“Getting an ‘F’ in Biology”

Getting an ‘F’ in Biology

By Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, November 12, 2006

“The first time I heard about the pencil test, I wasn’t even remotely tempted to try it.

I’d read about it in a book.

The 13-year-old protagonist and her friends went off in secret to try to hold a pencil horizontally under a breast. If the pencil stayed, you were officially a woman, with all the attendant glories. If the pen-cil dropped, you could denounce the test and pencils and the patriarchal system. Despite these alluring options, I didn’t attempt it. I knew that the pencil test for me would be as academic as the name implied.

I would fail this test. I was 10.

Things began to change profoundly a few years later. When I turned 13, you could have made a life-size model of me from one-inch dowels and a cantaloupe for a head. But by the time I was 14, it would have taken a couple more trips to the produce mart.

So when a friend recently reminded me about the pencil test, I looked around my room for a more challenging test object, given the dimensions of a pencil vis-a-vis the dimensions of me. One at a time, I passed the tests of: a bottle of vitamins, an unopened can of soda, a light bulb, the board game Boggle (in its box), a high-heeled shoe, a one-pound box of Wheat Chex, a set of “Veronica Mars” DVDs, an apple, an 18-ounce can of Lysol and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban , hardcover (448 pages).

It was a fun afternoon, a great moment for me and my breasts, working together toward a common goal. We don’t always get along so well.

I’d been thinking evil things about them because of a shock I’d recently had. My housemate Christina noticed that my bra wasn’t fitting (yes, a house full of college women is pretty much exactly as you picture it). It’s not a comment you hear very often. I contended that, yes, it did fit. But no, as she exhorted me to look at it for half a second, I saw that she was clearly right. A homeless crest of flesh sat placidly on top of the cup like a beret on a softball. Apparently, I was one of the estimated 3 trillion women in America who wear the wrong size.

But that wasn’t the most disturbing realization. I knew that when I purchased that bra, it had been the right size. Which could only mean one thing: At 21, officially a woman and all, I was still a project in development.

Puberty is such a strange thing to happen to people . Up to that point, you’ve been growing your whole life, but in a reasonable, measured way — you can do more things each year, but you’re still the kid with the high voice. You’re figuring out what books and TV shows you like, what makes you laugh that doesn’t make your mom or your best friend laugh. And then your body changes completely. It’s not what you remember, and it has nothing to do with you, really. It’s like meeting your roommate on the first day of summer camp: Aaand this will be your body! You guys are going to have so much fun together!

And mostly, you do. But meanwhile, you’re an introspective kid whose body suddenly starts screaming SEX at innocent passersby. You conceal your agents of fascination in any way you can — or you get tired of hiding and flaunt. And you start noticing that the guys you know are suddenly smelling really good. The breasts, though, get involved physically around Step 28 in the mating dance. Because at this tenuous moment in your development, Step 4 makes you blush uncontrollably, and you aren’t likely to need your breasts in that capacity for quite some time, but there they are, waving like a red cape in a pasture full of bulls. They’re your trump card but hardly a secret.

Meanwhile, they’re still there, attached to you, as you go about your mundane life. Exercise affects them the way the tyrannosaurus affected the glass of water in “Jurassic Park.” Sports bras are a maddening false promise: Above a cup size B, they are all marked for “low-impact” exercise, as if, for a woman above a B, there were any such thing. Breasts move if they want. They are extravagant, unserious things, largely parasitic, except for their application to certain steps of the survival of the human race. Otherwise, their main activity is to florp.

Also, of course, to sell things. And be a thousand B-comedy punch lines. The fact that they make us buy things and we love to laugh at them means something about them makes us uncomfortable. It might be the fear and resentment engendered by anything powerful — why ARE we so driven to watch them? Think of all the trouble Marilyn Monroe went to to convince us she was harmless. It’s okay, honey, I’m no more in control of this than you.

But of course she was — the calculated innocent act offset her God-given powers. Those of us who don’t become sex symbols can still have a measure of control: flatter or disguise them, go free-range or conventional. Because of the possibility for control they offer, and because they’re the only way Western women are encouraged to be big, they can be agents of liberation and self-acceptance. Their symbolic and literal weight — what makes them so darned problematic in the first place — are two more things you have on your side when you finally make peace with them.

