I’m 11 when I first feel an unusual tenderness and slight swelling on my chest. It happens by accident when my hand grazes my nipple and sets little ripples of thunderbolt across my body. The pain is sudden. The discomfort, unmistakable. I know what it is because my friends and I endlessly discuss it in whispers at break time. I just didn’t think mine would come so soon. It can’t be. I tell myself, trying to focus on the face of the teacher who is busy writing an arithmetic sequence formula on the blackboard. I’m unsettled but I resist the urge to call my friend who sits in row behind and tell her. I rub my hand across my nipple again, just to make sure. Still, the unmistakable soreness around the little lumps makes my body shiver.
I am growing breasts.
In the end, I don’t tell my friend. Instead, I excuse myself from class and dash to a latrine in the boarding section. Breathlessly, I latch the latrine door, yank off my sweater, and lift my checkered frock. That is when I see them for the first time, little sore buds popping up from the flesh around my nipples. I blink.
My breasts are growing. I loathe breasts. I don’t want to be a woman. Not yet. What can one do to postpone this womanhood that is coming to me at 100 km/h? Why can’t it wait until I am ready?
The four brick walls of the latrine buckle and close in on me. The pungent smell of detergent is heavy in the air. I don’t care. I just want to die. I lean on the latrine wall and close my eyes. “Dear God, please don’t let them grow. I want a flat chest, not a mountain, I can’t handle the embarrassment. Please.” I press my nipples hard, willing the buds to go back into my skin, to wherever they came from. I welcome the pain because it is associated with something I don’t want. Penance, my mind says. My pain is delicious. My pain holds fear and anger and uncertainty about the undesirable thing I’m becoming. I want the four brick walls of the latrine to close in on me. Someone knocks on the door. I don’t respond. I’m thinking about how being a girl is already difficult enough. The slaps and scolding I get whenever I sit ‘badly’ and show parts of my body come to mind.
Must I become a woman? Can I choose not to become one, just yet?
The tears come when I leave the latrine and sit on a patch of grass near the rusty clothesline. The pain in my heart stays. The breasts also stay. And grow. I wear my sweater to hide them even though the afternoons are sweltering. I also acquire a slight stoop because I’m trying to hide them. A week goes by. A month. I speak to my body but it ignores me. It seems as if my body doesn’t speak the language of humans. Perhaps it speaks the language of the gods. I immediately start to pray. Finding time to pray is easy because my school is a Catholic girls’ boarding school and we hold daily compulsory prayers. We even pray novenas in the classroom during exam season.
What my friend Cathy said
I pull my friend Cathy aside at lunchtime and sob. “How can my own body betray me like this? How could breasts fist into sore lamps overnight? How could they just do what they want inside a body I consider mine? Who wants pawpaws bouncing on their chest? Or mangoes that will grow overripe and bruised?” Cathy laughs her easy, careless laughter. She laces her hand in mine and looks me hard in the eye. “Shhh quiet, people will hear. Don’t worry, maybe you will be lucky and grow only guavas. Those ones are small and tight, you won’t look too funny.” I yank my hand away from hers. She clearly doesn’t understand because her chest is still flat. Her eyes fall when I tell her so and she laughs again and says, “Woman, one who fist fights a wall shall break their hand.” Woman?
What Mama said
I am 10. It is a Saturday morning and my sister and I are sitting on the bed in our little room, writing our homework. Yesterday, during the CRE lesson at school, we learnt about Mary carrying baby Jesus. I am supposed to read Luke 1 Vs 26-33 aloud to my parents. I like to read. So, I get the Bible and run to the kitchen. Mama is deep frying mandazi in hot oil. “Mama, can I read to you? It is part of my homework.” Mama nods. I start, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth…”. I read on and on until I reach the word womb. My voice falters. I stutter. The word dries up in my mouth and I pretend not to know how to read it. My mind tells me this is a dirty word. My tongue refuses to curl around it. Mama puts the steaming ladle down and asks why I stopped. I mumble. I stutter. I tell her I don’t know how to read the word. She doesn’t believe me. She knows me too well. She lets me know that I’m a good reader and a simple word like ‘womb’ can’t be difficult for me. I swallow hard. She is right. The only reason I can’t read that word is because it fills me with unexplainable shame. Mama gets a cane and gives me a good hiding for my ‘bad’ thoughts. I abandon my homework and weep for hours. Who taught me shame? Who taught a 10-year-old to associate some parts of a woman’s body with shame?
