I share a room with my sister. She is fourteen years old, four years older than me and her body is different from mine.

At night from under my blankets I watch her undress for bed. I watch her silhouette as she slips out of her tunic and blouse into her nightie. She wears a bra and the fine point of her breasts rise up from her chest like mountains.

I touch my own nipples, hard now, but flat against my ribcage.

One day I will grow breasts like my sister and mother. One day, I too will be big.

In the daytime when no one is looking I take an old towel from the laundry cupboard, one my mother keeps to use for dishcloths. I tear it into one long rectangular strip.

I take a piece of coloured ribbon from my sister’s ribbon basket and tie it around the centre of material to make a gathering where I can imagine my cleavage to be after I have tied the material around my chest like a bra.

At night when everyone sleeps I wear my bra under my nightie. I like to feel it in place and imagine myself to be grown up like my mother.

In the morning I scrunch up my bra into a ball and stuff it into an empty cigarette pack, which I have taken from the rubbish bin, I hide it between my bed and wall.

One day I come home from school. My mother sits in her usual chair beside the fire, my sister beside her. They look up at me when I walk in and my sister smiles. They look at one another in a meaningful way and without knowing why or what I sense that I am about to be found out.

I see the cigarette box first and the strip of toweling laid out on the table.
‘What’s this then?’ my mother says. She holds the bra up to the light. She does not wait for my answer. ‘You know you’re too little for one of these, but never mind, you’ll be big enough one day.’

My sister smiles, an inward smile, as if she has just been given top marks at school.

I do not know what to say. My hands are clammy. My Singlet feels wet under my arm pits where the skin prickles.

My mother picks up the empty cigarette box and stuffs the bra back inside.
‘Now be a good girl. Throw this out where it belongs. In the rubbish.’

‘What are you doing?’ my brother says as he sees me at the rubbish bin. He sees the cigarette pack. ‘Have you been smoking Dad’s cigarettes?’
‘No, “ I say. And now I know that my face is as red as the hair on the lady on the front of the cigarette pack.
‘You have been smoking,’ my brother says. ‘It’s written all over your face. Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘I won’t tell.’

67 thoughts on “Shame”

  1. This made me sigh with pleasure and a tinge of fear — like much of your writing. There is so much tension wrapped up in the mundane — so much awkward pain and gentleness in the telling.

  2. I have long puzzled about the significance of women’s breasts to women. They signify maturity, yes, but not simply that. Desirability? Viability? Arrival? In an earlier comment I mentioned that I made Jonathan a mammaphile to take a cheap shot at him and that’s true but that doesn’t mean I’m not still captivated by female breasts because I am but I long ago realised it was hard wiring. I tend to support the genital echo theory: boobs signal fertility (or at least sexual availability), they just relocate that signalling from the back office, as it were, to the front showroom where men can better appreciate it.

    With women though breasts are a badge of honour, as if everything that it means to be a woman can be reduced to a pair of orby globules, to borrow one of Truth’s euphemisms. The obvious logic here is that boobs matter to women because boobs matter to men but will many ten-year-olds have made that connection? One of my first wife’s younger sisters had a best friend who had pendulous breasts. She was only fifteen was easily an E cup if not bigger. But she wasn’t pretty. And she knew it. But she was popular. At least her appendages were. She was a challenge. And she became so distressed that finally her doctor agreed she could have breast reduction surgery on the NHS.

    I finally tackled the subject of sexual attraction here. Not one of my better ones:


          In the security of familiar surroundings.
          A suggestion of clefts
          through zipless slacks.

          A child's obsession with touching –
          cheeks and lips are prized apart.

          Petals give way for the bee to suck.

          13 June 1982

    Of course it should be ‘pried apart’ but I wanted to suggest something more. If I was writing the poem now I’d settle for ‘pried’ and I’d sort out the punctuation in that opening stanza. I think though this was the first time I got close to expressing how I felt about the mechanics of attraction. I realised that you could draw two tangential curves on a page or sit two tennis balls on a table and just that shape would please me. It wouldn’t get me all hot and bothered but there is no doubt that this kind of symbol – OO – appeals even at its most abstract.

    This is a very good piece but what really nails it is the last section where your brother discovers you with the cigarette packets – smoking, another ‘grownup’ thing – and is willing to be complicit. I wondered whether it might make a difference if he was older or younger but I don’t think it really matters; either way, looking backward or forwards, he would understand the desire to experiment with adult things.

