I was not quite seventeen years old so I had my learner’s permit but not my driver’s license yet. In New Jersey you have to be seventeen to drive. My mother, God bless her, let me take the Isuzu Trooper out to go pick up my new (read: only) boyfriend who lived a few miles away. He wasn’t my actual boyfriend yet. This was to be the first time we were hanging out. I was going to go pick him up in the Trooper and bring him back to our house on Madison Avenue in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Our house, at that time, was a revolving door.
My mother slept at her divorced boyfriend’s house every other weekend so I’d have these parties where we drank beer and did very dumb things and made very large messes.
My house was the cool house.
The cool house never locked its door. Literally, my mom never locked any of our doors, which sends chills down my spine now (and did then as well.) I was always getting up in the middle of the night to lock the front door, the back door, the basement door. So many doors.
Everyone knew you could just walk into the cool house without knocking.
I picked up my almost-boyfriend and we went up to my room.
We made our way onto my bed and started kissing. I was filled with adrenaline because I had driven (illegally) to go get him on the other side of Cherry Hill.
I was a racecar driver, I was a soccer mom, I was driving a convertible. I was all things. I was behind the wheel. I was running the show.
We crawled into my twin bed and started making out with the covers over our head and the lights out. At the time, my mother made curtains for people. She would wait to sew them until the night before, which is why she allowed me to go get the boy in the first place with only my learner’s permit. She was down in the basement, pins in her mouth, some weird criminal show on tv, a cold cup of tea next to the sewing machine and yards and yards of fabric with which she had to make a Roman shade with by 9 a.m. the following day. So my mom wasn’t a concern.
I was behind the wheel! I had a boy in my bed! I was running the show.
I took off my Champion sweatshirt. My heart was beating as his chest pressed into mine and I thought how life was funny.
How this boy I had gone to the yeshiva school with when I was five years old now lay next to (on top of me) under my glow in the dark stars. At the yeshiva school we’d learn Hebrew all morning and only after lunch could we speak English. I didn’t remember the boy from all those years back, it was the B.D.D. era (Before Dad Died) but still, how like life to do that. So many chance occurrences, so many lightning cracks of chance that had to be stared at in awe, because truthfully, how else can you explain ending up back in New Jersey after leaving P.D.D. era (Post Dad Died)? How can you explain being on that bed? Being behind that wheel? You just have to kind of look down, nipple to nipple, heart to heart, and go Wow.
He was on top of me. We both had our pants on. The excitement of our chests pressing was enough to sustain me.
This is a body. This is a body. This is a heart. This is a heart.
My own heart thumped loudly so it actually drowned out the thump of the feet stomping up the stairs. As they got to the top of the stairs my heart stopped beating. It was too late. I heard a gaggle of boys outside my door. The cool house! Never locked! Go right in!
The mafia of boys flicked the light on. At first, and I will give this to them: they didn’t know anyone was in the bed with me. Once they jumped onto my bed however, they realized that it wasn’t just me in there, that there were two bodies in the twin bed.
They flung my down comforter to the floor. Before you judge too harshly please remember this scary, yet utterly true fact: they were 16 year old boys. My best guy friends, a group of rambunctious and horny teenage boys.
There I was.
My nipples were now known to the world. (Because at that time, the world was equivalent, if not less than, those boys standing there open mouthed.)
They. Saw. My. Boobs.
I have never wanted to die as much as I did in that moment.
They. Saw. My. Boobs.
I vowed: I was never going to go back to school. I was going to move away. I would probably take the car. The Isuzu Trooper. I was going to hide. For the rest of my life I would hide. I would never talk to them again either.
Get out of here! I wailed.
Hysterical, I grabbed my now inside out sweatshirt and covered my chest. They laughed and patted my boyfriend on the back. The incident had sealed it for us. The humiliation bonded us. He’d become my “official” boyfriend in a breath, in a moment as fast as a light switch flicking on. (Although I am not sure how humiliated he actually was. He might have been sort of proud. My guy friends were the “popular” kids at school.)
There were ten of them. They had all seen me topless. This, for a sixteen year old virgin, is equivalent to death.
After they left, I swore I could never leave my house again. I could never show my face anywhere. I was too upset to drive so I made my mom drive my boyfriend home and put her curtain making on hold although I can’t remember because like most of our great personal tragedies, they get murky with time.
I sat in the murky water of my shame in the basement. I wanted to get as low in the earth as I possibly could and the basement was as close to that as I could get.
Naturally, I blamed it on my mother. Why can’t you ever lock the doors? This would have never happened if you locked our door and they didn’t think they could just walk on in!
I blamed it on myself. I blamed it on my luck. I blamed it on my dad. I blamed it on my breasts. (If they weren’t so big, this wouldn’t have been such a big deal, I lamented.)
That was it. I would never talk to any of those jerks again.