What Mama didn’t say
I don’t forget the ‘womb’ incident, so when the breasts come, of course I don’t tell Mama. I can’t dare to go to her with another ‘dirty’ word and risk a hiding. Mama and I don’t talk about dirty things like breasts, or girlhood, or womanhood. We don’t talk about boys either. So, when I notice my breasts budding, I don’t tell her. I keep the secret to myself. I wrestle with my bodily changes alone. I live inside thick pullovers every day, sun or rain. Weekday or weekends. I try to read little books grandmother squeezes into my hands when we visit her on weekends. But grandmother’s little books refer to a girl’s body as “secret” and “flower” and for a reason I don’t understand, I find those words annoying. The other reason I abandon the little books is because they aren’t as exciting as the James Hadley Chase and Harlequin Romance I’ve begun reading.
Mama does that creepy thing all mothers in the universe do, she reads my mind and just knows. We don’t have the conversation. She doesn’t ask me anything but one day, she comes back home with a bunch of camisoles and little boob tops. Mama doesn’t say, “now you are becoming a woman.” Mama doesn’t say, “this is how to feel about those little sprouts on your chest.” Mama doesn’t say, “a woman should love her breasts and this is how to begin loving your breasts.” She just hands me the bag containing the camisoles and boob tops and leaves me to my own devices.
What other women told me
My breasts come with unnecessary attention, unsolicited advice, endless warnings from aunts, Mama’s friends, female teachers, neighbors, even the hairdresser who hot combs my hair with a red-hot metal comb straight from hot charcoal has something to say on the dangers of breast and other horrible things that will happen to me soon. “Just wait, you will see for yourself.”
“You now have breasts, so don’t play with boys, if you do, you will see.”
“A whole woman with breasts behaving like a small child?”
“Now you have breasts, you can become pregnant.”
I roll my eyes at them but they just suck their teeth and go on. I knew the breasts would come with threats but I now know something else; that as my body changes, what I mean to other people also changes.
Sit like a girl
When you are a woman, it is easy to hate your body early on because people’s comments teach you that a womanly body is a burden. Even before you learn to kiss a boy or have a period, you come to know your body as a shameful thing to be frowned upon and covered. In their own ways, these women teach me how fear rules this female body and how I need to live with that. They pick from the scars on their own bodies to show me a testament of how difficult it is to be a woman.
Just a few months after my breasts begin to fill up, my head is crammed with voices that scold me and instruct me to cover up, shut my legs, and ‘sit like a girl.’ No one seems to care that I’m quite the tomboy, that I prefer to fold my knees and lie on my chest, or fold my legs as I read. No one even asks what I think of these breasts that complicate my body. No one knows how much I hate this visible reminder that I need to behave in a particular manner because puberty has adorned me with yet another womanly attire of shame. Another shackle of doom. I end up hating my breasts even before they grow into ripe guavas or squeaky pawpaws, little lemons or huge melons.
What Norah Ephron said
In her popular essay, A Few Words About Breasts, Nora Ephron writes, “I suppose that for most girls, breasts, brassieres, that entire thing, has more trauma, more to do with the coming of adolescence, with becoming a woman, than anything else.”
Story of my life.
They find you everywhere. In the playground at break time. In the home science room during needlework. But mostly, you hear them when you are lying on your thin 6X6 spring bed after games, just before the supper bell rings. Whose breasts are the largest. Whose chest is flat as a field. Whose breasts are round and who has drooping ones? Who has the ugliest breasts and whose breasts are so hot the PE teacher can’t help but drool? The older girls seem to love breasts. We the younger ones are looking for ways to stunt their growth but nobody knows the remedy for stopping growing breasts. A girl in class 7 says to lie on the stomach immediately your breasts become sore. I try it out but instead of flattening my breasts, I feel a lot of pain and my nipples feel as though someone has rubbed stinging nettle on them. We say many things but our bodies don’t listen to rumours. They rebel and change without our permission.
