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Being A Girl: An Autoethnography
For most of my life I have denied my gender because of fear, because of pain and because of shame. I particularly ignored finding my sexual identity as a female and sought to avoid all things feminine or sexual. My D-cup breasts have played a huge role in my development and my learning of gender, but why? In this essay I look to uncover the role my breasts played in my life and what it meant, to me, to be a girl.
As a young child gender norms are learned from parents, other children (such as siblings), television programs and children's books, just to name a few sources. Parents buy their children gendered toys to play with, for example, the majority of parents buy things like toy soldiers for boys and dolls in tutus for girls. Very few parents will go against gender norms and buy tea sets for their sons and plastic guns for their daughters. Younger children will mimic older siblings and friends that have already learned the appropriate gender norms thus furthering their own gender norm knowledge. Television programs, like Bob the Builder, further the gender norms by placing males and females and stereotypical male and female roles. Bob is a builder, working with his hands, working in a typically male field. Barbie is the classic feminine figure in all of her cartoons (a ballerina, a princess, etc.) filling young girl's heads with ideas of what they're supposed to grow up to be. The same goes for children's books, the princess and the hero both exhibiting cultural gender norms, training children to fulfill their own gender norms. This tends to be the normal flow of things but there are exceptions. My childhood is one of those exceptions. I didn't have a tea set just a toy phone with bright red, yellow and blue components. My sisters and I were seldom found in dresses and we spent every moment we possibly could outside climbing trees and riding our bikes. With no male siblings, no father figure, and an open minded mother, my sisters and I were allowed to figure out gender roles on our own. Our mother did not force any gender specific clothes, toys, programs, or activities on us. We didn't yearn to be in the Girl Scouts or become cheerleaders so we didn't. We wanted to play in rain puddles and run wild through the woods, so we did. As a young girl, I understood being a girl as playing the role of mom when we played house with the neighborhood kids. Being a girl meant scraping my knees on the pavement and lip-synching all my favorite songs into a hair brush as I danced on my coffee table stage.
I ended up following a blended set of gender norms. I didn't quite fit into either the masculine or feminine category of normal, which many people don't, and as a result I often felt conflicted about my gender role. In middle school while other young girls were praying and encouraging their newly emerging breasts to grow, I resented mine and longed for their disappearance. My wishes had the opposite effect and I developed faster than my fellow female students and as a result the boys would tease and taunt me. I started down the treacherous path of puberty at the young age of nine while I was in the third grade. My older sister Brandy remembers how difficult that time was for me and said, "I remember you developing at a very early age. For some reason everything happened to you at a much earlier age than I think is normal". (personal communication, February 16, 2009) Psychologist Dr. Sigman says his research indicates that an early onset of puberty, or precocious puberty, could be a result of being overweight and stress. (BBC News) Though I can't remember when my mother decided to leave my father, he was never a significant aspect of my upbringing and spent most of his time in an alcohol induced slumber on the living room floor. This meant that I was basically raised in a single parent household that was dependent upon welfare and layaway plans to keep five kids fed and clothed. For as long as I can remember going shopping was a stressful occasion that I would rather not take part in, I knew we were having money problems and I felt guilty about having any money spent on my behalf. Once we did leave my father and moved to a new neighborhood where I didn't have any friends and no illusion of a father either, I became depressed and very sedentary. I was an ideal candidate for precocious puberty at the age of nine, and I began developing breasts a year earlier than the average mean of age 10 for white girls and had my first period at the tender age of 11, part of a small 13% of white girls that had started by the age of 11 according to the new guidelines developed by the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society. (Zuckerman, 2001) Now being a girl meant being miserable for a week, each and every month, and long days of sitting inside and reading books to deal with my depression.