    I suppose the male equivalent is facial hair. I was eighteen when I grew my first beard. It definitely made a difference especially since my dad hated it.

  3. I remember getting my first "training bra". I felt so grown-up. I had no sisters so no envy. I remember stuffing it with socks, and thinking that I do not want breasts. They get in the way!
    Thank you for that memory. I forgot all about it. I will smile all day.

  4. For some reason, this story did not strike me as cute at all. The title said everything to me. Powerful but not cute. The bra was a garment of great totemic power and a sort of shame to me so…

  5. among the many intimacies of becoming – the physical is surely the most difficult for child and parent alike to manage in kind, sensitive, loving manner. steven

  6. It's so interesting to read a view from someone in the younger position in a large family. I was the eldest, though my sisters came after a lot of brothers, so I hardly knew them as I was well into my teens when they were born. I wonder if the three of them, who are close in age felt the same way about growing up?

    I am like River – I never wanted to grow up. However, I started menstruating when I was ten as well as growing boobs. I managed to hide my periods from my mum for three months. I had NO IDEA what was happening, but was terrified and tried hard to be good and pray a lot of rosaries as I thought it was some kind of punishment (can you tell I'm a Catholic? LOL). Anyway, the cat was out of the bag when I started to bleed at school, all over my pale blue uniform, which freaked the girl sitting behind me when I stood up to answer a question. The nuns had to take me aside, give me hot tea and biscuits and explain the birds and the bees to me. I was horrified and wanted to turn back the clock immediately.

    Then they called my mum, who was livid with me for shaming her by hiding it all and showing her up in front of the nuns. She was not prepared and even took me to the doctor as she thought I was some kind of freak. It was the nuns who also suggested to my mother that I start to wear a bra and at age 10½, my first bra was a size 34C. How did my mother not notice boobs that size?

    So, there was no longing on my part to grow up. I remember it only as embarrassing and yet another way to set me apart. None of my friends had a bra or periods, so I felt like a monstrosity.

  7. …and I walked in on my young daughter and her best friend stuffing rolled up socks into their bras and posing in front of the mirror.

    Growing up stuff is cute, poignant, and important.

  8. This is so well written as to bring both a smile and a sympathetic shudder. I think many girls have a memory of privately trying and then hiding a bra long before they needed one. I do recall it did have a tinge of shame, and I never fully understood why, when it was simply an anticipation of the wearing of a garment soon to become a regular unquestioned part of one's wardrobe. Is there really so much shame, subtle or overt, still implicit in being a woman, that becoming one should be such a furtive act? Thank you for exploring this delicate territory, E.

  9. I thought the same as @Windsmoke… but I also thought it quite sad the way the sister and mother handled a normal passage of life. No joy in either of their life's.

    cheers, parsnip

  10. It's funny how an experience that was at the time felt to be excruciating can through the passage of time – and through writing – become something we can all laugh about, Elizabeth.

    Thank goodness, otherwise we'd be forever wanting to do something dreadful to ourselves. Life would be untenable.

    Thanks Elizabeth.

  11. WindSmoke, it was a tiny piece of fabric that my little girl self used to make this bra and I stuffed it hard into an ordinary sized cigarette pack, if memory serves me correct.

    Thanks, WindSmoke.

  12. Persiflage, as you say, this story ought to be true, and in so far as my memory and imagination will allow, it is true.

    I heard a radio programme last weekend in which the writer Michael Frayn spoke about his memoir of is father. Frayn said – and I agree – memory and imagination are both closely related. Both require a level of invention, such that sometimes it's difficult to know for sure where one begins and the other ends.

    Thanks, Persiflage.

  13. Cinderella mixed with Snow White is a terrific take on what I now consider to be both a painful, and in hindsight an amusing, 'coming of age' story, Fazlisa.

    Hence your fairy tale connections, I suspect.

    Thanks Fazlisa.

  14. As you suggest, Niamh, older brothers, like older sisters, can often lord it over younger siblings.

    I've been in both positions – older and younger. I should know.

    Thanks, Niamh.

  15. It's funny, River. Some people it seems want to grow us asap, while others would prefer to delay it as long as possible. Few of us are ever satisfied with the pace of growth all of the time.

    These days I'd prefer to slow it down, not that I want to be young again, just not to lose too many of my faculties as I age.

    Thanks, River.

