I was 11 years old when I was decided that I was never going to wear a bra.
It was right in the middle of the sixth grade, and my life had turned into a bewildering mess. You see, up until then, my world had two kinds of people in it: children and adults.
But then it all changed. One day, my body began to grow things, things that belonged on the bodies of teachers and mothers. It happened suddenly, unexpectedly, and — just like that — I could no longer jump rope. I’d been an expert jumper till then, beating my friends easily just the week before. But on that day, the lumps on my chest bounced impossibly along. After less than 10 seconds, I had to stop.
In truth, I had noticed the lumps some weeks ago; they sprouted strangely, one on each side of my chest. I’d thought they were a virus, a form of chicken pox perhaps, an ailment that would go away in a few days. But the lumps stayed. In fact, they grew. By the end of the month they took up all the space on my body, it seemed, and I knew everyone could see them.
I hid my lumpy chest as best as I could, wearing my elder sister’s loose sweaters over my school shirts. Finally I complained to my mother; I thought she would take me to the doctor for medication. Instead, she said that it was time for a bra.
Now I knew what a bra was; I had seen them in my mother’s drawers: uncomfortable-looking things that I wanted nothing to do with. I wouldn’t wear one, I told her. Absolutely not. I’d wrap an ace bandage tightly round my chest instead. It would hold down the lumps down until they disappeared.
“But the lumps are not disappearing,” she said. “You are 11 years old already…. The time when all girls everywhere begin developing.”
That’s when I remembered that my elder sister, Tziri, had accompanied my mother to a mysterious place a few weeks earlier. When she came back, she locked herself in her room, acting strange for the next three days, as if hiding a secret crime.
Then it hit me.
“Did Tziri get her lump things a few weeks ago?” I asked angrily.
My mother stared at me. It was an immodest question to ask, I knew, but I didn’t care. She nodded vaguely.
I was furious. It wasn’t fair. If Tziri was born a year and a half before I was, it was only right that I should get my lumps a year and a half after she did. How could we possibly get our lumps at the same time? It was just like Tziri to pull a trick like this.
My mother didn’t say much, only pursed her lips and sighed. She tried to explain: “Your body is following Hashem’s plan and growing in a healthy manner. This way, when you get married, you could give your children the milk they need to grow….”
I nearly died.
Milk? My lumps would sprout milk?
“But what’ll I do with the milk till the baby comes?” I asked, almost in tears.
My mother laughed.
“The milk only comes after the baby,” she said. “Until then, nothing happens.”
Huh? Then why didn’t God make women grow breasts after they have babies instead of before? Who needed unnecessary lumps hanging around for years before they would be used?
But I did not ask my mother this. I knew what she’d say: “Don’t argue with God. He knows how to run His world almost as well as you do.”
I ran to my room and locked the door. I sat on my bed, and I thought. I squished my chest down hard, but it popped back up every time. I shook my head. It could not be. There must be some way out of this — medicine, an omen, a prayer, something that could make the lumps shrink back down.
I stared at my reflection in the mirror, sucking in my chest. Who was I? All those years I’d thought that I was me, when all along I was really my mother. What would I do?
I slouched on the floor, tugging at the neck on my shirt. I could not believe it. I would now have to wear my sister’s ugly school sweater for the rest of my life.
The next morning, my mother took me to a bra store located right in middle of my neighborhood. When we arrived, I slumped out of the car. I turned casually in the other direction.
“Stop this,” my mother said through gritted teeth. “Appreciate the fact that you’re healthy. God forbid they wouldn’t grow….”
And then it occurred to me: What if someone from my class was in the bra store? What if Hindy or Rochel Leah was in there? What if one of my teachers was inside and I strolled in behind her?
I hugged my mother frantically. I begged her to take me away. She peeled my hands off her waist. Holding my arm tightly, she walked me inside the store.
In the enclosed area in the back, a lady with bright-orange hair approached us. “Don’t vorry,” she said. “Vee vill find deh perfect bra to fit you.” My mother whispered into her ear. She nodded.
“Of course,” she said. “I vill bring a good minee-miser. A good minee-miser vill squish it down, till you can’t even see it. Vait. I vill bring it.”
I entered the tiny dressing room. The woman dangled a bra over the rod that held up the curtain between us. It looked like a pair of mushroom caps hanging from straps.
“Try dis,’” she said. “Tell me ven you is ready.”
Ven I is ready? I stared at the long mirror. I could see the lumps plainly, right beneath my undershirt, alien things attached like leeches.
I yanked at the bra, trying to connect the clasps in the back.
The lady called again: “You is ready?”
She opened the curtain, stepping quickly inside. She gasped.
“No!” she explained. “You put bra under deh undershirt! Not on deh top! You hef to take off all deh clo’ding!” And, pulling off the undershirt, she pushed my growing chest things into the minee-miser like an impatient teacher shaping play dough, until it fit just right.
“Like dis!” she announced. “Now is snug — not too loose, not too tight.”
She looked at me, satisfied.
I began to cry. I told my mother I wanted to go home — now. My mother inspected the bras closely. She chose two, saying they were the best minee-misers. They would make my chest disappear completely.
