Friday, August 27, 2010

Drawing on the Past . . .

Before I tell you about my most recent portrait, I realize I need to spend some time with this image of my 17-year old self. I have to say, first off, that I'm a bit surprised to realize how pretty she is, that girl on the threshold of womanhood, of a life beyond her immediate family, beyond high school. I say that because although she/I occasionally believed herself attractive, and hoped romance-novel style for the young man who would see right through to her beauty, she was most often convinced otherwise by the gap between what she saw in the mirror and what she saw in the most popular girls at school, the shapely models in Seventeen magazine, the television commercial actresses selling everything from cars to shampoo.

First of all, those girls and women never wore glasses -- unless they were part of a narrative that used the glasses as a prop which, when removed, would reveal that the uptight bookworm was, secretly, a stunning beauty. And, indeed, to achieve the prettiness Ms. Aspa created for me, she had me remove my glasses. While a photographer might have a good reason for such a basic alteration of my image (and indeed, my grad photos taken the same year have my glasses removed, supposedly to avoid the flash), I'm not sure that lenses are terribly difficult to draw. The change made it clear that I would be more attractive if not for the specs -- but what if seeing vies for importance with being seen?

A second contributor to the gap I saw between mirror-me and Popular Pretty Girl was my curly (and often frizzy) hair. Those shampoo commercials might allow bounce, and within several years the Afro perm would rule, even in Vancouver, but in 1970, Peggy Lipton straight (remember the Mod Squad?!) was the way to be. While there's some truth to the sketch above, it's a limited truth based on proximity to a strict grooming -- within half an hour of the drawing being completed, the volume of my hair would have doubled. I spent hours and hours and hours, so many wasted hours, trying to tame my hair into some nod to coolness. Not until several years later did a brilliant hairstylist on Robson Street (Shape Unisex -- anyone remember?) give me a cut that released the curl into a world which actually came to admire, even envy it.

But my biggest shortcoming, an absolutely unnegotiable deficiency in my mind, was my flat-chestedness. Looking back, I recognize that I was shapelier than I could see at the time, but as a late maturer (really late, menarche at 14!) a year younger than my classmates (I skipped a grade), and short to boot, I was overly sensitized to looking young for my age and the small breasts were a part of the problem. Yes, Twiggy should, perhaps, have convinced me that a small bust wasn't a problem, but even she, gorgeous and successful as she was, elicited jokes that reaffirmed my position rather than weakened it.

I do remember exceptions to what I saw as the near-universal equation of confident female attractiveness with a sizeable bosom, and these both fascinated and confused me. Two classmates, one in Grade 9, then another in Grade 12, got my attention by joking about their lack of endowment, joking in a way that suggested they nonetheless knew they were good-looking, sexy even. The one in Grade 12, I remember, joked about how she didn't need to worry about anything popping out of her prom dress, 'cause there wasn't enough there to fall anywhere. And she said this in Chemistry class. In the earshot of, get this, boys! I could no more have spoken about my shameful shortcoming publicly -- or at all, really -- than I could have taken my shirt or pants off in class.

Does "shameful" seem too strong a word? Perhaps. Yet I know it was true at the time. Since then, thank goodness -- and Pater -- I have learned that small breasts can also be attractive, sexy, and pleasurable (if you're a "small" girl, you may have heard that corny "More than a handful's a wasteful," and you may even have been grateful to hear it!). Since then, as importantly, I have learned that small breasts can fulfill one of their purposes just as well as larger breasts AND I've had the dubious opportunity to walk around with bigger ones thanks to hormones and good ol'lactation -- mine managed to grow four babies to a healthy plumpness quite nicely. So what's with the shame?

I always knew that came from my mother, whose natural (non-pregnant) weight was never more than 115 pounds (she's now perhaps 105 after a DQ banana split!). Slim, attractive, great legs that my father would embarrass her by pointing out to all and sundry, my mother was very small-breasted. She was also very self-deprecating about this aspect of her body, as if it were the only element that mattered. I was aware of this before I was ten and must have absorbed, even before my own body began to change, that lacking sizeable breasts meant being less womanly. Mom once told a story about swimming with friends, in her teens, and having the foam padding float out of her bathing suit, clearly a deeply humiliating experience. In that era of the Betty Grable pin-up, the padding was both a requirement for those who lacked the natural filling and a signal of the deficiency. My generation was the one that burned the bras, let our clothes reveal the secret that breasts had nipples (Gasp!), but my mother's shame had already seeped its way into my cells.

