When I was in seventh grade I remember very vividly packing up my things at the end of the day. My best friend at the time was standing beside me helping me transfer all my books into my backpack. The female science teacher was standing at her door, just like all teachers did at the end of the day. Suddenly she called me over with the “come here” finger. I don’t remember her exact words but I do remember thinking she was going to speak to me for asking my friend to do something for me. What happened next shocked me. She told me my shirt was inappropriate and that I shouldn’t ever wear it to school again.
I felt so ashamed and embarrassed. This wasn’t the first time. When my body first started changing I was told by so many people I would need to wear bras early. Once when I was at my aunt’s house I tried to change my shirt quickly in the dining room but she told me to go somewhere private. I didn’t understand and my defence was “it’s just skin” but she assured me it wasn’t appropriate.
I can’t remember if it was after the school incident or some other time but my mom and I had a discussion about my breasts and my wearing low cut shirts. I’m sure she asked me why and I remember telling her, with a lump in my throat, that it was the only thing I had going for me. I had to have been around 12 or 13. After going through puberty and growth spurts I had stretch marks on my thighs and butt. My legs and hips had filled out and I had a soft tummy. I hated everything about myself except my chest, and I knew it was something that could get attention from boys. Once, a friend told me that the boys in his friend group had a ranking of the girls in our grade with the biggest rack. I was at the top.
So what do you do when you hate your body except one specific part that other women have taught you to feel shame about? I’m not sure, but for me, I put all my money on my prized possession. I told myself that while the rest wasn’t great at least I had a redeeming quality. And if I didn’t feel like doing my makeup I could wear a low cut shirt and bank on the fact that people wouldn’t really notice my face. This sounds really cocky, but hundreds of social media messages over the years have told me this is kind of true.
Fast forward to me, aged 24. I’m in therapy because I failed the depression test at my GP exam. I never talked about this, but we did talk a lot about my body image issues. After over a year of seeing my therapist I finally had control of my anxiety, I was not only managing but thriving and I loved myself — all of myself. I didn’t need to bank on my cleavage to know I was attractive and worthy. It wasn’t the only thing I had going for myself and I realized I was worth more than that. Men still message me and compliment solely the way my chest looks in certain shirts. My husband still focuses predominantly on them, perhaps because at one point in time I was too self conscious for him to touch any other part of my body and old habits die hard.
I try to remind myself that just because I defined my worth by them for so long it doesn’t mean they’re the only things worth a second look. But as I said, old habits die hard, and shame and embarrassment have a habit of sticking around years after the words were even spoken.
Now I’ve embarked on a new journey to self love and moving on from this piece of my past. Not only because of health reasons I talk about here, but also because some day I want to be a mom and I can’t be carrying around these things when my possible future daughter comes to me with the same feelings or fears. I needed to free myself from this weight I was carrying for so many years.
What shame are you carrying from your past that you can let go and how can we stop teaching girls to be ashamed of their breasts?
Part of my process was writing about it. If you want to read the poem that came about as a result, you can find it here.