When I came home I hid my bras in the deepest corner of my closet. I refused to put them on for two weeks. I also refused to speak with Tziri. One would think she’d understand after all that she’d done, but my mother insisted that I was the ridiculous one, and that it was not Tziri’s fault.
Over the next week, I pondered the strange way God created his world and why lumps, of all things, were part of any divine plan.
My all-girls school didn’t provide any answers. The body was a private matter, an immodest secret. Maturation was discussed in a roundabout way, if at all, like the time in seventh grade, when the principal walked into my classroom and said that we must start using deodorant. “Girls,” she said, “you are 12 years old already, almost adults…. When that happens, the body’s odors grow stronger. That is why we have deodorant. Every girl must remember to put on deodorant every morning.”
My friend Chany raised her hand to ask a question, but the principal said there were really no questions to ask. It was simple. Then she smiled, turned and left the room.
Soon I learned that there was still more to being a woman than lumps and deodorant. A year after my chest began to grow, I found myself bleeding in the bathroom. This was menstruation, I learned; it would last for up to seven days, with bad cramps and swelling, and this, too, happened because of the babies I would one day have. It was the way God ran His world, ever since he cursed Eve for eating the forbidden fruit, punishing her with painful childbirth and cursed blood cycles.
I pictured Eve on the day I started to bleed. There she was in Eden, surrounded by luscious trees and stunning flowers, dressed in nothing, and hardly even knowing it, with only one commandment to obey: Thou shall not eat the stupid apple. I’d heard the story so many times, studied it, read it, memorized it, fell asleep on top of it, but now, suddenly I felt a deep and abiding hatred for her. All this? For a piece of fruit?
But there was something more important on my mind, and that was Tziri. I needed to know if she already got the cursed menstrual blood, because there was no way in the world that I could accept getting my period if my bossy sister didn’t get hers first, way-before-me first. She was older and fatter; it was only right that she should get the thing before I did.
My mother told me that it was none of my business and that these were private matters, not open for discussion. I wanted to ask my sister, straight out, precisely if and when she’d gotten her curse, but I knew she’d run straight to my mother. So instead I complained to my good friend Blimi.
Blimi always knew everything. Her mother subscribed to Reader’s Digest, a forbidden magazine, and Blimi often snuck it out of the bathroom at night to read. Blimi was the one who explained to me the mysteries of life, and the divine reasoning behind many of God’s strange plans. She could not help me with my older sister’s secrets, but she did know why women grew lumps years before we ever needed them. Blimi knew because she’d heard it from her married elder sister, who had heard it from someone else who knew.
You see, she explained to me, once, in ancient times, when the world existed on a higher spiritual level, girls got married when they were just 12 or 13. The women in the past were wiser and better than we could ever be, and therefore they were ready for marriage at a much younger age. As time went on, each generation deteriorated and became worse than the one before it. Today, girls get married later in life because they need more time to grow, she said. But the cycle of female maturation has already been set in place; God cannot suddenly delay it by seven years. And so our bodies still change when we turn 12 years old, and we are left to wait patiently for marriage and babies.
It was brilliant. It all made perfect sense. Chest lumps and periods came right on time, while we get married seven years too late. I went home from Blimi’s, happy. The world still seemed like a lighter, better place. God made sense, after all.
But sometimes Blimi said the strangest things. Only a few days later, she claimed that things were different for the goyim. She read it in a magazine that her grandmother’s nurse left in the bathroom: Gentiles have a special surgery to make their chests bigger.
Now I liked Blimi a lot, but I knew she sometimes made up stuff. I rolled my eyes. I told her that there were things even gentiles don’t do. But there was even more to the story. Goyim have a special name for their chest, she said: breasts. Then she made me promise not to tell anyone that she’d said an immodest word.
I told her that I wouldn’t. And anyway, Jewish women don’t have B-R-E-A-S-T-S. They have mounds, or lumps, or “things” on the chest. They are totally different.
It’s true, sometimes Blimi talked nonsense about gentiles, how they made babies and other such stuff, but still, it was she who cleared up much of my confusion, who helped set the pieces of my world back in their rightful places. She was the one with whom I could talk, whisper and giggle about the strange things that happened in that in-between time, when we first left childhood behind.
It would be a long time before I could say “breast” like it was any other word. Growing up didn’t change things much. Holding our babies close to our bodies, my friends and I laughingly discussed the joy of nursing, how it miraculously shrunk our chests by nearly a size. Always jealous of her elder sister’s flat chest, Blimi hoped that with a few more pregnancies she’d be just as small.
Back in the sixth grade, I eventually did decide to wear my bra. Oh, I still hated my sister, and deep inside I hoped that one day my chest would flatten back out, never to grow again. But until that happened, it was the only way I could jump rope.
Judy Brown wrote the novel “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil. “Inside Out” is her essay series about life in the ultra-Orthodox world. It is based on true events, but her characters’ names and identities have been changed; some are composites, comprising several real-life people. Follow her on Facebook at Facebook.com/JudyBrownHush.