My mother gave my father a Diane Arbus photo book for his birthday the year I was ten and he was thirty-four. The entire family (Mom, Dad, my older sister, Becca, and my younger brother, Josh) gathered around and slowly waded through it, picture by picture. The pages were thick and glossy and smelled remotely of plastic. Almost all the photos were portraits—people whose entire lives seemed exposed through the simplest physical details. There was the terrorizing image of the boy holding a toy hand grenade, the stoop of the Jewish giant who stood beside his small rodent-like parents, the overly-shadowed nasal-labial folds on the middle-aged woman cradling a baby monkey whose face is identical to hers.
And then there was the Topless Dancer.
She sits in a chair in her dressing room in San Francisco, wearing a long sequined, chest-cut-out gown, which I have always imagined to be red (the photo is in black and white). There is a slit up the front of the gown, revealing her crossed legs, shimmery in stockings—closed-toed pumps on her feet. Her sleeves are long and flared with boa-like feathers at the cuff. Other than her face and hands, her breasts are the only bare flesh she exposes: giant breasts, buoyant-looking, inflated to the point of bursting. One finger is pushing into a breast so you can see that there is little give—like a waterbed upon which your body won’t make a dent. Her nipples are glowing, bright eyes beckoning, yet blind to the viewer.
At the time, they were the strangest, yet somehow most fascinating breasts I had ever seen. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen a lot breasts—we lived in Southern California, it was the seventies; my parents and their friends had frequent pool parties where all the adults were naked as the children cowered at the water’s edge in their chaste orlon swimsuits. What made the topless dancer’s breasts special was the fact that the purpose of their exposure was simply so that they’d be appreciated. They were breasts for the sake of breasts—breasts beyond normal human breasts—breasts as a prurient object of desire that had nothing to do with the person who wore them.
The following year, in Fifth grade, my own breasts began to develop. I discovered it while sitting on the edge of my bed in my underwear. There was a pain, or throb in my breasts, something that called me to them. With a fat dirty-nailed finger I rubbed and prodded until I found a large sore nut underneath the thin skin of each nipple. I called my sister in, she was fourteen, a flat-chested gymnast, on the precipice of anorexia.
“What’s this?” I asked, and I pushed her finger onto one nob.
“You’re developing,” she said. Then she looked away, furious, almost-panicked and called for our mother. “MOOOOM!”
My mother came in the room—she wasn’t a doting or involved mother, but she did have an interest in my brother, sister and me; she liked to observe and note us in the same way that she noted the details of the faces in the Diane Arbus photos.
“Jessie’s developing,” my sister said.
My mother placed a finger on my nipple and rubbed.
“Yup,” she said, “you’re developing.”
That was the beginning of a three-year rift between my sister and me. It was when I started to receive, without ever asking, the things she wanted most.
Sometime in the middle of the school year, the swollen garbanzo beans beneath my skin pushed out so that through a thin tee-shirt or blouse, one could see my puffy nipples. The Mediterranean climate of our town—our location on the jagged California coast—demanded no hats or mittens or woolen vests like I’d seen on television or in magazines, so it never occurred to me to hide or cover up my new developments. And then came the day that Kevin H., who was often teased because his father was a gay activist, pointed at me as I walked down the open air hallway, and shouted, “Jessica’s sprouting!”
It was a refrain no one could resist repeating. And how could I have blamed them, as even to me, the words Jessica’s sprouting sounded freakishly interesting. I was sprouting—growing things with seeds I had never planted, tending to a tiny crop that already was of great interest to my peers. People love breasts, and I was starting to get them. My thrill of them, however, seemed like a secret I wasn’t ready to share. I asked my mother for a bra.
All underwear for my sister and me was purchased at J.C.Penny. The dressing rooms were in the Lower Level, a dingy place with carpet that looked like it belonged in a basement or a carport. Back then, girls’ bras came only in white or beige (think of teeth: bleached or tobacco-stained). And one fabric: polyester. Mom hustled me out of the dressing room as soon as we found two that fit, handed me the credit card and let me pay for them myself (a deeply embarrassing transaction) while she rushed outside for a cigarette.