Things girls say to each other
Someone has an idea for those who want bigger breasts. “If you let boys touch your breasts, your nipples will swell and everyone will know that you let a boy touch your boobs. It is not a lie; I swear one God. Try it and see.”
“Shut your mouth, it is easy to talk about breasts when you have the Nyika plateau on your chest. Ha.”
The agony in the garden
Evening prayers. We are kneeling on wet Kikuyu grass in the church compound, facing the grotto and counting our prayer beads as we recite the first sorrowful mystery—the agony in the garden. My lips move in sync with the other students and my hands touch the rosary beads as we say the Hail Marys that accompany the Joyful Mysteries. By the time we recite the third Oh My Jesus, I feel as though the hunger in my stomach will kill me. To forget it, I screw my eyes and stare at the life-size image of mother Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. For the first time, I notice the soft mounds rising from her chest. My mind jumps. Even her? Was Mary also ashamed of her breasts? Did she struggle with her womanhood like I am? Did her aunts shame her because of budding breasts?
A weekend church teaching about mortal sins a while later convinces me that I’ve committed a mortal sin by thinking of Mother Mary’s breasts. I feel eternally damned. I am terrified of burning in purgatory because of my mortal sin and devastated that I’ve been separated from the grace of God forever. Hadn’t the PPE teacher told us that in hell, the little finger burns for eternity and eternity? To atone myself, I go to confession even though I am not Catholic and the priest tells me to go and say 20 Hail Marys.
The sisters of Mary nuns at the convent inside our school quote endless biblical verses and beg us to cover up our breasts, like good Christians. The devil shouldn’t use us to tempt men. Their words further cement my belief that the female body is an undesirable thing, an ugly thing to be despised. Just as in history books of old about the rise of Christianity, breasts and the flesh are terrible, sinful things that women shouldn’t expose.
What the school says
Little crucifixes hang on the front of our classroom. Hallways and classes in our school are filled with songs of praise to Mama Maria, Jesus’ mother. A woman. And yet. Our strict, nun-run school doesn’t hide the fact that it hates breasts.
I begin to notice things.
Does our school leadership hate breasts or is it my imagination?
Do the teachers scold big-breasted girls harder and longer?
The female teachers look senior girls in the faces and dare them, “Munadhani nyinyi ndio wa kwanza kumea matiti” You think you are the first people to grow breasts? Lower primary pupils giggle. My stoop worsens and I wear my sweater everywhere.
While fighting over whose turn it is to fetch water from the boarding section borehole, someone calls another ‘immoral’ because of the size of her breasts. A fight ensues. There are slaps, tears and threats. Offenders are made to kneel on the grass in the academic paddocks and write apology letters to the class teacher.
During lent, when the nuns lecture us about giving up something for the Lord, I give up meat and again, pray for the breasts to disappear. I get hungry almost all the time but I do what I must. Mother Mary doesn’t answer my prayers. The breasts keep growing. I bulk and fold under the shame of these new additions to my body. I stoop further and resemble a young coconut palm in a blizzard. My body speaks a foreign language as it grows and expands.
Breasts, Boob Tops and Britney Spears
The day before we leave for home, washing desk day, girls freely walk around the boarding section with bras and boob tops. Cheeky girls playfully snap the bra straps of other girls and we laugh. There is no more shame. The awareness of other girls’ experiences forces me to confront my biases. Perhaps breasts aren’t that bad. I no longer want to be alone. I want to be part of the crowd. To belong.
