- Comment Policy
- Contact Us
By Laura Nessler
My supervisor called me into her office at the end of the day. According to the company “profiles” page, she enjoys going out to eat, playing frisbee golf, and exploring farmers markets on the weekends. I think they created the “profiles” page to give our bosses identities beyond the disembodied voices that answer the “supervisor” line whenever we have questions on the return policy for magnetic drill presses. I also know my supervisor as the one who told me that drinks, snacks, and even coffee are not allowed on our desks. The exception, she noted, was on “Food Fridays.” “Food Fridays” are a monthly event that are about as laid back and fun as the name “Food Fridays” is wacky and creative.
I’d been at this job for only 3 weeks, so this was the only context I had—that my boss spent her Saturdays buying heirloom tomatoes and was responsible for enforcing the anti-snack policy. I brought a pen and paper into the conference room, which either amused or impressed her. I couldn’t tell. I didn’t end up taking any notes, but if I had, the only thing written on the page would have been, “Stop dressing like a slut.” Of course, “slut” was cloaked in phrases like “appropriate appearance” and “giving a professional impression.” Sitting across from this woman who obviously had not signed up to be a mother or middle school hall monitor, I kind of felt sorry for her. How did we both get here? And for me, that was a literal question: How did I get here? I wondered, “How am I violating a dress code that forbids jeans, sleeveless shirts, and shorts, none of which I’d worn to work?” We both wanted out of that room so badly, but I knew I had to ask, or I’d unknowingly do it again.
“Sorry, but how exactly did I—”
“Some of your more ‘low cut tops,’” was her answer.
“Epiphany,” is a word that I’m guilty of overusing, because it always brings to mind something shiny and eccentric, maybe with feathers. But in this situation, it really, truly fit. She means boobs—my boobs! I thought walking back to my desk. It was one of the first and shiniest epiphanies I’d ever had. My boobs, the ones that were tardy but then appeared suddenly at age 23, had apparently turned all my $20 Old Navy sundresses into…“low cut tops.” And here I’d been thinking for all this time that a “low cut top” was something you had to buy on purpose—that it had to be a polyester lycra blend with lots of straps or no straps and always with those annoying hanger loop things that itch when you tuck them into the shirt. I bought a few of those tops back in 8th grade, when I still held out hope that I’d swell into them by the time I was 15, 16, or maybe in time for prom.
I didn’t go to prom. And I was still unable to wear a “low cut top” even after finishing college. Nothing could really be low cut for me, because there was nothing for any shirt to cut into besides skin and bone.
Except when, all of a sudden, there was.
It happened after I graduated from an eating disorder to disordered eating to whatever the fuck I’m doing now. It happened publicly, like it does to most women when they’re 13 or 14, narrated by strangers, acquaintances and close friends. I’d experienced plenty of “woman” things before actually growing into a woman’s body: having sex, identifying fiercely with Tina Fey in Bossypants, and being told not to walk home alone at night. But since acquiring a “shape,” new things started to happen. Catcalls were strangely shocking, but not nearly as distressing as the experience of something not fitting when it did before, something you must ultimately accept as not the dryer’s fault, but yours. And the jeans, shirt, or whatever garment you ask to defy the laws of physics will just calmly stare at you until you admit it (but still refuse to throw it away).
By this point, my mind was already clogged with cautionary tales about the shame of something not fitting, but nobody had warned me about everybody else. Because growing sex organs on your chest (as well as the hips and thighs that come along for the ride) requires you to consider everyone else. This includes co-workers, frenemies, people on the bus, people waiting with you for the bus. How did anybody navigate this when they were 13 and also had Algebra homework to worry about? My job doesn’t assign homework (or require half the analytical thinking I used in Algebra), but I still don’t have the time to figure it out. And that’s with a college degree and Tina Fey on my bookshelf. Going through puberty 10 years after I was supposed to made me no better equipped to deal with it.
I came home from work after my talking-to and announced to my boyfriend that I must look like a sausage bursting out of its casing. During my 90-minute commute home, what I thought of at first as an awkward, kind of hilarious story had morphed into a public shaming. I was ashamed that I was self-sufficient enough to have health insurance (even dental!) but apparently still didn’t know how to dress myself. I was ashamed that I’d offended somebody or a lot of somebodies at my office and made a woman that was practically a stranger utter the phrase “low cut tops.” I was ashamed because I’d forgotten something I knew before I could put it into words: as a woman, your body is merely on loan to you from the public gaze.
When I was younger, I read about anorexia a lot, because I thought it was such a weird, fascinating thing that I certainly did not have (later proven incorrect). I remember seeing the same causes for the disease bullet-pointed over and over again like the causes of WWI regurgitated in history textbooks. But there was always one I didn’t get: Fear of puberty or maturation. Even though I was adamant about not having an eating disorder, and therefore understood none of the causes listed in those books, I really didn’t understand this one. Not wanting to grow up? Not wanting to go to college, develop a taste for martinis, do all they things they talked about on Sex and the City? That, I wanted to tell the so-called experts, just doesn’t make sense.
Except when, all of a sudden, it did.
I’d be lying if I said that this was actually my epiphany in the conference room with my boss—or that I’ve discovered the universal reason why so many girls declare war on their own flesh. But after being forced to reassess my closet the next day before work, scrutinizing necklines and scouring the internet for turtlenecks—I understand the impulse to say “no” to flesh better than I did before. No matter what you wear, you pay a high premium on your flesh in terms of the energy spent presenting it correctly. It’s like car insurance. What logical person wouldn’t at least consider opting out or not getting a car at all?
My supervisor continued to supervise me and answer my questions via the supervisor hotline. She eventually got moved to another department, which I thought would be more of a relief than it was—because of course it wasn’t just her watching me, assessing how well I protected members of the opposite sex from their own carnal desires. In fact, I kind of wish that she’d take me into a conference room again, so I could apologize for causing her so much discomfort. I’d tell her that I know she hadn’t wanted say what she’d said, and ask her, not so literally this time, How did I or how did we get here? I’d also ask, When was the last time you felt at home in your body? And, since she had been, after all, the person responsible for answering my questions 40 hours a week, I’d have her take a crack at this one too, How do we get back to that place again?
Laura Nessler is an essayist, playwright, and student. She’s an Artistic Associate with 20% Theatre Company in Chicago, a feminist theatre company dedicated to producing plays written, directed, and designed by women. Her full-length play Outside Agitators is being produced by 20% this fall. Laura is also pursuing a Masters in Social Work at Loyola University Chicago.