In the sixth grade I quite suddenly burst into a D-cup bra and it forced me to realize that I was most definitely not male nor was I allowed on the male 'side' of things. I could no longer hang out with the boys during lunch or choose one of them as my lab partner in science class. Not only was I now ostracized from the male side of the spectrum but the girls in my grade became mean and spiteful as well. Though my mother repeatedly encouraged me to not let it bother me, convincing me as she wiped away my tears that the other girls were just jealous because they still had no breasts to speak, I still couldn't fathom why I deserved to be treated so cruelly. My physical development in the sixth grade shaped the rest of my school experience and even my adult life. I started to dress in baggy clothes, when all the other girls would head to the mall as fun, I would head home to play video games, when all the boys played football, I joined the girls in a game of soccer. But soon I didn't play in games as my breasts created a rather bouncy distraction whenever I ran. My new, large breasts made it physically hurt to run and I avoided it as much as possible, as a result I gained a lot of weight. Being overweight increased my cup size to a DD and I tried even harder to minimize their size through baggy clothing and slouching. For many girls, adolescence is marred by a loss of confidence, and I was no exception. (Orenstein, 1994, p. xvi) Our culture tells girls how they need to look in order to be considered beautiful and these young girls, in turn, start to start to constantly evaluate their appearance. Their appearance eventually "overdetermines their identity". (Pipher, 1994, p. 55) My identity had been shaped by the reaction others had to my breast development and as I inched closer to my high school years I feared that I would be met with the same reactions there. When I was fourteen years old my mother remarried and my sisters and I were introduced to a whole new way of doing things. We had more chores than we could complete and our regular punishments meant we spent most weekends raking leaves or mowing the grass. My stepfather often referred to me as 'Susie Homemaker' when I would wash the dishes or cook dinner. Being a girl meant having raw knuckles from doing dishes seven days a week. Being a girl meant always being in trouble, and it meant trying to hide.
My self-imposed solitude ensured that I had no boyfriends during high school and not many close female friends either. My sister Brandy feels she developed rather late and didn't develop noticeable breasts until she reached high school. What she did develop she says "were very small and not shaped correctly". I would have traded places with her in an instant. I don't think she understands how I envied her ability to wear whatever clothes she wanted, because they would fit over her breasts, while I had to settle for whatever they made in 'really big'. I watched her go through boyfriend after boyfriend and longed for her courage. Luckily my high school classmates had more important things to do than torment me so I managed to stay relatively invisible in high school. I would try to win others over with laughter while never uncrossing my arms from across my chest. I had friends but I never really let anyone very close to me for fear of betrayal and of being hurt again. After high school I got a job working at a grocery store. I'd lost about fifty pounds during the summer after my senior year so I had regained some of my confidence by the time I started working. This confidence was quickly stifled as male coworkers made inappropriate comments about my body, namely my breasts, but I also received comments about what I could do for them with my mouth. It made for an uncomfortable work environment and I began to dread going to work. I started looking for a new job after I was trapped in a walk-in cooler by a male coworker. Despite the cold I broke into a sweat and I began to pant in fear, tasting the air laden with the pungent smell of seafood as it rushed across my tongue. He attempted to fondle my chest, leaning in close to my ear before I managed to break past him and run. I had never felt as terrible about myself as I did that day and thought I couldn't possibly feel any worse. I was wrong. As the days seemed to drag on with no end in sight and no new job offers coming my way, I was once again accosted by a coworker. A different male coworker asked me to help him to his car with his purchases. I obliged to be friendly and as I tried to head back into the store he grabbed my hand. He pulled me closer to him and my body stiffened as he pressed his lips against my neck. He whispered good night in my ear, as if we were lovers parting after a romantic evening, and I quickly pulled my fingers from his. I fought the urge to run inside and spend the rest of my shift in the bathroom scrubbing my neck. I never reported any of this to my managers, not because I was afraid I would lose my job, but because I was too embarrassed and felt too violated already to share the information. The forced intimacy only brought back memories of my grandmother's new husband groping me while I was alone in the house with him one summer. All he talked about for three long hours was my breasts, how large they were, how soft. I can still remember his sickly sweet breath in my face and wiping his spit from my lips after I pushed him away and ran down the driveway. