A wanton explosion of breasts and hips greeted me when I turned eleven. Everything that had been flat rounded itself with ruthless purpose until my new body, abundant with turgid flesh, became alien to me. I agonized over this changing body, which made me the object of prurient stares and moist comments from men far older than my father.
I had been, moments earlier it seemed, a little girl with a penchant for Beverly Cleary books, cartoons, and long back scratches from my mom, which was an excuse to lay my head upon her warm, round thighs for her to baby me, the fourth of her five children. In those many quiet minutes, I would nestle my head in her lap with her heavy breast resting gently upon my head.
On Saturday mornings, when my father and siblings were asleep, my mother and I made a ritual of cooking from a cookbook for children that she had found at a used bookstore. Every recipe found in the frayed, stained cookbook was utterly disgusting: from cheap cans of sardines spread on lightly toasted white bread to the ponderous Scotch pancakes that refused to absorb syrup, but it never occurred to either of us to use another cookbook.
When making pancakes, I was assigned the task of measuring ingredients and dumping them in the bowl while my mom whisked. I marveled at the vigor of her strokes. I thought about the arms of my friends’ moms. Their arms were thin and sallow, while my mom’s large arms were powerful and glowed with a healthy color.
As I grew older, my mother would let me pour the batter onto the griddle and instructed me to flip the pancakes when tiny bubbles appeared on the surface. Some were shaped like the way Flat-Earthers imagine the world. Some had numerous lumps across the surface, or were like digressions, wandering from one side of the plate to the other. When we hugged after I successfully flipped a pancake, my chest would press against hers and there was hardly any space between us.
My breasts seemed to burst forth from my chest fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus’ head. They stuck out like small hills, stretching T-shirts emblazoned with hearts or stars, heralds of something momentous, a public announcement of the end of my childhood.
Months early, my mother and I walked together on the sidewalks of busy streets in our placid town unnoticed. Now, men’s heads would veer towards me like an out-of-control car, their eyes fixed on my breasts, taking leisurely measure of what lay beneath my flower-festooned shirts. When I felt their eyes on me, I would cross my arms across my breasts and fold my shoulders into the center of my body until my chin rested on my chest. This way I could shield my breasts, avert my eyes, and hide the bright, pink splotches on my cheeks. Bowing me with sweeps of their saurian eyes seemed to amuse many of the men.
My mother turned to me with a trembling, inexplicable rage. “That shirt’s too tight on you now. When men started to stare at me around your age, I had the sense to wear clothes that were looser. I’m going to have to start buying you looser shirts and shorts.”
I grabbed a fistful of cotton between my fingers and presented it to her. “Look, my clothes aren’t tight.”
“Stop talking back,” she hissed at me. She continued to walk and I followed behind her, my body shaped like a question mark.
When I was sixteen, I borrowed my parents’ white station wagon so I could drive to my friend’s house. On either side of me were trees that were more shadow than form. The gloom was broken only by a few hovering streetlights that emitted a soft glow.
The darkness was vanquished by headlights shining into my car. It arrived with the suddenness of lightning, a crack in my rearview mirror. The car reeled forward and nearly slapped against my bumper. It was impatiently trying to get somewhere and I had been driving down the road with languid ease. I pressed my foot on the accelerator until I was driving ten, fifteen, then twenty miles faster than before, but the car’s lights didn’t recede. It was still behind me, pushing me to go faster, so I did.
I pressed my foot down harder until I doubled the posted speed limit. Surely, that would satisfy the impatient car. But it sped up too and smacked my bumper; I jerked forward and fell back again when the seat belt stopped my head from striking the steering wheel. In that moment, I saw an undisguised glimpse of my death and it was of severed limbs and the twisted column of my spine.
I whipped the family car around and drove toward the light of a far busier street. I still couldn’t see properly, but this time I was blinded by tears. The car behind me had turned too and its screeching tires echoed in my ears. The car came closer and closer until there was a mere inch or two that separated us. I thought the car would hit me again, but it passed the double yellow lines and sped past me. Inside the car was a silhouette of a man. He was laughing, his body nearly doubled over with glee, as he and his car drove into the winter darkness.
When I got home, wheezing and coughing as if I still had asthma, my mother met me at the door in a sleeveless, pink nightgown. Her fat, unsightly arms were crossed over her chest. “You should have stayed at home.” She turned her back and went upstairs before I could think of a response.
I rolled my eyes at a man who demanded, from across the street, that I should smile. “Fuck you, you ugly bitch,” he screamed in response. His fury streaked his face with different shades of red and the muscles in his neck bulged each time he opened his mouth to shriek at me. I hurried down the street so I could round the corner and disappear from his sight, but even with a street separating us, I could still hear him calling out his rage. When I reached the other street, I dipped my head to see if I was showing any cleavage or if my skirt was too short.
A man came up behind me at a crowded bar and slid his erection up and down my back. I threw a sharp elbow into his soft center. He dissolved into the crowd before I could even turn around to see his face. And then I thought to myself, I should have stayed home.
My mother faithfully listens to the sordid news so she can have the ugliness of the world confirmed and delivered with dispassionate precision by broadcasters crowned with inert hair. During broadcasts, she hears stories like:
An unidentified woman needed three blood transfusions after she was shot because she refused to have sex with DeMarcus Woods, thirty-four, an acquaintance who had given her a ride to buy diapers; five bullets hit her thigh, pelvis, and upper back.
Maren Sanchez, sixteen, was killed in her high school by her sixteen-year-old classmate after she refused his invitation to prom . He slashed her throat and body with a knife he brought from home before two teachers could disarm him.
My mother likes to tell me the banality of these stories compels mothers to teach their daughters how to be inconspicuous. It is what her mother taught her. It is what my great-grandmother taught my grandmother. Keep yourself safe by wearing clothes that are loose so that you won’t be a target. Don’t walk home by yourself late at night. Don’t go out late at night. Don’t talk to strange men at night or during the day. Be accommodating to men, but not too accommodating. These words are passed down from mother to daughter like precious heirlooms. It is the gift of fear. Unsaid, they are trying to teach their daughters how to make sure other girls and women are victims, girls whose mothers didn’t teach them how to hide in plain sight.
I tell my mother that this kind of thinking—that how we dress and where we walk will keep us safe—is nearly magical in its delusion. It is rubbing the belly of a bottle and expecting a genie to emerge. It is akin to believing in sorcery or love potions. But there is always someone who knows a person for whom a love potion worked, and there are always daughters mothers can point to who haven’t been hurt because they covered their knees and rested their chins upon their chests when they went out only during the day.
My mother and I were recently looking at old pictures and I came across a photo of me when I was eleven or so; I was startled by how young I looked. In my hazy childhood memories, I look much older, but in the slightly faded photographs I’m still soft in the middle and my face is round and guileless. And my breasts are much smaller than I remember. (Such tiny breasts , I marvel . ) The pictures show the face and body of a child.
I try to imagine how the men who looked at me and said things to me could see anything but a child. And then I grow incredibly angry with my mother for all the times she warned me about how I should dress when my breasts were just tiny buds affixed to a body with a belly.
She must have sensed my seething anger because when she leaned over me, her heavy breast brushing my rigid arm, to look at the pictures she said, “When I was young . . .”
My mother drifted off, but I filled in the elision with ease. When she was young, she made a mistake. She deviated from what her mother had taught and she suffered for the one moment she was carefree. I can point out that people we know, and sometimes love, are far more likely to hurt us than strangers. I can tell her that what happened has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the man whose name she may not even know. But myths yield nothing to reason. And truly, what else can mothers do but arm their daughters with myths in a world in which they see, all around them, men ready to devour their young?