Woman’s Body has been created especially for the individual woman with the belief that a clearer understanding of the development and functioning of her body will increase her confidence and lead her to a fuller appreciation of herself.
The words ‘average’ and ‘typical’ are often used in Woman’s Body. The terms refer generally to what is or what happens in a large number of cases: not what is necessarily best, or what should be.
In the year before my first period, my mother gives me a book called Woman’s Body, An Owner’s Manual. My mother’s greatest fear is that I will become pregnant. Mine is that my mother will talk to me about sex. So we are both happy with the gift. She hands it over, telling me, ‘When I was thirteen a girl came to our convent who’d been expelled from her last school for having sex. She said “I got rooted in the back of the bus”, and told us all this stuff. Not all of it was true.’ For a moment we are both holding onto the book and it takes a small tug from me to get it out of her hands.
I take it downstairs to my bedroom, which is painted black and has two large white eyes drawn on the wall by my bed. The room is lit only by a small red lamp next to the bed, and in the low light I inspect the book. It looks like an instruction manual for a car or a dishwasher. The cover is navy blue with no picture on the front, just the title stencilled in white. The book is not new and it’s been well thumbed, it smells of dust and degrading paper. Flicking through it, at first I’m disappointed – I’m used to seeing naked bodies doing much more interesting things. A long time ago I discovered my parents’ sex books, disguised as art books, the thick black ones leaning casually alongside the auction catalogues and the encyclopaedias in the front room. Inside are Japanese pictures showing close-ups of huge veined dicks splitting women open; a painting where a piano teacher is trying to hit her young female pupil’s naked genitals while they pull at each other’s hair. Men and women get beaten up with sticks and whips, and they love it. Huge-dicked fauns tickling a naked bum with a powder puff. In the mouth, up the bum and sometimes just into thin air. I consider myself to be well educated in what all kinds of sex look like. They are images that pop into my head at school, where I become convinced that the teachers can read my thoughts and know that I’m a pervert.
The diagrams in ‘Sexual Intercourse 1-3’ show neat-haired couples with small discreet nipples and no pubic hair. There is no movement in the illustrations, nothing frantic. Each person has the same small smile – just enough that you know they are there voluntarily, but not so much that it looks like what they are doing might be fun. Overall I am disappointed, though there is one position, the ‘rear entry with both partners kneeling, for the pregnant woman’, which has never before occurred to me. I slide the book under my bed for now, along with the dirty plates and lost homework – this is something that will need careful thinking about.
A09 Puberty: Time of Onset
The rate of puberty varies with the season of the year – growth in height is fastest in spring, growth in weight in autumn.
My last summer without a bra, I spend on the Isle of Wight, in the woods. I stay out with my older brother and his friends each night after dark, running through the trees, chasing and ambushing each other. There is no one in shouting distance, and we make tunnels in the nettles, thrashing our way through with garden canes. We make guns out of sticks and play complicated games that involve hideouts and holding breath, kiss chases and deliberately stinging ourselves with nettles or stepping barefoot on thistles. School kids camp at the end of our wood and we colour in our faces with burnt cork and sneak up on them in the night, try to scare them with howls and hoots. There is something about being in the woods after dark that makes me feel strong and excellent. I am too old to believe that I can turn into a puma just by wishing it, but there’s the memory of that feeling – I know the ground so well that I can run with my eyes closed, I know where, and how high I have to jump over thorn bushes, where to duck the low branches, how to hide amongst the leaves and moss and brambles of the rooty ground. There’s a feral look to me that I admire in the small mirror in the caravan. Birds nest hair and grass stains, clothes that over the summer have stopped being my size and which I’ve had no reason to get out of for weeks.
One night I watch my brother’s friend – whom I’ve recently started mooning over – kiss a girl from the camp up against a tree with his charcoaled hand up her T-shirt. She has a ponytail on top of her head and bangles that slide up and down her wrists as she moves her hands over his back. If they get caught she might get sent back home. I throw a rock noisily into the bushes to try and make the supervisors come out.