  16. Thanks, Just Jane. I'm sure having a big sister made all the difference to me.

    My sister was four years older – still is – and that seemed to make such a difference.

    She always seemed so far ahead. It was at times like torture.

    Thanks, Jane.

  17. 25th April. The holiest day in the Australian pantheon of remembrance. When we think of all those silly, brave, idealistic and loving young boys who died 100 years ago.
    Or, if we are migrants to whom our common memories are uncommon, and therefore unimportant and dismissive, we natter about brassieres.

  18. I can understand your reservations Ms Moon – the totemic power of the bra and all that.

    I was surprised at first when people found this story funny, but I wonder whether the fact of shame doesn't sometimes do that to us.

    Sometimes when an experience feels just a bit too close to the bone, instead of blushing we might laugh.

    Humour is after all the great leveler.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

  19. I finally grew into breasts, Ellen, luckily for me. I wonder was it harder for you?

    When we were young the comment, 'she's flat chested' became a form of derision in our mid teens, when breast had earlier been considered almost an obscenity.

    It's funny how we change.

    Thanks, Ellen.

  20. As I understand it, boys and girls both struggle with the changes in the bodies as they grow, Steven. It seems cruel really, but still we survive.

    It helps when parents, siblings and peers can be sensitive to it and not inadvertently rub it in

    Thanks, Steven.

  21. We don't mean to get ourselves into trouble, Raaji. But as we grow up – as hard as we might try not to – it seems we often manage in one way or another to make life difficult for ourselves.

    Thanks, Raaji.

  22. Oh dear, Marie, another Catholic girlhood.

    Have you read Mary McCarthy's famous memoir, or Antonia White's?

    All those dramas. But your story here – of such an early menstruation, only ten years old – it must have been ghastly for you.

    No wonder you say you're like River. No wonder you didn't want to grow up too soon, so soon. You really started well ahead of the pack.

    I was a late developer. First period at fifteen and a half. I didn't want it, but I needed it to be reassured there was nothing wrong with me.

    Ah the agonies of growing up.

    Thanks, Marie.

  23. Growing up may be 'cute, poignant and important', Jerry, as you say, if only it didn't have to hurt as much as it sometimes does.

    As I said earlier, I hear tell that boys too have a hard time in their own way.

    Thanks, Jerry.

  24. It's a good question, Two Tigers: why does growing up for women need to be such a furtive act.

    I have a theory that it might have to do with a fear of envy, or ridicule not only from big sisters but also from mothers.

    And it may alternatively be a little girl's projection onto her mother, to think that her mother doesn't want her to grow up for fear that her daughter might become a rival.

    I wouldn't suggest this applies to every one, but I think there may be a grain of truth in it.

    Thanks, Two Tigers.

  25. Thanks, Parsnip.

    It's all open to interpretation, isn't it?

    What you see as the joylessness of mother and older sister here might well be a function of how this little girl – my once little girl self – saw it.

    If someone were to write the scene from the mother's or older sister's perspective – not me, I couldn't, I'm too biased, unless of course I made it all up – it might look entirely different.

    Thanks, Parsnip.

  26. Hi Frances, I'm not sure how to understand your comment. I hope you aren't offended that I did not acknowledge Anzac Day.

    I certainly have my views on the event, both as an Australian but also as the daughter of a man who to my mind lost his soul in many ways, fighting in Second World War.

    My father, I am told, was the youngest captain in the Dutch army. He served his military career for some 26 years.

    I do not shy off thinking about war, but not when I put up this post, which conveys a different level of shame, perhaps seemingly more trivial, but nevertheless at one time painful.

    I take it that Anzac day is meaningful for you, Frances.

    Again I hope I did not offend you. Thanks, Frances.

  27. Sorry to be so slow to respond to your comment, Jim. Somehow I misplaced it in the order of comments here and I've needed to scroll back to find it.

    How could I miss it? All that talk of clefts and cleavages.

    I suspect as you imply the basic attraction goes back beyond the genital attraction to infantile desires.

    Breasts or their equivalents feed us first and foremost, hence girls as well as boys covet them.

    I've watched as little boys as much as little girls try to emulate their nursing mothers when a new sibling arrives on the scene.

    My mother feeds the baby, I can do it too, says the toddler.

    Little girls are encouraged to imagine themselves feeding the baby. little boys I suspect not.

    My oldest daughter is pregnant with her second child and her now three year old son tells us quite proudly that he too is having a baby.