It is my friend Nelly who first mentions the cool ‘boob tops’ everyone is wearing these days. It is also Nelly who says we’ll go to the open-air market and get our own cool boob tops. I nod. Next term, we will show these Nairobians fire. Early the next day, we snatch our pink report cards from teachers, wave goodbye and run to the school gate. At home, we find new trends waiting and immediately begin watching TV music shows and cutting out song lyrics in the Pop-Stop section of the Nation newspapers to make a song book. KTN’s Channel-O videos haunt us and I pray that a particular boy I like will tape romantic songs and give them to me. All the funky boys are doing that for the girls they like and we are all jealous of pretty Sue, the annoying girl who holds her big chest and pouts her sexy lips in imaginary kissing as she listens to the VCR tapes from all the area boys. Nelly says Sue has sex appeal because of her big breasts. Boys seep into our conversations more and more. Aaliyah, Eternal Kittens, Spice Girls and TLC seep into our conversations too. Breasts, not so much anymore, until I watch Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time and see cool boob tops then watch it again—at least twenty times, coveting the hot pink boob top she is wearing.
Nelly and I end up visiting the open-air market and rummaging through second hand clothes in an effort to find cool boob tops like Britney Spears’. We buy outrageous orange and green and purple and hot pink bikini tops that we will never wear. The bras Mama bought me remain in my drawer, untouched and untouchable. I have found my own way to love my breasts.
What Zita’s Papa did
Back at school, a Kenyan-Congolese student who has never seen her soldier father is called to the Deputy Principal’s office one sweltering Saturday afternoon. Her father has come! The news spreads out in the boarding section and we jump down from our rickety beds, tear through long, detergent-smelling corridors, and go watch the pair reunite. We hide behind trimmed bougainvillea bushes that look like afros to peep at them.
A talented actress at the annual class competitions, Zita does not let her talents go to waste. The moment her father introduces himself, she screams, jumps on him, and ignores the deputy principal’s pleas of “Disembark, disembark this minute or else …” She cries for thirty good minutes and I feel my own tears balancing in my eyes. When she stops crying, her father points at the bags and bags of shopping he has brought her. Usually, the deputy headteacher is supposed to inspect the shopping to see if there are any contrabands, but he takes one look at the army man with four little stars on his impeccable brown uniform and thinks better of it. Instead, he calls a couple of pupils to help Zita carry the boxes of shopping to cube A in St. Jude Thaddeus dormitory.
The rumor mills in the school explode. We all find flimsy reasons to visit our friends who sleep in Jude Thaddeus and stare at Cube A as we pass.
In the dining hall, we gasp when someone at Table One describes the fancy, lace bras and panties that Zita’s father bought her. Bras? Panties? Do fathers now buy bras and panties for their daughters? Do bras and panties come in lace?
B is for Desire
There is a terrible joke about a millionaire who met four women with different sets of qualities: brilliance, beauty, money savviness, and charm. The joke goes that when asked to pick one woman to be his wife, the millionaire picked the woman with the biggest breasts. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Boys, tadpoles, and breast fetishes
Just like that, the male gaze sets in when I begin to hear mumbles and giggles in the school paddocks. The nuns still accompany our lessons with shrill Oh Virgin Fair, Star of the Sea songs and warnings about fleeing ungodly desires. We don’t listen. Just like that, breasts become sacred and it is boys we want to hear from. Boys who have the uncanny ability to turn a girl’s folded, distended flesh into a desirable thing.
Breasts become fetishes. Yo-yo playthings for boys who the older girls say, know just how to squeeze and play with them. They cease being unpleasant, embarrassing burdens and become beautiful, desirable things. My adoration of Dolly Parton triples, but it isn’t simply for her golden voice. Popular girls all seem to have big breasts now, even prefects. On academic, sports and drama outings, it is the endowed girls who are whistled at whenever they stand to make presentations. They, who receive cat calls.
I don’t know it yet but I’m already getting lessons on the power of the male gaze, and the categories it gives to breasts. I learn that there are good breasts and bad breasts. Good breasts are well-rounded and full like the bum of a healthy baby. Bad breasts are sad and droopy and too shy to look up so they bow and stare at the navel … forever. My confidence falters, do I have the right breasts? If not, what can I do to get them?