My parents have parties in the woods with their friends who get red in the face and spread out like starfish on the grass, talking loudly. Sometimes they stay for weeks, washing in the nude in front of everyone, bellowing as my father pours eskis of cold water over them. One of their friends keeps stamping on my feet, because he thinks I find it funny. He kisses me on the lips in a wet way, and I don’t find that funny either.
‘Men do that,’ my mother says when I complain to her. ‘They’re dickheads when they’re drunk. Tell him to fuck off next time, no one’ll mind.’ Later, I’m sat next to him at dinner and he tries to rub my crotch while we eat. I pinch the skin on the back of his hand till he stops and then I go out into the woods, and nobody minds.
Masturbation: B21 – Fantasies
% of women experiencing different types of fantasy during masturbation:
A new book arrives on my parents’ shelf. It has no picture on the cover, just the title, in gold, Les Onze Mille Verges by Guillaume Apollinaire. I know it’s rude, I can tell by the way it’s hidden in plain view, just like the art books, and there is something about the word Verges that makes my ears prick. When I flick through to see if my suspicions are founded, it falls to a page that describes a soldier warming his hands in a horse’s vagina. He is so overcome with passion for the horse he has to fuck it, then and there in front of his whole regiment. It is the first time I’ve encountered the word fuck as anything other than a swear word. I spend the rest of the week locked in the toilet, reading. I read about sex with animals, torture, farts, sex with children, sex with dead people and so much shit and flogging that it all starts to sound normal. When you fuck there is blood and stink and pain, and everybody loves it.
The line that stays with me, the line which will pop into my head from this point on at the most inappropriate of moments, occurs just as the lead character has finished doing it with his best friend. He yells, ‘There, if that doesn’t make you pregnant, you’re not a man!’
A12 – Puberty: Problems
In some rare cases, puberty can fail to occur at all because of a hormone imbalance. For most girls however the problems of puberty are usually psychological. Even such physical conditions as spots and blackheads, excessive weight gain, and heavy perspiration, are more embarrassments than anything else. As a result of psychological changes, the adolescent girl may appear aggressive and rebellious, and may challenge the authority of parents and teachers (and perhaps even the police).
My mother does not approve of things like bras, the shaving of armpits or wearing deodorant. A girl at school gets taken aside by another pupil and told that people are talking about the way she smells, and that she had better go and buy herself some deodorant. At lunch break, there is a mass exodus to Boots to buy roll on, in case the same horrific episode happens to anyone else. I don’t have the money, and so I explain this all carefully to my mother. She seems to take it well and says we’ll stop at the local chemist on the way back from school. As she opens the door to the chemist who has a long line of customers waiting to be served, my mother announces ‘My daughter thinks she smells.’ And I leave the shop and walk home alone and stinking. I steal the witch hazel that my father uses as aftershave, and rub it into my armpits. I smell like a hospital.
Changing for sports at school, suddenly everyone else has a bra. They cover up their bras with T-shirts and towels when they change, just in case. It is true that I do not have tits like the rest of my class, but it’s getting harder and harder to ignore my classmates’ looks of alarm whenever I take my shirt off, their horror at me exposing myself.
‘My daughter thinks she has tits,’ says my mother in Peter Jones.
I go into a changing room where a woman measures the bones of my naked chest, and I’m aware from the way that she sucks in her cheeks that she’s humouring me. She decks me out in a padded black bra, with extra bits that you can stuff in to ‘boost the plunge of your cleavage’. The cups are hollow because I have no boob to fill them, and she keeps telling me to lean forward and shuffle my breasts into the cups. ‘There we go,’ she says eventually, ‘that’s better.’
The skin of my chest has made a small crease in between the empty cups of the bra, like when you fold the skin of your knee to make it look like a bum.
As we’re waiting in line at the till, my mother tells me happily about the time that she and my father were having some work done on the house, and they overheard the builders talking about her.
‘What’s this Mrs Wyld like then?’ asked one of the builders,
‘Oh, you know,’ said the other, ‘the bra-less type.’