But the portrait above gives no hint of this shame -- indeed, although this portrait covers the area that, in a sculpture, would have it called a "bust," by the time it gets to that anatomical feature, it has become indeterminate. It is, to pun weakly, a more heady portrait, offering 17-year old me as a thoughtful or dreamy girl -- there's very little of the body here. While it's easy to imagine this young woman having romantic notions, she doesn't seem at all sexual. Fair enough, in terms of my experience at the time, although perhaps a more committed, more imaginative artist might have played with a different template -- this dreamy profile has hosted countless configurations of noses and eyes and cheekbones through the centures, and altho' it's recognizably me, here, I wonder what might have been revealed if I'd looked directly at the viewer.

That's enough for now. This kind of remembering and thinking is tough work, and I'm going to take some time before I try to bridge the many decades between this charcoal sketch and a large watercolour executed by a good friend, a talented and perceptive artist. More to be revealed . . .


  1. Mater, this is a wonderful post. I can relate to so much of it - late developer, also a year younger at school ('accelerated'), very flat-chested, etc. One of my aunts said to me when I was about 13 or 14 'oh, you should get a training bra' and I repeated this to my mother, only for her to say 'what on earth FOR?'. My mother was/is a very attractive woman, with a very 'feminine' (curvy) shape, and was also very competitive ... so she didn't hesitate to let me know that I was, by her standards, rather unattractive.

    But like you, I've discovered the joys of a small bust - in my 40s, I'm still unsaggy, and when pregnant I was happy to sport D cups (and quite as happy to relinquish them post successful breastfeeding).

    So much in there about how we can see ourselves now, from a distance. And, of course, the gaze. How different we all are when we look straight at the camera/artist,etc ...

    And BTW, your hair rocks!

  2. Tiffany: Thanks so much for responding so encouragingly to this post. It was tough to write, tougher still to click on "publish" and then resounding silence Commesnts-wise for the whole day after I published it. I was beginning to wonder how big a faux pas I'd committed!

  3. Mater - this is such a beautiful and thought provoking post. I was an early bloomer and felt awful because I had bigger breasts than other girls my age. The commentary from my family invoked a lot of shame about my body. I am 41 and still working on releasing those feelings of shame.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  4. mater, I read this yesterday and want to give it the thoughtful response it deserves. I'll be back later today once I've had a quiet moment to formulate my thoughts.

  5. What a fantastic post! I have exactly the other problem, you know, which was just as traumatizing (so, so traumatizing). And you will never have boobs down to your belly button as you age - so I think your scenario is very desirable! (Not that I'm undermining your youthful unhappiness about your breasts.) It's interesting how many ways insecurity can express itself. Being a girl is tough.

    PS: Very weirdly, my word ver is phalic.

  6. L: I can easily imagine that the opposite problems -- early development and large breasts -- can be tough as well. Not that I had much sympathy for them when I was young ;-) Sadly, we weren't able to share experiences and comfort each other very well then, altho' we do seem to be improving on that score.
    Pseu: Thanks for taking the time to let me know you've read this post -- I look forward to your response.
    K: Yes, I'm realizing now that life is easier at my age with smaller boobs, much as I pined for more volume when I was younger.
    I'm sure having the attention larger ones bring wouldn't have been so great for my personality anyway, and having them young must be really difficult -- that said, I love that your blog shows you loving your own shape and inspiring others to do the same -- we need more of that, whatever our body!
    And really? that was seriously your word? Tee-hee!

  7. As someone who developed early, and developed (ahem) fully, count me as another one who would trade with you in a heartbeat. But I think to a certain point, we women can't win. We're taught to want what we don't have, and think if we could just change this One Thing about ourselves, our lives would be so much better. Our culture seems to want to assign certain character traits to physical attributes, and girls with more developed bodies somehow were always assumed to be "loose." I wasn't ready at all for that kind of sexual attention, and tended to slouch and hide in baggy clothing to ward off the stares. To this day, I'm not comfortable with the feeling that my body is on display.

    But I look at that portrait of you, and don't really see absence of bust. I see a dreamy, thoughtful girl who probably loved books and art and music. And who probably had the ethereal kind of beauty that I've always envied.

    I'd like to believe that the culture these days is more accepting and appreciative of our natural variety, and that young women aren't under as much pressure to look one particular way. But I also think it's the way of life that we can only recognize our own youthful beauty in hindsight. It's painful sometimes to think back over how hard on ourselves we were.