    He will find it harder I expect when the actual baby comes along, especiallly when my daughter starts to feed the new one in his presence.

    My grandson found it hard to tolerate being weaned and although to all intents and purposes he has forgotten his mama's breasts, I'm sure the memory will be revived when the new one comes along.

    Breasts are sexualised and hence desirable, both to the possessor and to the one who looks on.

    I've run out of puff, here Jim, on this stirring topic. I'm sure I'll have more to say further down the track, but for now thanks for your in depth response, to what I had thought might be a straightforward posting about childhood shame.

    Things rarely turn out as we planned.

    Thanks again, Jim.

  28. 25th April. Perhaps the most sacred day in the Australian pantheon, and while people are yearning, grieving, mourning ,empathising,longing, you, Elisabeth, are focussed on a onetime 10 year old's interest in a brassiere.

    How old are the feelings you are reprting,Elisabeth? 50 years?

  29. It's not the bra, Frances, it's the shame. Shame can take many forms, to do with powerlessness and humiliation.

    I don't think anyone can hold a monopoly on these feelings, we all experience them differently.

    Nor did I have the fact of Anzac day in mind, when I posted this piece, Frances, which is not to disparage the symbolism of Anzac day. It's important, along with many other things. But it was not the focus of my posting. If it concerns you, perhaps you can put up a post about what Anzac day means for you.

    Thanks, Frances.

  30. When I first read this Elisabeth, I found the shame aspect overwhelming (or maybe it spoke such volues to me) that I had to wait before I could comment. I wonder if males (apart from the facial hair comment) are as drawn and repelled by the changes in their bodies as females, and if they get such confused messages back?

    A pwerful piece of writing which gave me lots to think about and reminded me of all the layers of protection I wear.

    Thank you

  31. for what it's worth, elisabeth. i did not find this to be a cute story, at all….i see shame, of course; and humiliation–and both these emotions can last a lifetime, diluted perhaps, but rarely forgotten. the desire to fit in is so strong, and the knowledge that comes later on, too little too late usually, never quite repairs the lingering feeling that somehow you were "caught out" –doing something 'wrong'; i think an awful lot of preteen/teen girls drift through years feeling hugely conflicted between a desire to disappear from view and a desire to be displayed as a great treasure. and which side of the conflict parents support, either passively or actively, has an enormous impact.

  32. I don't think the comment from Frances is fair, but it made me laugh.

    Elisabeth I read your blog because although we're from different backgrounds we have geography in common. I'm very annoyed, to put it nicely, by your notion that memory and imagination are closely related, suggesting that people invent childhood calamity.
    How insulting. As a counsellor did you say to people "Oh, you've just imagined it all" and send them on their way? Did the Jews maybe just imagine the holocaust? There are things that people KNOW happened because they're still an open wound.

    I'm sorry Elisabeth, but much of what you write is plain silly.

  33. This story reminds me of the time my mother caught me with a "girlie" magazine. It was confiscated and burned in the fireplace by my father… one page at a time… and very slowly.

  34. Did you start a book already. You're a talented writer. Great piece again. I was never occupied with the girly things Probably because I had three brothers and most were boys in my neighbourhood.

  35. I do not have fond memories of this experience, Susan. Shame as you suggest is such a crushing emotion more often than not. Writing/talking about it helps of course and it can shift. An event that once was a source of acute shame can soften, but nevertheless, here I was trying to capture the memory of that pain.

    Still some people find it amusing while others twig to the agony.

    Thanks, Susan.

  36. Isabel, you are another person, like Susan and others here, who resonate with the awfulness of this experience.

    I too can laugh about it to some extent here, though I know things like this continue to evoke painful feelings in many young people coming of age and maybe even more so these days when children are exposed to so much well before they're equipped to cope with it. Boys as well as girls.

    Thanks, Isabel.

  37. Sorry to sound silly to you, RH. I suppose it's a matter of taste.

    I don't think notions of memory and imagination need to be approached in concrete terms. Language itself is a construction. As much as there are so-called facts, there are also many ways of thinking about those so-called facts. It's one of the joys and struggles of being human and sharing the space with others who have different perspectives.

    Thanks RH.

  38. My husband's mother threw his copy of Lady Chatterley's Love onto the fire, Robert. It sounds like your exoerience. Censorship can start early.


  39. I suppose life growing up with boys and girls can add to heat of the mix, Marja.

    It might well have spared you some of the agonies. Thanks for the kind words, Marja.

