The code word was perfect: obscure enough so that the boys couldn’t decipher it, but not so strange that it would attract the attention of our teachers. In the lunch line, we were giggling by the shelves of Cheetos and Funyuns, pointing at the girl a few steps ahead:
“Look, look,” I said, motioning to the back of her white t-shirt. “Her walrus is showing.”
Walrus. For a group of fourth graders, that was the most creative code word we could come up with for “bra.” We were at the point in elementary school when some students doubled in height overnight, when a small fraction of the boys grew little hairs above their lips and when a few of the girls started using pads. It was the early stages of puberty, so we were immature — which perhaps made the environment all the more conducive for words like “walrus.”
Looking back, I think our teasing came from fear; we couldn’t even bring ourselves to say the word of something so unknown, so intimidating. As a small, flat-chested tomboy, I dreaded any change that indicated womanhood, despite the long, sometimes awkward conversations I had with my mom about puberty. I feared the inevitable truth that as I approached middle school, my body would start changing, morphing into an unfamiliar shape with foreign characteristics, whether it be hair or boobs or extra fat somewhere.
When my mom suggested I get my first “bra” — and I put it in quotes because, as many women reading this would know, it was literally a piece of unsupportive fabric — I agreed only because it had started to feel uncomfortable playing soccer without one. But in the line at Dunham’s Sports, I hid behind my mom, embarrassed, while the cashier laughed affectionately and scanned the tag on a small blue training bra.
I resisted puberty because I didn’t want to grow up, but at the time I didn’t know what growing up really meant, in terms of my body. Even in eighth grade, when I spent an hour in the principal’s office after breaking dress code, waiting for my mom to bring me longer shorts, or during freshman year of high school, when a male friend groped my butt at the homecoming dance, I didn’t make the realization that to be a woman means to have two bodies at once.
The first body is the mechanistic kind. It is the one we have known since childhood; its job is to function. This body breathes, it cries, sometimes it is injured or tired. It kicks soccer balls, chases siblings, eats burritos and takes naps. I am grateful not to have to think about mine all that much — it is mostly just a vessel to carry me throughout my day. At the age of 21, I’m this body, and only this body, in rare moments: when I’m alone or with my family. It is only then that my body’s existence is not under the survey of outward eyes.
The second body is the one that comes with puberty; it is the body of sex. This is the body that ends up existing for other people — for their observation, for their pleasure — whether we want it to or not. This body is a tool that we can enhance with the right pair of jeans or a snug-fitting shirt; we can use it to wield power over straight men. At the age of 21, I know that I can rarely turn off this body. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing tennis, buying groceries or out with friends — my moving through space is wedded to the male gaze.
Coming to understand my second body was much more subtle than the experience of puberty. At some point, I went from resisting growing up to feeling like I had to rush to get there. Much of high school was a confused effort to attract attention through my body, which was slow to develop. But why? Whether it was from what I saw on TV, from what older girls told me or even a slight biological inclination, somehow I automatically began using my body to wield sexual attention from men, even though it was unclear what I wanted from that attention.
I remember buying a push-up bra but not really understanding why that was important or what I wanted it to lead to. Why did I want the boys in my Spanish class to see more of my boobs? Maybe I just wanted to be cool, and I thought their approval would validate me. But why did I think the only way to get noticed was through my body? And why was my metric for self-esteem based on my physical appearance, specifically that of my sexuality?
Of course, high school is a time when many young people begin exploring their sexuality, and along the way, we are bound to try things that might seem stupid or embarrassing later on. In reality, my wearing a push-up bra to Spanish class was definitely not as deep as it seems now. But the fact that as a high schooler who wasn’t experienced, fully interested or ready to have sex, I still had the subconscious motivation to display my body for attention is slightly disturbing to me now. It shows how pervasive the idea is that a woman’s worth is determined by her sexual appeal and how the process of using — and maybe misusing — the second body starts off at a young age.
What has changed for me, now a college senior, is more so my mindset than my actions. If I choose to use my second body, I do so knowing I am confident in myself and my sexuality and I can understand the motivations behind what I do, wear or say. My second body is no longer just for others to enjoy, or under their control — it is under mine.
I can also now understand that sometimes we want to use our second bodies to attract attention. Maybe it’s for the same reasons as before — for validation, self-worth — but maybe it’s also to reclaim power. When men reduce us to one dimension and for a few purposes — bodies for sex, childbirth, motherhood — perhaps we want to expose how that male gaze and its supposed superiority are so sensitive and easily manipulated. Maybe we want to show how fickle the idea is that men are always in control, that their gaze intimidates and traps us. Maybe we want to say: No, it is you that is simple.
And yet, as I write these words and think these thoughts, I falter, I worry. I fear I am trying to justify behavior that still results in objectification and degradement. But then, I wonder if I am placing blame where there should be none. I have no ill judgements toward women who wield the power of their second body when they want to, nor do I feel any self-directed shame when I think back to the times I’ve done the same. But it’s difficult not to question if, for straight women, this choreographed dance between our second bodies and men is truly something we want or if it’s something we’ve been trained to want. In the balance of something as delicate as power, which can quickly inverse or disappear, it is hard to know what actions are truly autonomous and which are conditional to a long-standing patriarchy.
As I did when I was a fourth grader confused about why my friend had to wear a “walrus,” I went to my mom for advice and answers on the second body. Our conversation was long as always, but this time, it was not awkward. I watched as she sat on the couch, decades of her own memories as a woman flashing in her mind. She offered a piece of advice, one that provided maybe the only way to find solace in the complicated reality of being a woman: “Just do whatever the hell you want.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.