It is no longer the women in my life who hold opinions on how my body ought to be. There is a new sheriff in town.
Fantastic Four, Superheroes and Strange men
The first time I go on a proper movie date is in 2005. I am 17. I just cleared high school and the world is mine for the taking. I even feel ready to love and be loved. The boy who takes me to the movies is called J, he is soft spoken and shy and we met at the last English language symposium just before we sat our final examination. He is so serious about us. He lets me know that he has talked to an uncle who works at a fancy, romantic restaurant above the cinema hall we are going to. The uncle promised to reserve a table for us; we will dine there after the movie. After the lights go out and the movie starts, I feel someone touch my breasts. J is holding my hand and so, it is definitely not him. I turn angrily and see a middle-aged man of Indian descent. Our eyes meet but he doesn’t look away so I lower my gaze. He must consider that a surrender on my part and a win on his, because he doesn’t stop rubbing my breasts. I am too ashamed to tell J about it so I don’t. I just sit there watching Fantastic Four and enduring the annoying rubs on my skin by this shameless stranger. From then on, cinema halls will always remind me of superheroes and strange men rubbing my breasts with their arms.
Babies’ food or a scandal for patriarchy?
In 2018, a mother identified as Betty Kim was reportedly humiliated at the restaurant located on Accra Road in Nairobi because she was breastfeeding a child in the restaurant. Thanks to social media, protests erupted. Someone even called on all lactating mothers in the city to pay a visit to the restaurant and let them know that such discrimination is unacceptable and intolerable.
As I ruminated over this piece of information, I couldn’t help but wonder whose gaze transformed that woman’s breasts from mammary glands to sexual organs and thus created ‘shame.’ As far as babies are concerned, my take is that breasts are a means of nourishment and fertility, not sexual things. This same thought crossed my mind when my sister narrated to me how, after she gave birth, the nurses attending to her quarreled with her simply because she couldn’t produce milk. It seems as though, regardless of place or time, anti-feminine views seep into our lives. “The stigma against female nudity is something that costs women the world over very dearly,” writes Conor Friedersdorf in an article about a Canadian seventh grader who killed herself when a picture of her breasts was circulated among her friends and family after an online stranger she had chatted with took a screenshot of her breasts. Truer words have never been uttered.
In the years since those liberating TV songs, I have given up on the idea of perfect breasts, freed myself from the yokes of expectations, and developed a healthy relationship with my body. Now in my 30s, I feel at home in the castle of my skin and have learned to overlook prevailing social norms and to question societal narratives and attitudes towards the female body. This decision to fiercely love my body is an ongoing exercise in resisting and unlearning harmful cultures. As Chimamanda Adichie aptly put it, “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”
While vacationing in 2021, I made a friend from India. We immediately hit it off and decided to meet at a mall in the city the next day and shop together. Our first stop was at a Victoria’s Secret store and we walked in and spent time picking out brassieres. In the purple light of the fitting rooms, I watched the fitters whisked off my friend to one end of the store and I to another. Separately, we tried on fancy brassieres and took a million selfies. My style is always colorful, playful, lacy, and bold. And though my taste got more outrageous with each new brassier I picked, I found every shape and design I sought. Playful bras and bold bras and lace bras and … and …
I ended up parting with an obscene amount of money for a few brassieres, my favorite being a pink and orange one with a crossed back design and a front hook (how convenient!). Whenever I wear it, I don’t have to stretch my hands to my back in yoga-like bra-unhooking fumbles. My friend picked a beautiful bra to go with a fancy dinner dress her sister had bought her. The fitters and I oohed and aaahed when she tried it on with the dress. It was a perfect fit and we told her so. Walking out of the store, we, women from continents that are worlds apart, felt confident and content, for our breasts weren’t too big or too small. They were the right and perfect sizes.
About the Author:
Gloria Mwaniga is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya and a recipient of the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship. Her writing has appeared in The White Review, The Johannesburg Review of Book, The Nation and elsewhere.
*Featured image by Serena Rubbi on Unsplash