Nostalgia, Carnation Milk and a woman’s body

At the height of summer when our back yard grass was yellow and dry, my sister made ice cream from Carnation evaporated milk. Thick and creamy, it came in tins, pinky-red with a cluster of white, pink, and red carnations on the label. 

Some used Carnation in place of milk in coffee, others in place of cream, but my sister used it to make ice-cream. Frozen in slim rectangular aluminium trays, lined like ice block trays in the freezer when space allowed.

To some batches she added cocoa powder to give the illusion we were eating chocolate ice cream, but in the main she made up trays of white smooth vanilla. 

To describe the taste is to re-enter the past. It was nothing like the shop bought ice-cream I craved. Nothing like those blocks of Peter’s Neapolitan, strips of pink for strawberry, pure white for vanilla and pale brown for chocolate.

Shop bought ice cream was delectable. We argued over who might get the thickest slice whenever my elder sister carved the block into nine. 

Home-made ice cream was not worth fighting over. But it was passable. In the same way Carnation milk became a substitute for the real thing. Condensed milk was another matter.

It travelled in tubes already sweetened and came out glistening like tooth paste, only sticky. A mouth full of the stuff clogged your mouth with such intense sweetness even I, who loved all things containing sugar, gagged. 

Substitutes for foods that hung around until the 1960s and beyond but disappeared in my teens. I have not looked for Carnation Milk in supermarkets today, but I expect it’s still around.

The point is familiar food can be a comfort. Riding on our nostalgia. Or it can become rancid in memory. Rancid to taste, overflowing with cruel associations.

My father took this photo of my mother. How she felt performing it, I will never know.

When I was thirteen and bursting out of my clothes faster than I could keep up with, I first understood the allure of the female form. Something that as a younger child bothered me, Calendars full of naked women in mechanics workshops; a naked bronze Atlas holding the world on his shoulders in a print in my parents’ bedroom, alongside the half-naked Jesus carrying his cross on the way to crucifixion. 

Why all this nakedness? I could not understand. Why were my father’s art books, and his photography journals filled with naked bodies, especially women. The light angled to shine the outline of their breasts and belies, their most often pink and sturdy thighs. 

Why did people want this? To me, bodies were repulsive. Ghastly things that covered our insides, hid our supposedly pure white souls, though I knew mine was pockmarked with black, given all my sins, even after a series of novenas to cleanse it. My soul, as grey as my father’s lungs, given all his smoking. 

One day I borrowed my elder sister’s black turtle necked jumper, ribbed and tight, it fitted her perfectly and would soon fit me at the rate I was growing with breasts that bulged bigger every day. 

At first I hated them. The way they stuck out, nipples like tiny pink plums of flesh with a cherry on top. But on this day I wanted something of the admiration I saw other women receive in the movies. And the boy-man further up the street was the perfect audience. I had seen how he looked at me across the street from his garden where he worked on his parents’ vegetables. Italian migrants, I knew. Only Italian migrants used their front and back yards for vegetables. Tomato plants reached for the sky. Pumpkins trailed the ground, and green beans on lattice stands took the place of otherwise gentle green lawns, standard rose bushes on stalks and flower beds in other people’s houses in our street.

When I walked past, head high, my silhouetted breasts in black thrust forward he was there, pitchfork in hand routing the soil in which to plant Zucchini seeds. I wanted him to see me. To admire me. To long for me, the way I longed, though not yet for someone. Just something outside my reach. Something that could quench the pain inside whenever I walked the streets alone and wondered what would become of me. The pimples erupted later, on my face, back and chest but for now I could forget my face and concentrate on my body for once out of school uniform.

It became a weekend ritual. A secret to me only. Every Saturday afternoon I walked up the street and back down again, on my side of the road opposite his. He stood tall and I could see him look my way. 

Did he cat call? I think not. I hope not. Only now have I learned the problem of cat calling. The problematics of this so-called masculine admiration of women’s bodies that is a claim to ownership via approval ratings. As Kae Manne argues, ‘Cat calling is about surveillance. A man’s approval or otherwise of a woman.’ I did not know this then, but I have been reading Kate Manne’s book Unshrinking on fat phobia and I can see the ways in which already as a thirteen-year-old girl I was exploiting my body for the benefit of others. I was falling into the trap of the objectified woman, admired for her body, for the desires she stirred up in men and enjoying second-hand a sense of false pride. Soon enough it would fade when my body grew disproportionately large, and I entered another phase where I wanted only to hide from view.

‘I shall have nothing to do with boys until I leave school,’ I told my mother one day and basked in her approval. She liked this idea. She wanted me to steer clear of the world of men and sexuality. To be more nun like than the nuns. It relieved her of the burden of worry attendant on any mother whose daughter enters the world of men and misogyny. Not that my mother thought this. Nor did I, not then.

By the time I was fourteen we left inner suburban Camberwell for outer Cheltenham by the beach and my promenades up Wentworth Avenue to catch the eye of the Italian boy of dark skin and brown eyes were over. 

In my memory, he wrote me a letter one day. One which I found in our letter box. Lucky I found it and not someone else. Addressed to the girl in black jumper or some such. But how?

Memory plays tricks on us. Maybe he handed it to me. Maybe I let myself move over to his side of the street or he bolted across to give it to ne. I treasured this letter. It spoke of wanting to meet. 

I put it under my pillow but not before I made the mistake of showing it to my two years younger sister who hated it. She hated the way I was changing. Not just in body. Now at the senior school while she was still at the primary school with other younger siblings, and I had joined the ranks of the sophisticated. 

She would soon join me and excel in the beauty and objectification stakes while I pulled away and hid behind my uniform more and more. But then she was jealous. She took my letter and tore it into pieces before I had a chance to savour its contents. Then we moved house. And the boy became a memory along with that time in my life when I first tingled with the allure of the female form and felt momentarily good about my body, until it became too much.

Kate Manne writes about the sense as women we often feel we are too much. The complicated mix of trying to get our bodies right for the male gaze by adjusting what we take on to a minimum for fear of getting fat. And we get caught up in notions of our bodies as proof of our moral virtue. The moralism of fat phobia crowds our thinking minds, and we become objects to be valued or devalued as befits our audience. No longer a person of value.

And the Carnation milk of my childhood, on the list of things we should not consume for fear of what it might do to our already too much, too fulsome bodies, no longer features on the shelves of supermarkets. It’s preserved, not fresh, with all the vilification that goes into things that can linger too long on the shelf.