A Few Words About the Unsayability of Things Most Worth Talking About.

I assigned the Nora Ephron essay “A Few Words About Breasts” to my essay-writing class (Bulgasari helpfully provided a link to that essay in this comment), and the reaction was quite interesting.

Some of the students claimed they were so shocked that teenaged American girls are so anxious about breast development, claiming adolescent Korean girls aren’t. (Lime calls bullshit on that, however.) Others admitted they were — and in a couple of cases, still are — anxious about it.

Morality Police Alert: Ceci nest pas une femme. (Its marble.) Click image for source.
Morality Police Alert: Ceci n'est pas une femme. (It's marble.) Click image for source.

Others found the myths Ephron discusses amusing, like this one about her friend’s response to the failure of young Ms. Ephron’s breasts to appear:

“Don’t worry about it,” said my friend Libby some months later, when things had not improved. “You’ll get them after you’re married.”

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“When you get married,” Libby explained, “your husband will touch your a breasts, and rub them and kiss them and they’ll grow.”

They were like, “People actually believed that?” (No, I did not make a retort about Fan Death. I did, however, suggest they think back to middle school and all the silly things they heard other kids say, and briefly believed. Surely that’s universal.

(I remember hearing from classmates that if a classmate had big breasts, it meant she was sleeping around. I also remember hearing that if you swam in the North Saskatchewan River — which looks nice in this video, though I had the sense was toxic and polluted around the town I lived in, thanks to the pulp and paper mill nearby — your penis would shrink and fall off. Which was odd, since nobody ever swam in the river, so how did they know?)

Could a river this lovely actually make your weenie fall off? I think not!
Could a river this lovely actually make your weenie fall off? I think not!

The most stunning comment, for me, though, was what one young man said about being assigned the essay. He said he was surprised that I had chosen that essay for us to read and discuss in a university class. Not because it was too hard or too easy, but because it was about women’s issues.

An essay about women’s body images? In a classroom that’s 70% women? In a society where body image is a huge obsession? And where (in my experience) all too little frank and critical discussion of the insanity of that obsession is evident?

(Over the last couple of years, I’ve found my students to be quite articulate on the subject, but not nearly so critical. Most discussions I’ve witnessed have ended with some kind of impassioned defense of why women ought to be able to get plastic surgery if they want, and not just to “improve” their looks, but to enable them to can compete in the job market. Because yeah, your bust and your back end are really exactly what should determine hiring, and not, say, competence. But that’s for another discussion.)

So when I said to this guy, “Look around you! You’re outnumbered! This class is mostly women, right?” his response floored me.

Him: “Yeah, but we’re 30% men.”

Me: “So? Learning more about women is a bad thing?”

Him: “No, but, um…”

At first, I was (quietly, not aloud) all, “What the hell, man? Any presence of men in a classroom means we should just throw away all issues that might be labeled ‘woman’ issues?” There was this spiraling sense of annoyance at what I interpreted as a desire to marginalize women’s issues so we could focus on important (male) issues.

The Periphery (by The Foamy Green)
"The Periphery" (by The Foamy Green, from this stunning series...) Go check out this photographer.

And then I realized he was embarrassed to be reading an essay about breasts and discussing it with women. Which, yeah, is juvenile by my standards, now, but you know, by Korean socialization, probably is less so. I’m sure it’s the first time he’s had to do so in a classroom, at least, outside of the context of a stuffy sex-education class where technical terms were used, and even the teacher was feeling uptight about it.

This realization brought back memories of my own reaction to being assigned the essay back in Freshman English. But I would never have dared to protest my own embarrassment. I knew that my blushing at reading an essay that was not really about breasts, but about growing up in a society with a silly fixation on them, was quite silly. It seems, though, that for this guy — and a number of other students — the embarrassment was not only normal, but somewhat of a requirement for politeness, or decency, or whatever.

A Wounded Amazon, from The New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click to see the source.
A Wounded Amazon, from The New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click to see the source.

Poor students. Since I’m going to be asking them to write a personal response; not quite an essay, but something of a personal reaction to the Ephron essay that encompasses their own bewildering experience of the process of adolescent, puberty, and growing up.

I guess it’s only fair I write one for them about mine. It’s gonna be about the discovery of how teenager sweat is different from kid sweat. You know, in gym class, when you hit that age when you need deodorant (or, well, something to cut the smell of your armpits), but mom and dad haven’t quite figured it out yet? Or am I the only one who went through that? I’m pretty sure I’m not. Or maybe about shaving, and that weird transition from not needing to shave, to suddenly having ten whiskers on your chin, to having to shave every day. (And then not doing it, then doing it, then finally embracing the facial hair, and blessing that unknown genius who invented electric hair-clippers.)

That should be a fun essay. I think I’ll post a copy here when I’m done with it.

Click for source, yo.
Click for source, yo.

2 thoughts on “A Few Words About the Unsayability of Things Most Worth Talking About.

  1. I really loved the foamy green picture, and I’ll say that the awareness of breasts on OTHER people was a big enough earthquake in my adolescent mindframe, that I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to grow them myself.

    Meanwhile, yeah. Not so much that it’s too bad people DON’T talk about bodies, but it’s too bad people feel like they CAN’T talk about it.

    On the other hand. . . here’s an interesting paradox for you: I’ve been told by some of my younger females that old ajummas seem to relish talking about every nitty and gritty detail of their bodies and love lives to eachother, maybe just because they CAN, despite the fact they’re often portrayed or described as sexless (sorry; no reference for that).

  2. Robo,

    Yeah, it’s a good picture, isn’t it? The series link disappeared, but it’s worth a look.

    The can’t/don’t distinction is exactly what I wanted to get at, but couldn’t quite articulate. I had a roommate who always framed people’s disinclination to discuss masturbation with him as can’t until I pointedly said, “I can talk about anything, but I don’t want to discuss that with you.” (Which I had to tell him on my birthday, no less.)

    As for “ajummas” discussing sexual and physical details with one another freely, again, very interesting. Then again, I suspect they wouldn’t do it in a co-ed setting. (ie. with a bunch of ajeoshis around.)

    So I cannot say my students are unable to talk about this stuff period; just that a number of them seemed shy to discuss puberty in front of the other sex.

    But I would be curious to see a study on this topic — voluntary verbal disclosure of sexual topics among peers in different age groups, educational and economic backgrounds, etc. It’d be interesting and probably useful for anyone setting up a sex education proram.

    Last thing: willing to discuss nitty-gritty or not, unfortunately a large number of ajummas know so little about their own bodies that they are reluctant to perform breast self-exams. Lime has sometimes said she’d like to spend time in the countryside teaching them how to save themselves from breast cancer, as misplaced modesty kills all too many women here every year.

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