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for my grandmother to return from the store and cried in relief when I saw her car coming down the drive, spewing up clouds of dust. I didn't tell anyone about what happened then either. Back then I felt like it was my fault, that it was my breasts' fault, as if they were an entity separate from me yet controlling my life. I knew it wasn't my fault when it happened again as a teenager but I felt just as violated and dirty. I think what's more disturbing is that many women live through the same things I did and reacted in the same way as well, in silence. When I asked my sister if she had ever been sexually assaulted she said that she wasn't sure. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, sexual assault "takes many forms including attacks such as rape or attempted rape, as well as any unwanted sexual contact or threats. Usually a sexual assault occurs when someone touches any part of another person's body in a sexual way, even through clothes, without that person's consent". (NCVC, 2008) She had never told me before I asked that she had twice been forcefully pressured to have Sex but was able to "get them off of [her] and leave both times". (personal communication, February 16, 2009) When she said that my heart broke, to think that someone else, my very own sister, had experienced the same shame and violation as I had was deeply saddening. Saddening but not surprising. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, in 2005 191, 670 rape/sexual assault victimizations were reported. (Catalano, 2006, p. 2) 92% of those rape or sexual assault victims were female. Less than 39% of those victims reported the crime to police. (NCVC, 2008) I think most people would be surprised that many of the people they know are, or have been, victims of rape and/or sexual assault. To get an idea of the number of victims within a small community there might be, I conducted a survey in my neighborhood with what I found to be disturbing results. Of the surveys that were returned to me (n=37), 21% of respondents indicated that they had been a victim of a Sex crime. Of that 21%, only 8% reported the crime to police. This survey was only meant to give me a real idea of how prevalent sexual assault was in my own neighborhood and how many of my close neighbors I could relate my experiences to. Being a girl meant shame, guilt and fear.
In my desperation to get away from the harassment I was enduring at the grocery store, I took a lower paying job in a retail store a few miles away. There I sought to start over and at first I wore all my baggiest clothes and made little eye contact, preferring to keep to myself. I wanted to remain under the male radar so I could feel safe at work. After hearing that some of the other women I worked with thought I was a bitch I thought it might be wise to open up at least a little and try to make some friends so I wouldn't be completely ostracized. So I tried to loosen up, wear clothes that fit, put on make-up and make some friends, I even had a male coworker flirting with me but my lack of interest in him sparked his anger and he sought revenge. He spread vicious rumors about me, fabricating tales of my slutty sexual exploits with various other coworkers and making my new job my new private hell. It seemed like just as I started to embrace being a female, and started to get more comfortable in my own skin, it all tanked and I quickly pulled myself back into my shell. I was twenty years old and still afraid of my own body. Being a girl meant never letting my guard down.
During the next year I became very close friends with two male coworkers, to this day I'm still not sure how we became friends but I'm so very glad we did. Their friendship and acceptance of me, with no focus on my body, gave me more confidence than I'd had since the third grade. A few months after my twenty-first birthday, I made a decision. I was going to have Sex, I was going to expose my body to someone and leave myself vulnerable to another person, as a way to test my newfound confidence. Without any real emotional involvement, I wasn't ready for that yet, I sought out someone to rid me of my virginity and help me with this personal mission I wanted to embark on. At the ripe old age of twenty-one, I had sex for the very first time. When an adolescent girl is anticipating her first sexual experience she tends to think of it as being an exciting, dangerous moment full of promise. (Pipher, 1994, p. 207) Even though I was past adolescence it was probably still odd that had none of these feelings, I just wanted to get it over with. Short of thinking it was kind of cool that I could feel his heartbeat from the inside out it was almost entirely unmemorable. I treated my first time like many other women treat their sex lives once the newness wears off, as a "brief and loveless encounter . . . devoid of true passion". (Gramunt, 1994, p. 48) Being a girl meant sex became a task on my to-do list. Being a girl meant being confident in my body, finally.