The bras provided a good barrier—they hid and cradled my breasts until the time I entered high school where I eventually discovered the power of breasts; the power of the Diane Arbus Topless Dancer.
“Jessica,” wrote one boy in my ninth-grade yearbook, “I’m glad you sit near me in math. I like the clothes you wear. Love, John.” Other than his signature, there was nothing in that inscription imitative of the usual yearbook platitudes. I was stuck on the clothing line. My uniform throughout high school consisted of shorts, flip-flops and Hang-Ten tanks, tees or halter tops. There were hundreds of girls, mostly blonder, taller, tanner and prettier than I, who dominated the fashion scene at our school.
At a beach party to celebrate the end of the school year, I approached the John who liked my clothes.
“What do you mean you like my clothes?” I asked. He was holding a Lowenbrau, squinting into the sun.
“I like your clothes?” He took a step closer, I could smell the tangy beer on his breath.
“You wrote that in my yearbook,” I explained.
“Your body,” he grinned, “everyone can see the shape of your boobs and your butt in your clothes.”
“Everyone who looks,” he said, “and I always look.” John laughed quickly with a machine gun hahahaha, as if to cover up or blow away his words.
I was startled, but also fascinated by what he had just revealed. It gave me a thrilling awareness that I was unable shed: there were people who were actually looking at me.
That summer my family took a trip back east to see our relatives. I was fourteen, about to be fifteen—fully grown into the same size and shape I am today. My sister was seventeen. She had had her bout with anorexia and was one year into recovery. Within a matter of months she had gone from size 0 to size 6; from flat-chested to a C cup; and from amenorrheal to menstrual. Our builds were opposite: where I was broad-hipped, she was slim; where I was small-waisted, she was not; my legs were soft and doughy, hers were sinewy and narrow. But we both had large breasts.
A farewell party for my family at my uncle’s house in Vermont produced the following scene:
My grandfather is at the bar (this branch of the family consists of people who have actual working bars in their houses: beer on tap, neon Coors signs, St. Pauli Girl mirrors, the whole shebang). He is holding a glass half-filled with chunky ice cubes, amber scotch covering the ice with just a couple glassy peaks sticking out. My uncle is on the other side of the bar, pouring drinks, watching people, listening.
My sister, Becca, and I are standing together, near our grandfather, but not so close as to have a conversation with him. We are talking to each other, discussing our cousin Donny who has grown handsome, man-sized, since we last saw him, and who has invited us for a ride in his truck in order to smoke a joint.
My grandfather lifts his glass towards us and speaks loudly in the way of people who command rooms, the way of people who are used to being listened to by everyone around them. “Would you look at the tits on these girls?!”
My sister and I aren’t sure who he’s talking about at first. We both look at my grandfather, cautiously. We are, it seems, the only girls in the room.
“Rodney!” my grandfather says, and he turns to my uncle behind the bar, “Can you believe the tits on these girls?!”
And now we know that indeed our tits are the subject of this public conversation. Instinctively, we huddle closer together. I can feel my sister breathing; I can sense the tension coming off her skin.
Rodney smiles, nods his head, raises a glass as if to toast our breasts.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, “You’ve got mighty pretty granddaughters with mighty big tits.”
Finally, our grandfather addresses us directly. “Do all the girls in California have tits like that?”
In our confusion, we nervously giggle. This is an encounter for which we are not at all prepared. I feel like I am panting, yet somehow not breathing.
“Well?” he asks, laughing.
Becca grabs my hand and pulls me out of the room, still giggling. She says nothing to me about what just happened and so I say nothing, too. We avoid our grandfather for the rest of the party, although I am always aware of where he is. It is clear that neither of us wants to be seen by him in the same way that yearbook-writing John had seen me. I learn then that the thrill of being looked at depends entirely on who is looking at you.
I never saw my grandfather again. We left the next morning and, as usual, he
avoided the goodbye scene. The next year, as my grandfather was dying of cancer, my mother flew to his deathbed. When she came home from the funeral, my mother reported that his dying words were, “I never should have had children.”
“Well,” I said to her, “at least he didn’t mention your tits.”