Chapter One: Hey I’m Up Here

Robin stares sassily while looking emo AF.

Puberty was not a gradual process for me. Or at least, I don’t remember it as a gradual process. The way I recall it, I woke up one day needing a bra. I was ten or eleven years old. In the fourth grade for sure. Definitely not old enough to need a bra according to me or my classmates. We hadn’t even had sex ed and here I was with these lumps on my chest.

I’d spent most of my life up to that point feeling like an outsider, which probably seems bizarre. What five, six, seven-year-old kid obsesses over being an outsider? Me. So, when my body began to develop light-years before my classmates, my feelings of being different, of being on the outside, of being uncool, intensified.

My mother assured me that nothing was wrong, I was just growing up. The women of our family have always been a chesty bunch, she said, and I was joining the legions of chesty women who’d come before me. My mother loved to joke about the fact that my great grandmother’s last name was Tittemore. I was always grateful I didn’t have to go through the developmental horror of getting breasts with that last name. I probably wouldn’t have survived.

I wore training bras for as long as I could, but by the time fifth grade rolled around, there was no hiding my assets, which I had yet to see as assets.

I distinctly remember the first time an adult treated me differently because of my body. I was in the fifth grade. It was one of those insufferably warm days, right before summer vacation. When the classrooms felt extra oppressive, not just because of the heat, but also because the freedom of vacation was right around the corner.

I was wearing a very cute spaghetti strap tank top. I think it was from Limited Too, which was a big deal for me because most of my clothes were from Walmart. I’m fairly sure that most of the girls in my class were wearing very similar tank tops that day. The big difference between them and me was that none of them had bra straps peeking out under those tiny little straps or cleavage peeking out over their necklines.

Maybe right before recess, I remember we were all walking out of the classroom, my teacher pulled me aside and asked to speak to me. With a voice that was somehow both kind and disapproving, she told me that school was not the beach and that it was not appropriate for me to be wearing beach clothes to school. She glanced meaningfully at the tank top strap that was slipping off my shoulder, at the bust that was spilling out of my neckline. I stared at the floor, nodding while I reached up to adjust the top. She smiled reassuringly, said that I must have plenty of other school appropriate clothes, and sent me on my way.

I don’t remember anything else about that day, but I do remember exactly how I felt — ashamed. I was sure I had done something wrong, but seeing as none of the other girls had been reprimanded for their cute tank tops, I couldn’t quite figure out what I’d done wrong. I knew that my bra straps and cleavage had something to do with my reprimand, which was followed by the vague sense that these unwanted breasts I had developed so abruptly were responsible for my troubles. This marked the first time, far from the last, that I would feel like my body was wrong, that my body was responsible for most of my troubles.

The attention garnered by my body shifted in unexpected ways as my breasts and I continued to grow. By the time I was thirteen, I looked sixteen, which is apparently old enough for grown men to comment on your body. The breasts that I despised, the ones that had drawn negative attention since they appeared, started to draw positive attention, and as a newly teenaged girl, I was looking for any kind of positive attention I could get.

Side by side with the feelings that I was an outsider and not good enough, which had plagued me for what felt like my whole life, was the feeling that I would be okay if other people told me that I was okay; that I could only be enough if someone else told me I was enough. I craved attention and validation, and I learned very young, too young, that I was willing to go to almost any lengths to get the attention and validation that I needed to feel okay.

So, when older boys and men several years my senior started commenting on my body, specifically my breasts, which were a D cup by that point, I finally began to see these growths as assets.

I started wearing clothes that called as much attention to my chest as possible. To the horror of my parents and the delight of skeezy boys and men everywhere, I bought a bright yellow t-shirt with the words “Hey I’m Up Here” emblazoned across my chest in red glitter with an arrow pointing to my face. I wore the shirt as often as possible and relished the conversations it created; conversations which taught me that I could get pretty much anything I wanted if I leaned in close, smiled slyly and bit my bottom lip.

When used properly, this body of mine could be promised, could be given, could be exchanged for attention, for status, for gifts, for substances, for what I thought was genuine affection — not love — but at least affection. I was more than happy to make those promises, those exchanges, to give myself because I finally felt right, wanted, good enough.

And I didn’t care about the cost of these exchanges. It was all worth it to feel okay. Far too young I learned that my body, which I’d always assumed was something to be ashamed of, was powerful beyond belief.

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This Body Of Mine

A collection of personal essays exploring how my experience of my body has shaped my identity and my spiritual, emotional growth. Written by Robin Zabiegalski.