We’d had a plan to go to the Philadelphia Zoo that weekend and I told my mom that hell would have to freeze over if they thought I was going to look at zebras with them now.
I cried and said I could never go back to school. That my life was over.
I don’t remember how I ended up making up with the boys. My one friend, who I am still friends with to this day, made me a mix tape to apologize. A mix tape. He put Morrissey on it and The Smiths and New Order and all the bands we listened to on our way to house parties.
He wrote PINKY on the side of the tape. Pinky, he laughed. Like your nipples.
I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately and how ashamed I felt. How I thought I couldn’t go on. I wanted to curl up into a ball and die on the floor of the basement between the washing machine and the dirty laundry. I’d felt exposed.
Honestly, at 38 I am happy to show you my breasts. My husband wouldn’t be all that happy and I probably wouldn’t really do it, but, my point is, so what? After I have a baby I will look back and yearn for the boobs of now, of 38.
Recently I was on a boat in Italy with my Italian friend and some of his Italian friends. (I love Italians.) We were sailing along off the coast, near Sorrento, when my friend’s friend took off her bathing suit top. Her husband didn’t bat an eyelash. She smoked a cigarette and put on sunscreen and ate a buffalo mozzarella and tomato sandwich sans bikini top. She talked to my friend and her husband for three hours with her top off and no one noticed or cared.
(Well, I did. I noticed.)
I think back on the sixteen year old me and how I was mere months away from anorexia. From losing my breasts almost completely due to extreme weight loss. The incident on the stairs (I visualize those boys as elephants stomping up the stairs) happened before a piece of me broke off. The piece of me that ate food and allowed myself small pleasures.
The incident on the stairs was a precursor to that. Maybe it was the beginning of the breaking.
I suppose I always had self-hatred. It just wasn’t as fine-tuned as it was when I became anorexic months later. It was amorphous when I sixteen, floating around, looking for something to latch onto. Self-hatred floating around the room like dust particles, more noticeable in the light. Switch the light on, ah, there it is: self-loathing.
The actual moment it began to solidify from dust is one I can pinpoint clearly. I’d told a doctor that I wanted a breast reduction. He said, You’re crazy. You want smaller breasts? Lose 5 pounds.
Done. I lost 5 and ten 10 and then 20 and then 25.
I don’t think if I’d had smaller breasts that the incident on the stairs would have been any less mortifying. I wanted to imagine so as to give myself a way out in my imagination. An alternate ending like in those Choose Your Own Adventure books.
I choose this instead of that.
Shame is a wondrous thing. It can make us into 90 pound sexless things. It can make us into shadows of who we were, of that person who once was behind the wheel.
I wondered as I watched the topless Italian girl on the boat if when she was sixteen and herd of elephant boys walked in on her, would she have cried? Was she always so self assured? Had she always known that every body counts?
If the boys had come in and I’d had my sweatshirt on I would’ve been red-faced but that would’ve been it.
It was the beginning of my recognition of hate. I hate my body. I hate my body. I hate my body.And now here are ten of my closest guy friends shining a light on me, bare chested and all.
The revised scene would go like this: the door would be locked and they couldn’t get into my house. They’d get back into their cars and look for something else to do before making their midnight curfews.
Or: they’d come up the stairs and walk in on me and I’d think How awkward this is. How utterly awkward but here I am, sixteen years old, and perfect
And I’d take a snapshot in my mind because years later when I’d think about the roots of shame and body image and culture as I was on a boat in the Amalfi coast and some woman’s breasts swung in the wind, I’d wonder why, back then, at sixteenI didn’t realize what I was made of. Why I didn’t realize that every body counts. That I wasn’t irrelevant and a bad person? That I wasn’t a monster? I’d realize these things.
I’d take that old snapshot out from the back of my mind and dust it off a little before peering closer. You were beautiful. You were behind the wheel I’d say to the photograph, before putting it back with a few others I’d saved.
Shame is a fleeting. It will latch on to different things as needed.
I did, in fact, go to the zoo with those boys. Not two days later, we were eating soft pretzels at the Philadelphia Zoo together and that incident on the stairs had been filed away in the back of my shame-mind.
How many things have been filed under Shame that could have been filed under This is What Young People Do, It’s Not As Bad as You Think, You Have Nothing To Be Ashamed of, You Are Beautiful.
How many things we misfile.
Jennifer Pastiloff was recently featured on Good Morning America and New York Magazine. She is a writer, yoga teacher and advocate for children with special needs based in L.A. She is also the creator of Manifestation Yoga®. Jennifer is currently writing a book and has a popular blog called The Manifest-Station. Find her on Facebook and Twitter and take one of her yoga classes online at Yogis Anonymous. Jen will be leading Manifestation Writing/Yoga retreat at Kripalu Center in Massachusetts in February 2014 as well as retreats in both Costa Rica and Tuscany in 2014. She travels around the country leading her signature Manifestation Workshops.