It was four long years before I even thought about sex again. I decided I would try to find someone who would get to know me without my body influencing any decisions or making any impact. The only way I could figure out a way to do this was to meet someone online. I met Steve through an online dating service and we chatted and texted for almost three months, getting to know each other before we met in person. I was terrified on my way to meet him for the first time and almost turned the car around to head for home more than once. I'd spent hours trying to find the right shirt to wear, one that covered my breasts without making me look like someone's grandma and I was unsure of how he would react to my appearance. Most men talk directly to my chest instead of to me and I was crossing my fingers that he wouldn't be one of them. To give him a helping hand I made sure to wear a solid colored shirt with no designs, pockets or words across my chest. That first date was amazing and it was followed by many more. We soon dove into a serious relationship but I spent months avoiding thinking I was in love with him. If I fell in love I would be vulnerable again and I wanted nothing to do with that. He helped me to find my sexual identity by encouraging me to be completely comfortable in my own skin, to shed my inhibitions and explore. He taught me to appreciate my body but more importantly he taught me how to lower my defenses and actually let others in. He somehow found a way to tear down the walls I had spent years building and maintaining. Before I knew it he was popping up in my thoughts more and more often. Still I avoided the 'L' word out of fear of rejection or ridicule. I'll never forget the day it finally slipped from my lips, without real thought and I told him I loved him as I grabbed my things before heading to work. I don't think he even heard me as he burrowed his head further into his pillow but it echoed in my own ears. I finally realized, and embraced, my feelings for him. That was a huge step for me, and a huge step for him when he finally said the words back, and I haven't looked back. We're engaged now and even though our relationship is not without its struggles I wouldn't change a thing. Being able to accept myself has allowed me to discover who I really am and to finally be happy and he helped me get there. Being a girl means being loved, cherished and supported. Being a girl means understanding my body and enjoying it. Being a girl means being free from the traumas of my past to live a full, confident life.
My breasts have been a hindrance and a source of pain for me throughout the years and those experiences have helped shape the person I am today. From the third grade on they've been a prominent part of my life shoving me into my role as a female at a very young age, a role I denied because of hurt I associated with it. For a long time I thought my breasts were the reason I was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions but now I realize I was assaulted because some men are perverts who think they're entitled to a cheap feel. If I had the chance to do things over again I know I probably wouldn't do anything differently, my life ran its course the way it was meant to. I'd like think that now, if I was ever sexually assaulted again I would have the courage to do something about it. Stand up for myself and report it to the property authorities. My idea of gender, of what it means to be a girl, is constantly changing. As I experience new things, as I interact with others on a daily basis, as I navigate life in general, I develop new understandings of gender and how I live it.
Works Cited Page
Catalano, Shannan PH.D. (2006). National Crime Victimization Survey: Crime Victimization, 2005. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Retrieved March 10, 2009. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cv05.pdf.
Gramunt, Mark. (1994). The Purpose of Sex is Spiritual Enlightenment. In D. Bender & B. Leone (Eds.), Human Sexuality: Opposing Viewpoints (pp. 46-54). San Diego. Greenhaven Press.
Orenstein, Peggy. (1994). School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. New York. Doubleday.
Pipher, Mary PH.D. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York. G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Sexual Assault. (2008). The National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC). Retrieved March 10, 2009. http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc/main.aspx?dbName=DocumentViewer&DocumentID=32369#1.
Stress Fueling Early Puberty. BBC News. Retrieved March 10, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4688450.stm.Zuckerman, Diana PH.D. (2001). When Little Girls Become Women: Early Onset of Puberty in Girls. The Ribbon. Vol. 6, No. 1. Retrieved March 10, 2009. http://www.center4research.org/children11.html.By Alinda McManus - I have always had a knack and love for writing. I excelled in writing classes and have written newsletters for employers and for my family. I have a wide range of interests and I enjoy ensuring that my wri...
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