|BWS Stories - "You're So Vain"...Celebrating Physical Changes|
"You're So Vain"...Celebrating Physical Changes - Duck and Cover
Maria Bruno was born in 19XX. She lives in Alma, Michigan. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Duck and Cover
In eighth grade during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis, my P.E. teacher Miss Jean taught us field hockey first hour. She ordered us into the showers naked after every class. Even if I tried to wrap the too-small gymnasium towel around me, she’d grab it, deducting two points in her grade book. “Make sure you get good and wet, Bruno,” she’d say, ushering me in like a prison guard in one of those B movies. Some girls stood naked without a care in the world. They would suds themselves all over, giggle, and even hum a Bobby Rydell tune. I stood frozen and mortified facing the cold tiles and shower spray. No Philadelphia sound bubbled from my lips. It was more like a Wagnerian opera with spears and angst and someone named Brunhilda sporting thick blonde braids and a horned helmet snapping me with her towel.
I was inconsolable at that moment, yet I wasn’t as bad off as Vivian Zonderpaat. She yearned for pubic hair so much that she cut a triangle swatch from the stuffed poodle that she won at Edgewater Park the summer before and glued it to her pubic area. She had hoped to appear more grown up and escape the glares of the popular girls, Muffy and Boo. But as fate would have it in this pre-Super Glue universe, the water got too hot, the swatch fell to the floor, and Vivian stood in tears watching what was left of the poodle slide slowly towards the drain while her high school career went with it. My thighs and pendulous breasts escaped scrutiny that day as Muffy and Boo destroyed what was left of Vivian’s self- esteem by nicknaming her “Zondepooch,” a label that stuck for years. A decade later when I saw the movie Carrie, I envisioned Vivian, heavy into telekinesis, blowing up the prom, carefully firebombing Muffy and Boo’s ratted beehive hairdos for giving her a nickname that stuck until graduation.
After the shower incident, Vivian walked slowly through the halls, head down, her books held tightly against her small breasts. She had become more careful, as if any false move would signal the attack dogs, Muffy and Boo, two girls with an enormous sense of entitlement. They had perfect blonde hair sprayed tightly into flips that pointed towards the heavens, as if they were given divine permission to become ranking generals in the Beauty Wars. Vivian could not even look at me, a perceived co-conspirator who had witnessed the event, even though I had my own crosses to bear in the locker room.
It was never easy trying to take a shower wrapped in a towel while the other girls danced freely underneath the water, at ease in their own bodies like those beach bunnies in Beach Blanket Bingo. Oh, how I wanted to do the frug in Malibu wearing a madras bikini while Frankie Avalon wooed me with a love song. In my fantasy I was always Annette Funicello, slender, ethnic, and brunette, awaiting my big duet in the third act. But in reality I was always trapped in that German opera waiting for Brunhilda to discover something unforgivable, like a pocked thigh the size of a toddler. This, of course, could be punishable by death or unpopularity—death by Hessian spear my fate of choice. I tried to smile when Vivian walked by to let her know that I understood her pain, even though I guiltily admit that I was grateful I had escaped the wrath of the blonde harridans that day.
I have spent a lifetime consumed by body worry, so I fully understood Vivian’s angst. Mine is the predictable story of a chubby ethnic brunette whose parents moved her to an upscale Detroit suburb where it seemed that the little girls, even at the age of eight, resembled Aryan goddesses worshipped by the adoring male masses. I had wild frizzy hair and freckles. I was picked absolutely last for kickball, crushed weekly in dodge ball, and taunted by the snot-nosed Larry Pinnazo. He used to joke that a walk around me was like “a walk around the equator.” My own mother showed palpable disdain, taking me to the chubby department at Lane Bryant to buy me plain brown dresses as punishment for betraying the cultural script of beauty and femininity.
My mother grew up very beautiful; her daughter did not. To her it was like a fairy tale gone bad—the ancient Chinese parent with the big-footed daughter. She was from the Old World where being marriageable meant everything for a female. She wasn’t sure what to do with me. Since my parents were lapsed Catholics, she could not even entertain the thought of getting me to a nunnery if my chances of marriage diminished even further. There at the Shrine of the Perpetual Guilt, the Mother Superior, a very rigid Sister Agnes, could put me through rehab and make me into a nun the very thin and angular Audrey Hepburn could play in a movie. Sister Agnes would start me on the straight and narrow, deprive me of carbohydrates and sugar, and put me in a small gray room with only a crucifix and a boiled wool blanket. There I could self flagellate and contemplate my digression from the beauty ideal.
To make things worse, Barbie was invented when I was 10. She had those turbo-jet breasts, flat stomach, and feet forever molded to wear high heels. She also had no vagina, a fact I mentioned to my cousin Martyne, the only girl in our mostly Italian neighborhood that owned a Barbie.
“She doesn’t need one,” Martyne argued. “She’s perfection.”
It was like worshipping a Virgin Mary wearing stilettos and sequins.
It should be noted here that Martyne never weighed more than 110 pounds her entire life, always wore a bikini, and married well according to my mother. He was an aeronautical engineer who went to the University of Michigan and still has all his hair.
