My entire voyage across the seas of puberty can be traced back to a single day in 1998. I was in the 8th grade and obligated to take swimming as a course. As a cruel display to our changing bodies, the school issued a limited amount of bathing suit sizes. Though Sex Education was taught later in the day, anything we really wanted to know about the male and female genitalia could be learned at the seams of our one-piece suits. Even in the locker rooms, there was nowhere to hide; the towels, most likely manufactured as dishcloths, were of little use to our modesty. Nevertheless, I got creative, holding the cloth with my teeth as I Houdinied my way to freedom. It was in this locker room where I quickly mastered the art of disrobing and dressing without a trace of what lies beneath, a talent I am quite proud of to this day.
“Oh, shut up!” my female classmates hypothetically interject at this point. I can’t blame them, for I was not plagued with the trappings of back acne, the cold nipple daggers, nor the obscene camel toes as they were. But quite frankly, if it hadn’t been for my long hair, I could have easily been mistaken for a young Cambodian boy. And lest you forget, my hearty-bosomed peers, how the other half lives!…or, in my case, the other 1/18th. I did not own a single bra, my underwear collection consisted of basic Hanes Her Way from Wal-Mart, and my wardrobe easily mimicked that of any 14-year-old skater boi. It is for this reason that I panicked when the school nurse entered our locker room with two mysterious women and announced,
“Just bras and panties, young ladies. Just bras and panties.”
Spine tests were all the rage in ’98 and middle schools across the country were checking their students for scoliosis. Each child had to stand with his or her feet together and bend forward with arms dangling. The nurse would then check for any deformities in the rib cage and along the back, measuring degrees of severity, if any. Oh, how I could go on and on about the medical ins-and-outs of scoliosis, but that is not what this is about. Scoliosis is the spiny little bitch that got me in that position in the first place. “What position?” you don’t ask. The position of being the only girl in the locker room bare-chested in front of her B to C-cupped peers, looking like Mowgli from The Jungle Book (Cue Baloo singing “Bare Necessities”).
“Do you not have a bra to wear, sweetie?” the nurse whispered, as if my predicament was not yet apparent to every 8th grade woman around me. With all do respect, sweetie, but if I had a bra, wouldn’t now be a good time to be wearing it! I was mortified. And not so much to have my chest bare (I mean, there really was NOTHING to see), but the fact that I had somehow not received an invitation to the Puberty Party the other girls had clearly attended.
Bent over naked in the showers, I was reminded of the educational film on menstruation viewed two years prior, which had clearly been shown terribly too early for a gal like me. The timing was spot-on (no pun intended) for my classmates, however, because within hours of the credits, every girl was announcing she had gotten her period. It was like some epidemic via B-rate acting had stormed through the walls of our middle school like the Kool-Aid man and stabbed each female in the vagina. So when my period finally arrived five years later at the age of 16, I had not a clue what to do about it. What had Molly’s mom told her while sitting far too close to her on the bed? Your period is a special gift?…C’mon, Molly’s mom, I’m gonna need more than that! But I couldn’t remember. And the last thing I wanted to do was ask someone. Oh, the shame! So I took the sane and logical approach and reverted to Old Testament procedures: I used a rag (well, Bounty select-a-size paper towels fastened to my Hanes with packaging tape) and shouted, “Unclean!” as I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror.
Stepping into Sex Education for the first time, I felt exposed. Up until that point, I hadn’t discussed my lack of maturation to anyone, especially my friends, and there was a great chance that now, surrounded by three-dimensional plastic vaginas, my secret would be brought to light. I did my best not to ever stare directly at one of these models for fear that doing so would be like staring into the face of the sun. I would be instantly struck blind and that would be it; I’d be blind and breastless and alone forever. But as much as I wanted to breeze through Sex Ed. with my eyes closed, my teacher, a brawny and bearded man who tripled as our gym and Bible teacher, emphasized weekly,
“Pay attention! You will be tested on this.”
The night before the exam, I was unprepared. I knew the basics: a man and a woman sleep in the same bed and that’s how babies are made. Duh. But other than that, forget it. I excused myself from the dinner table after barely touching my Arby’s roast beef sandwich, grabbed my school bag, and locked the door to my bedroom. I was a wreck. Hands shaking, I removed the binder from my bag and took a moment of silence in preparation for what would transpire over the course of the next hour.
“Dear Lord Jesus,” I mouthed, “Please help me get an A on this test. And forgive me for any unclean thoughts that may arise in the process. Amen.”
My straight A’s would not go down for this. I would be able to label a penis with my eyes closed, dammit!
Fortunately, I aced the test (thank you, Jesus), but I couldn’t look at my male classmates the same after that. Their mouths would move, but all I could think was “Seminal Vesicle” and “Corpus Cavernosum.” Perhaps the other girls hadn’t studied or maybe (Gasp!) they were intrigued by what they had seen, for friends whom I had climbed trees with just last week were now drooling over these boys like they were made of high fructose corn syrup.
“Oh my god, Amanda totally got felt up by Dan at Friday night’s dance!” became a typical line while warming up before basketball practice.
Felt up? Oh god. Did I want to be felt up?
So I did what any 13-year-old girl struggling with her sexuality would do: I bought a new pair of Umbro shorts, laced up my Reebok Pumps, and went to the next school dance. After an ever so brief and uninvited grind sesh, I realized pretty quickly that I did not, in fact, wish to be felt up, so I spent the remainder of the evening with my back against the bleachers, sipping flat Coca-Cola, and wishing I had packed a yo-yo. And unlike the majority of girls who left with petals plucked from their “precious flower,” I left with two sweet door prizes: Madden NFL ’98 for Sega Genesis and a $100 gift certificate to Hobbytown U.S.A. (which I later found out sells primarily model boats and build-your-own railroad kits. Hey, School, I’m 13, not 90!)
It was a long time before I went to another school dance, and when I did, I took the male classmate who I knew would rather talk to my mom about the intricacies of her hand-made quilts than lay a single hand on me. My parents were happy to sail ignorantly alongside me and always joked about how different my Barbies were from my sister’s. My sister’s had the flowing blonde hair, the peach-colored and sequined prom gown, the pale blue pumps…while mine looked like crack whores, their hair snipped completely to the nubs, tattoos drawn in Sharpie all over their bodies, and of course, they were all completely naked. My parents chose to laugh it off perhaps to mask their concern. Christian pre-teen girls do NOT explore sexuality with anatomically incorrect plastic dolls…right?
I had to destroy their beauty, to make them abnormal, in order to somehow validate my next move—I rubbed their naked female bodies together like two sticks to a campfire, hoping to ignite some flicker of reason. I never got too far before footsteps on the stairs sent my plastic lovers to their home beneath my bed, their secret safe for now.
But what was their secret? And why was this something to be ashamed of, much like my lack of a bra in the 8th grade and simply having to study for the Sex Education exam? The answer wouldn’t hit me clear over the head until a decade later, but all the signs were there, aligned ever so oddly, yet brilliantly.
Today, my Barbie dolls are no longer hidden underneath my bed, but in a large Rubbermaid container in my father’s attic. I choose to believe they are finally free up there, free to make sweet plastic lesbian love from sun up to sun down, without a care in the world. And I like to think that bitch in the sequined, peach-colored gown is in on the action too, because, hey, we all have our secrets, even the Prom Queen.
C.B. Riley holds a B.A. in Film and Creative Writing from Penn State University and a M.Ed. in English Education from Temple University. She teaches high school English so that she can blame her drinking problem on teaching Shakespeare to teenagers. Her essay, “Hoarder for Christ,” was published last year by monkeybicycle.net.