Sexual problems: B28 – Frigidity
Frigidity, or general sexual dysfunction, is a complex female complaint in which a woman derives little or no erotic pleasure from sexual stimulation. Treatment often takes the form of sensate focus therapy – a technique developed by Masters and Johnson. In sensate focus therapy the couple refrain from intercourse and orgasm for a period. During this time they learn to caress each other’s bodies until the woman is sufficiently aroused to initiate intercourse.
I don’t want to be touched, and I think dicks are revolting.
‘Perhaps you’re a lesbian?’ suggests mum, but I’m not that into vaginas either. I start checking myself against the book with every new, creepy little thing that my body does. I spend a long time in my bedroom calming myself with the thought that I can live quite happily inside my head. There will be no need then to meet new people, or to look attractive, or to make conversation. I’ll never have to go to work where I’ll have to talk to other people, or listen to instructions, and I’ll never have to ever give a blow job. It’s the ideal way out, to become appallingly fat in my bed and avoid the outside world forever. Woman’s Body has a section called K20 Who Becomes a Compulsive Eater? It shows an obese woman, who looks troublingly like me, sitting on a chair and stuffing her face with cream buns. She is circled by the words I feel miserable, I’ll eat to comfort myself, I look fat, I feel guilty/I look ugly.
A girl friend tells me confidently, ‘Once you’ve been fingered, the rest of it just follows like dominoes.’
My friend gets her period and tells her parents, and her proud father takes her out for breakfast to celebrate. My mother is so excited when she spies a hair under my armpit that she rings my father at work. So when I get my period I keep it a closely guarded secret. When I come home from school there’s a gift-wrapped packet of Tampax on my pillow.
With my first period I smoke my first packet of cigarettes. On display on my parent’s mantle piece, amongst unframed photographs and odd little statues, dripped candles and bowls full of change and spilled clove oil for my father’s sore teeth, is an old packet from the 1950s. The picture on the front is of a sexy woman made of blue smoke. The cigarettes themselves are brown from age with no filters and I smoke my way through them late at night when the rest of the house is asleep. I practice in the mirror, wearing lipstick and copying makeup from magazine samples. Sometimes I steal a half drunk bottle of wine from the kitchen, sometimes a can of beer or tumbler of whiskey.
I practice smoking and drinking and looking exotic with a friend. My friend has the woman’s body of a tiny ballerina. She has tits that fascinate everyone, male and female alike – they are rock hard and they go straight up. She is good at being a woman, she takes her boobs along with her, and people show her a strange sort of respect. Drinking makes me feel more in control of my woman’s body and it makes me understand a bit better what I’m supposed to do with it, how to place it so that it’s looked at in the right way by other people.
We start going to New Cross where we find we can get into a pub and be served Snake Bite Black until we’re sick on the dance floor and people around us cheer and clap. The pub is full of old punks and students with dyed hair and ripped clothes. We make friends with two seventeen year old boys, one of them is skinny and he wears orange leggings under his ripped black jeans; he overuses the word ‘decadent’. I like this one, and try to impress him by cutting the word Anarchy into my forearm with a penknife. I spell it wrong and it reads Anarcy instead. I do not impress him.
I start going back to the pub in New Cross, where I haven’t been since I was young, this time on my own and with a new feeling about my body. The pub’s clientele has changed in the years I’ve been away, the thin young men in with ripped jeans and leggings are gone, now the men have beer guts and thinning hair, oversized T-shirts and large white trainers. I am suddenly in the habit of being there as the pub opens, with the sunlight streaming in and the smoke stale in the air. An old man called Smiler is at the bar. Always. He sits on a high stool, his feet swinging freely, high above the foot rests. He works his way through half pints of Guinness from 11.00 a.m., his teeth beside him on a black paper napkin. Smiler has been in jail until recently because of the time when he killed someone. It was something to do with his wife, except that it wasn’t her that he killed.
