout line espoused ways I could please my man and highlighted cleavage I should aspire to, while pastors pounded the podium, railing against harlots and impurity. In my mind, growing up meant learning everything about sex, a delicious, yet dirty deed. I couldn’t grow up fast enough.
In the 5th grade, feeling proud of my newly-pipped breast buds, I pinned all my pubescent hopes on a training bra. It was 1990, and I expected a bra paired with my fluorescent music note earrings, paisley leggings, and layered scrunch socks would secure my spot as one of the cool kids. My mother surveyed my soft jelly-bean nipples rippling the front of my shirt, and agreed it was time. The bra was made of two flimsy triangles, adjustable straps, and a front clasp. I assumed bras with hooks in the back were for boobs that dangled, like my mom’s. I’d watched her lean forward and drop her breasts into the cups more than a few times. She was a pro.
The bra did not succeed at making me cool, but it did raise my grownup-o-meter by a good 15 points.
We were Sabbath-keepers. That meant from Friday night sundown until Saturday night sundown, we followed strict behavioral guidelines. No TV. No work. Pray, and read the Bible. We wore our ‘Sunday best’ to church every Saturday: dresses with no make up, three-piece-suits with ties. Even in July. Church services predictably opened with three hymns and a prayer. Hundreds of us sat on metal folding chairs, and my dad concentrated, stern-faced, balancing a notebook on his thigh, pen in hand. He captured bits of wisdom the pastor, deacons, and other men of esteem shared with the congregation, while I sat sketching fashion designs that pushed the limits of Christian modesty.
Before we left for church one morning, I was dressed and nearly done with breakfast, finishing my toast by the sink. I wasn’t wearing my bra. Without a hundred 10-year-olds around to impress, I didn’t see the point. My dad, ostensibly a jokester, yanked the front of my dress, intending to tease me about the bra. The gathered elastic top gave way easily, exposing my plump nipples. Gah, DAD! He was apologetic for having embarrassed me, but slunk away mumbling, wondering aloud how much I really needed the bra. Dad wasn’t a creeper, but he was socially awkward and often handled uncomfortable feelings with juvenile impulsivity. At the time I didn’t have the right vocabulary to give voice to my feelings, but when I remember that day now, I feel violated. No matter his intent, the subtle message was clear: I was just a child, and I didn’t have a right to my own body, even within my clothing. In my view, my dad missed an opportunity. He could have bolstered my relationship with my body, impressing upon me that I had charge of who was allowed to touch me, and where. Instead, I was made to feel silly for excitement over my body changes. I was teased for having a bra, and humiliated for not wearing it all in the same moment.
Twenty-eight years have passed since the 5th grade, and my relationship with my breasts is still changing. I have padded them, hidden them, defiantly bared them, and nourished children with them. What’s new is finding my own pleasure in them. Turning on with cannabis is opening me up to erotic sensations in body parts I thought were sexually broken. Any small tingle of pleasure in my breasts used to bring with it a wave of shame. Now, when I smoke weed in the bedroom, I set an intention to find pleasure with my partner, and shame huddles in the shadows, weakened. With a continued regimen of cannabis self-care, the effect has been cumulative, and now, most of the time, I feel like my body belongs to me.
And I don’t own any bras with hooks in the back.