While Martyne ate salads, I was sneaking Lorna Doones and Hostess Cupcakes. When I was particularly upset, I ate sugar cereal in huge sticky clumps and made Tony the Tiger my own personal God.
And it wasn’t easy growing up with the last name of Bruno either. It seemed like all the Brunos back then were either sitcom Nazi generals, Mafiosos from Palermo, or sleek Dobermans owned by security companies. Once, Larry Pinnazo joked I kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. Worst of all, there was Bruno the Magnificent on Detroit’s Midnight Wrestling. A pre-anabolic steroid hunk, Bruno the Magnificent had a neck as thick as a thigh. His large body filled our small, thirteen-inch, black and white screen like a Saturday matinee monster. I’d stay up at night to watch, knowing full well the kids at school would torment me on Monday morning. “Hey, Bruno,” they’d say, “how’s your half nelson?”
Whenever I’d hear a remark at school, I’d rush home and challenge at least three bowls of Frosted Flakes and several glasses of Welch’s grape juice. Then I’d sneak off to the A&P and buy a ten-cent pack of cupcakes, breaking each one in half and slurping enthusiastically on the sugary white filling as if it was some kind of restorative.
One day, old Mrs. Sneed, a stern and Waspish neighbor straight out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, told my mother I slurped on the sidewalk and since I had “such a pretty face,” shouldn’t she be watching what I was eating?
After that, food became more of an issue in my childhood. My mother really cared a lot about what people thought, so she started checking my pockets for candy wrappers and my mohair sweaters for Twinkie crumbs. She also wanted an itemized account of what I did with my weekly allowance of 50 cents.
I saw The Tingler,” I’d say, alternating it with The Blob when necessary. “And I didn’t buy any Jujubes.”
I’m not sure she ever believed me, and old Mrs. Sneed still peeked out of her window every time I walked by. I could see her gray hair springing from a hairnet, her yam nose separating the turquoise fiberglass drapes, her skinny teeth wearing little yellow cardigans. Some days I’d buy a fudge bar and position myself in front of her house, licking it slowly as if there were no tomorrow. Or I’d stand there, look her in the eye, and unwrap a Scooter Pie, tossing the cellophane wrapper ever so lightly on her newly sodded lawn. Manicured lawns were really big back then and this act of insubordination was tantamount to Bruno the Doberman squatting and leaving a little gift himself.
“So you were eating a Scooter Pie,” my mother asked me as she hung up the phone. My brother Anthony was sitting in the room eating crusts of Italian bread from Lombardy’s, dipping them into a thick red sauce. I wondered why he was allowed to eat and nobody cared. He could have been on Midnight Wrestling for real. He played varsity football and was a growing boy. While my mother grabbed a sweet dessert from my hands, he would fill a big noodle pot with Wheaties and one quart of milk and pour it into his mouth instead of using a spoon. While Anthony loomed large, it was if she wanted to pare me down.
The week of the Vivian Zonderpaat episode we were to have daily duck and cover exercises just like we had in elementary school years before. Mr. Dowell, our history teacher, stood before us every seventh hour for five days and shouted “duck and cover” like a military commando bracing for the final showdown. He was a sloppy looking man with hair in his ears and nostrils. He was all doughy and round and clearly no warrior for the nuclear age. I felt large, clumsy, and destined for certain death because I couldn’t fit completely under the desk. Mr. Dowell walked by with a yardstick nudging my protruding buttocks, a prime target for the onset of radiation poisoning. But I always showed signs of resistance during childhood and adolescence, so Mr. Dowell’s disapproval did not bother me. I managed to release myself momentarily from the duck and cover position just in time to trip him on his return down the aisle.
I’ll never forget that one week with Cuba and the Russians, Vivian’s humiliation, and Mr. Dowell nudging me into submission as if I were a beached whale. Something had changed in me forever.
I wish I could say my life took a turn somewhere and I had rid myself of all this low self-esteem and distorted body image, but that was not the case. I wish I could say Vivian Zondepaat became a famous poet and lived in the East Village. Although, thanks to Miss Jean’s shower regulations, I discovered she had grown pubic hair by her senior year. I never saw her again after that.
Like most women from my generation, I’ve lived a lifetime of body worry and devoted too much creative time and energy fretting over my biological destiny. Even though I became a writer and a professor, I’m still struggling with that inner child that never quite leaves me. Once in a while, I sneak down a cereal aisle or seek out a pack of Hostess cupcakes, which seem smaller now, the sugary fillings almost tasteless. I was not wholly defeated by these body politics and went on to teach my daughters, despite the negative messages in popular culture, to have healthier attitudes about their own bodies. I also teach a women’s studies course every year and challenge my students to rethink the reading of female bodies in terms of power and strength.
My mother, who has lost most of her sight, still feels the need to correct me in terms of my weight, staring mournfully at the span of my hips as if they signaled a major failure in her life. Much to her puzzlement, I did marry well, the second time around, to a man who has all his hair and who loves me. She would have never predicted it.