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Sun's Out, Boobs Out | Note 25

I must have been around thirteen when I went for a summer camp at the Polish seaside. I certainly appeared even younger, and I remember feeling lost among kids looking like a bunch of young adults. I don’t think much went on beyond kisses stolen on the sly behind the camp’s kitchen (needless to say, I didn’t partake), but there was much talk about how to do it; the atmosphere heavy with budding sexualities and the promise of forbidden fruit.

Following the unwritten rules of the camp, I chose a secret sweetheart – a dark-haired boy of fifteen, whose name I don’t remember, and who was perfectly oblivious to my diminutive existence.

One cloudy day, we were all taken to the beach to play dodgeball. Suitably moody, I sat on the sand and covertly observed the object of my affections. He was playing what I thought was an excellent game. Next to me, a bunch of girls chatted about makeup and pop music. At one point, their leader (cropped spiky hair, colourful hair clips and sparkly eyeshadow) announced it was time to swim – a prospect that made me very excited. Most of the girls removed their jumpers in studiously seductive ways, but as I lifted up my own sweater in one swift motion, a giggle ripped through the group. Mortified, I pulled the sweater down, realising I hadn’t put on my swimsuit.

“Don’t worry”, the leader of the girl gang waved at me impatiently. Tears were already welling up in my eyes. “You don’t have any boobs to cover with a bra anyway”.

I don’t know if the attempt at cheering me up was genuine, but at the moment it felt like the worst possible humiliation. I glanced in panic toward the dodgeball game. A few of the kids noticed my mistake and were pointing at me. Most – including my sweetheart – paid it no heed. I wrestled my one-piece swimsuit on, wishing for the ground to open up and swallow me whole. Even the cold, dark water of the Baltic Sea didn’t wash away my shame.

A quarter of a century later (!!!) I still remember the day at the beach as if it happened yesterday. The bitter ignominy that haunted me for years. First of all, I had revealed myself to the whole camp – never mind that half of the boys playing dodgeball were shirtless, my feminine chest had to remain hidden. But worse yet, it was a flat chest. It wasn’t feminine at all. I was shamefully underdeveloped, not displaying any characteristics which were expected of a young woman.

I know now that I was a perfectly normal kid, and I would have been so regardless of the size of my breasts. I also didn’t care about them at all. I cared about swimming. I cared about idealising the random object of my teenage affections. I cared about school, and it was still good two years before I started caring about getting laid. But I did care about being accepted, and to be accepted you had to play in accordance with the gender binary. Assigned female at birth, I was expected to cover my breasts – even if I didn’t have them. Flashing my chest was a disgrace; being flat – even more so.

There were many other moments when I was made to feel uncomfortable just because of the body I happen to inhabit, and especially because of my breasts, but it wasn’t me at the centre of another story which I want to recall. It was 2017, and I returned to Sheffield to visit A., touch some gritstone, and take part in BIFF, a fun and relaxed climbing competition. Inevitably, in the finals things became a little less relaxed, with some of the world’s strongest athletes fighting it out on outrageous challenges. One involved holding on to a huge rounded volume suspended on a rope from the gym’s ceiling. Contact surface was the name of the game, and all male climbers removed their shirts and pressed their chests into the textured hold. In the women’s final, Melissa LeNeve also took her shirt off, revealing a sports bra. The fabric was visibly impairing her ability to hold on as somebody from the cheering crowd yelled: “Bra off!” It’s possible that I read way too much into the look that Melissa threw him, but I thought I saw in it quite a lot of frustration and anger. As if she wanted to say, “If I could, I’d fucking show you how it’s done”.

Modesty, in the sense of keeping the flesh out of sight, is a virtue long instilled and demanded of women and all folks with bodies regarded as feminine, and the issue is far from simple. Although in the Westernised world, we are now ok with women wearing trousers, shorts and bra tops, the rules that remain in place are far from logical or fair. And the fact that we take them for granted is in no way proof of their legitimacy.

The universal requirement to wear pants (disregarded only by a few sensible societies that figured out that going to the sauna in swimwear is, in fact, ridiculous) is also nothing but a social construct, and silly as I find it, it applies regardless of gender. But the expectation that people assigned female at birth cover their chest is blatantly discriminating – and that pisses me off.

Admittedly, there are more important frontiers in the fight for equality – reproductive rights, sexual abuse, and many others – yet we tend to... continue reading now→


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