  40. What are 'so called facts', do you mean they're not facts?
    Concrete terms? Constructions? I've no idea what you're talking about. Read it yourself, see if you can work it out.
    A thing happened or it didn't. It's true or it's made up. For goodness sake, I saw a woman smash a flagon over her de factos head while he was sitting up in bed, did I dream it? You'll decide, will you?

  41. Like if I don't believe I'm sitting here at this computer looking out a hibiscus two metres away, then I'm mentally ill. "My father is robbing my brain," they say, these mentally ill people. "He's got bodies buried everywhere." And they believe it, like I believe I'm sitting here. They're deluded of course, they're psychotic, it's their imagination doing it. And so there must be rational truth, an agreed standard, or we're all psychotic. Be critical, sure, examine what's presented, but don't start with the notion that there's no raw truth. Autobiography is a place for it, designated. The author might get examined, put on trial, but is quite properly presumed accurate until proven otherwise. Hell, if you want adventure, if you want fiction, romance, you know where to go.

  42. You've got some great comments here Elisabeth. Thank you for sharing this memory with us. I can feel the little girl's awkwardness and, as you say, her shame. What intrigues me in particular is the dynamic with the older sister, her triumph at being better than her sister, something guaranteed to make the young girl feel even smaller within herself.



  43. Oh…I love the story. I was the oldest one, so I can't really relate to the little girl's feeling of the story, but it brings memories of my teenage days, when I was feeling jealous of my school girlfriends whose bodies started changing before mine, even though they were younger than me.

    Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. It sounds disturbing, and it WAS disturbing. It happened with a resident a while ago.


  44. Hello Elisabeth: I was pondering as to how migrants absorb their new culture, or perhaps don't, when I made my comment.
    Learning a new culture must be difficult enough. That's the best that they can do.
    There is no possibility of helping their children to absorb it: there will always be a gap.
    I find the celebration of Anzac Day at present to be quite over the top: I would be much happier to stick with the wonderful Inga Clendinnen.
    At the same time, I would question your motives in recounting some 50 year old childish whatever happenings and feelings. But I feel I understand why you do this, and that wanting to be read, as you say you want, is not actually all of it.

  45. I can see that I worded that really badly and didn't convey my meaning, Elisabeth: I hope that it wasn't as offensive as I now read it to be. It's the flu talking.

  46. There's quite a difference between imagination and psychosis, RH, as I understand it, though perhaps sometimes they look the same, and of course there are actual factual truths, but I'm talking beyond facts into things like memories, which are inevitably constructed.

  47. Excellent piece. I was a young girl again, waiting for the day when I would join that club that wore bras and had their "monthly."

  48. The only things I know that get 'inevitably constructed' are apartment blocks around here when some decent old house gets flattened.

    'actual factual' is poor writing, and greetings to all the ladies here.


  49. The triumph of the older sister over the younger one is something I know well, Rachael, from both points of view, both from the giving and from the receiving end.


  50. It's amazing how different people's experiences can be as far as the visible signs of growing up are concerned, Doris.

    Some welcome it with open arms while others are more like Peter Pan, or the female equivalent. They do not want to grow.

    It's hard to feel 'just right' about it, at least not during the process of adolescence.

    Thanks, Doris.

  51. Thanks for clarifying your earlier comments, Frances. I must say you had me puzzled there at first.

    I had thought you were deeply offended that I did not respect Anzac Day or some such thing.

    How clumsy our words can be within the blogosphere, when we do not have the benefit of facial expressions and tone of voice to modulate our cold hard written words.

    Thanks, Frances.

  52. It's funny, once you get past the agony of waiting and wanting to grow up, Nancy, it all seems such a storm in a tea cup, but not at the time.

    Never at the time.

    Thanks, Nancy.

  53. I had no interest in growing up. But the breast thing was interesting. I kept checking it out. Didn't know when it would stop. As it turns out, I got what would be considered a decent rack out of the bargain, much larger than my next-door neighbor to whom it would have been much more important. And it worked for me. When I didn't have enough confidence to accumulate a personality of my own, my breasts carried on their own conversation. It's not the kind of exchange that will carry you into maturity, but it will do in a pinch.

  54. Strange how bodily attributes growing up can become a type of emotional/social currency to get us through Murr. Quite a clash for you between the desire to stay young perhaps and the impetus to grow up.

    Thanks, Murr.

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