So you make peace, and then something dreadful happens — such as, you learn, as I did, that your breasts are not done with you.

The problem was that I was already wearing a double D , which is pretty much the end of the line. Christina, whose critique of my brassiere had instigated this, very kindly took me shopping and gave me moral support, which, it soon became clear, was the only support I was going to get. The store, a discount chain, carried only up to DD. Christina very kindly called me a freak and took me out for coffee.

Fortunately, my mother knew what to do. Although a little more conventionally sized, she puts all her trust in the Nordstrom Ladies.

The Nordstrom Lady took out her tape measure and figured me right out. In any lingerie section of any department store, they sell two varieties of bra. The first is an accessory: fun, in exciting colors to match your mood, with extra stuffing or not, with straps for different necklines and advanced technology for God-knows-what. The second has a job to do. The industrial-strength bra comes in beige, white or black. There is a solemnity about it, an awareness of what will be expected of this poor piece of cloth, a deference. These are the bras I have come to know, and these are the ones the Nordstrom Lady walked past to get to the one that would be mine. Because even the Nordstrom Lady had only one in my new size.

My size turned out to be 34F. Yes, efffff. You may draw it out slowly if you wish, an extended fricative for maximum comedic effect.

The 34F does not mess around. It might look like the curtains, but it is made of chicken wire and upholstery. You would lose a fight with this bra. It is the Rambo of bras. But for all its toughness, it still exudes a come-to-Grandma sexiness.

Still, it’s mine now, and I am at peace. And not, as some people think, in pain. I am architecturally sound — tall and broad-shouldered and hippy enough to have basic structural integrity, with triangulate distribution of weight-bearing loads. The edifice is sturdy. The center can hold. So, no, there is no need for surgery. There’s only one way out of this, and that is down.

But I’d better be done; that’s all I’m saying . If I wake up tomorrow looking at a whole new letter of the alphabet, somebody’s gonna pay. Probably the makers of my fifth-grade health class videos, which said in no uncertain terms that puberty . . . ends.

But assuming I’m no longer a moving target, the question remains: What impact have my 34 effffs had on my life? That’s the question I was asked to answer in this essay, and my initial inclination was to say: Their greatest impact is that they got me a writing assignment. Oh, and when it rains, there’s a part of my shirt that doesn’t get wet.

But the fact is, I’ve spent much of my adult life denying the importance of my breasts, because, ever since they showed up, I wanted not to be the person they implied I was — vapid and show-offy and easily impressed. I’ve worked hard at not being that. Which is to say, now that I think about it, my breasts have had an appropriately enormous impact on who I am. In a way, they’ve made me who I am.

Adolescence requires rebellion, and, if you happen to have large breasts, you might as well rebel against the Hooters-waitress cliche you are apparently destined to become. So I did, vowing that what’s going on above my shoulders would forever and always be just as interesting as those things below. I would take intellectual charge of them — observe them anthropologically. Make up witty comebacks to “Are those real?” (I have never been asked, but if I am, I am ready. I will say, “No, you made them up.”) Sure, some people will still call you “The Man Show” behind your back, and occasionally a guy will rollerblade into a tree in your presence. That could be coincidental.

But what I realized is that my reaction to puberty — fury — drove me further inside my head, which subsequently became a wild place, headquarters for my internal resistance movement.

I would dress strategically, which is to say, demurely, except at those times when I would not. In other words, I would always be in charge. I would not be soft. I would not bounce. I wouldn’t lean an inch forward to get what I wanted. My lack of physical subtlety would be balanced by thoughts I determined to make impenetrable. I am not easy, in any sense.

Stare all you want; you’ll have no idea what’s going on in my head. Because if you’re staring, I am probably thinking that I could smother you and make it look like an accident.

Harsh? I know. But with a rack like this, you can’t be a doormat.”

Rachel Manteuffel is an actor and a writer who lives in Vienna, Virginia.

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