  8. I think you should post more on this topic, Mater - it's clearly hit a chord with many. I wonder, is there any woman out there who felt she developed 'just right', who didn't feel any sense of unattractiveness/shame/inadequacy? How do you think your daughters felt at that age? My daughter is almost 10, and being very thin (as I was at that age) is likely to be a late developer also - I wonder how she will perceive herself ... Have we made progress?

    Sorry to be a blog-hog - just fascinated by this topic.

  9. Wow, great post and really, seriously, really made me think. My achilles heel as a child was being tall, and to be honest i'm not really that tall but that is what I was self conscious about.
    I too was flat chested but strangely was so relieved about this primarily because my gran and mother had huge chests and both moaned endlessly about them. I didn't even wear a bra until late pregnancy! and still don't very often. I am so endlessly grateful for my small breasts they are perfect and it helped that many very well endowed friends envied them too. I think they envied the fact that boys looked at me not my breasts which men do when your big.
    I think your portrait hums with serenity, and it is a brave thing to sit for a portrait t what is the most self conscious age I know.
    On the hair front I ached for curly hair I think it is so common this desire to have we we have not. I made the mistake of perming mine for years and then a fluke brush (sorry!) with Trevor Sorbie made me realise that I should enjoy it straight. Only it is not straight but just kinky in all the wrong places and in the end I just decided to give up yearning for glossy locks and now tie it up.
    I love your hair, to me it is the best frame for your face and I envy it's capacity to wash and go.

  10. Hi Mater, yes, a very thoughtful and deep post. I have to say that I don't think I myself put so much thought into my appearance/body when I was young. I don't remember my close friends and me comparing or commenting on our respective bodies. We none of us had boyfriends whilst at school and to be honest I think we were fairly naive or even immature. It never bothered me much that I was pretty small (the weight is piling up a bit now and, to my surprise, last year I actually went up a bra size!). What did shock me one evening, I remember quite clearly, was coming home on a bus and catching sight of my profile in the window (why had I never looked at it before???), discovering to my horror that my nose is actually quite a bit larger than I had always imagined. There's always something .... Patricia

  11. Pseu: Thanks for your thoughtful response. As you suggest, it's a rare woman who hasn't wished her body was different. And a rare one who, looking back, isn't surprised to see what she hadn't appreciated earlier. But perhaps that is changing, generationally . . . we can hope so, at least.
    Tiffany: I suspect it's an issue we could talk about much longer -- I do plan to follow up a bit as I look at a more recent portrait. As for my daughters, I like to think they were more comfortable in, and confident with, their bodies, but I've probably just substituted my own errors for the ones my mother made! Still, at least there was more openness.
    Alison: While I would have loved a few extra inches when I was in my early teens (and even before -- almost always the smallest in my class), I can imagine the height was awkward for those who towered over us.
    I'm interested that your family context made your small bust a plus for you -- for the opposite reason that I was unhappy with mine. . .
    As for the curls, I have come to quite like them and recognize them as defining me, in a way. And I do appreciate the wash'n'wear bit!
    Patricia: Again, it sounds as though something about the context you grew up in allowed you to be happy with your own body -- in fact, it seems as though you were able to know yourself without so much focus on your visual self -- until that incident you describe. Interesting how vivid that is in your memory, that sense of seeing yourself for the first time with a judging eye -- what Jacques Lacan would call "the gaze" -- a social gaze that you have become part of, and have aimed at yourself. (sorry, that academic stuff is pretty knee-jerk with me ;-))

  12. Mater, I just found you via AmidPrivilege's post today and now I'm hooked.

    This is a wonderful post.

    Like you I was really flat-chested and very ashamed of being so -- stuffed tissues in my bra then used foam pads I stole from my mother's bureau drawer.

    I was teased by friends and sadly also family members with jokes about wearing a training bra -- "why do you want to wear one, to train the bra?"

    What's really funny is that like you, after the babies and hormones and getting older -- 52 now -- I have boobs but long to have the tiny ones back!

    I guess we never appreciate ourselves just as we are.

    Thank you for the lovely post and I hope you will write more about your life -- revisiting the past.

  13. Susan, Welcome to my blog and thanks so much for your encouraging, thoughtful comment -- if only we'd known, eh? -- and for "Following" me. What a long journey this is, learning to like our own bodies!

    I had a quick peek at your website and will spend some time there later when my schedule's freer -- your account of reconciliation with your mother is moving and reminds me in some ways of my own relationship with mine.


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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