My drink is a pint of Fosters, which is the cheapest larger they sell, and it comes from the pump that does not smell so much of sulphur as the others. Sometimes I talk to Smiler, and sometimes I just sit and wait for the day to go by. My friends are embarrassed, I know that. They drop by to visit me in the evenings, occasionally, but they leave when the music starts and I dance grottily with men, with my new low centre of gravity, sticking my backside out. I know it makes my friends leave, but it feels necessary. Though what ‘it’ is, is still not exactly clear to me.
I get to know the bar staff, like them mostly, apart from the manager. The manager I sleep with now and again, if neither of us is sleeping with anyone else.
One night the police pull up as I’m on my way home. I am sitting on a wall and having a moment to myself.
They ask, have you had a fight with your man?
I shake my head, mortified. I am just having an end of evening cry, no need to get nosey about it.
Have you had a bit too much to drink? They ask me. When I don’t answer, they say Well you can’t stay here – if you stay here you’ll just get robbed. And I walk home and on the way I slap lampposts so that my hands bleed. I’m embarrassed in the morning and so I stay inside.
I start to put on weight. It’s liquid fat from all the beer. When I was with the man with the lamb-chop sideburns, we might go for dinner between drinking and sex and talk, but now the idea of eating in front of a man is dreadful, and even when I’m alone the idea that I might be caught by anyone – my parents, my brother, a friend, the postman, is horrifying. It makes me feel like a pig in a trough.
There are some regulars that I go home with, that I have an understanding with. If no one new and interesting turns up for either of us, we’ll do for each other. These men are perfectly nice, as far as I can tell, and for the most part I feel that they are similar to me.
Soon after the laughing starts, the pub manager asks me to go upstairs to the kitchen and make him a cheese sandwich. He gives me the keys and again I feel a strange victory that I can’t place. He calls up the stairs to ask for pickle, and I panic when I realize I have cut his sandwich into triangles in case he thinks I care.
One evening an Irish man with no bone left in his nose – a regular in the mornings – gets me to agree to go out to dinner with him, to a Chinese restaurant he tells me is the best in London. I say yes, but I dread the food, can’t touch it, can’t order anything for myself. In the end he orders enough for ten people because every time he asks me if I like a dish, I say yes, and he takes it to mean I want to eat it, all. I feel a little like my old self for moment and I want the Irish man to feel like I’m having a nice time, that I want to be there. I find myself too shy to do anything about it when he starts to order, and when the food comes I can barely manage to put any of it on my plate. The Irish man talks to me over my untouched salt and pepper squid. He says, You should stop this. You’re only young. Those men talk about you and it’s not nice. And the old me is covered up again.
I don’t care, I say. They can talk. I’m taking what I want from them. And we run out of conversation, because that is it.
Would you rather go back? He asks and I say, Yes. He gets the rest of the food in two large doggie bags, pays the bill and takes me back to the pub in his car. That night I get in to the back of someone’s van and he drops me home in the morning just as the sun comes up.
Sexual Intercourse 2
B09 Standing Positions.
For successful intercourse in a standing position, both partners must be about the same height. If the woman is rather short, she can stand on a low stool, a pile of books, or even one step up some stairs. Alternatively, her partner can pick her up and she can clasp her hands around his neck and her legs around his waist.
I meet an Australian ballet dancer who is coked up the first night I see him in the pub. He smiles a lot with his white teeth. I go into it thinking about him in the same way as the rest of the men, except that he is pretty and it doesn’t feel like a victory when he puts his arm around my waist, it just feels good. He has thick hairy calves and he stands up tall. He is nice and graceful and he has those white teeth and that good breath. In the morning he makes me toast with blueberry jam and strong milkless coffee at his kitchen table, he pulls me onto his lap and feeds it to me. It barely goes down because I still cannot eat in front of men, but he wants me to eat it, because that is normal, that is breakfast, and it’s nice in his lap and so I chew some of it down. The ballet dancer is going back to Adelaide in a couple of months and this is made clear from the start. I am off to university soon, so it’s a perfect arrangement.
When a boy in the street squirts me with a water pistol, the ballet dancer says ‘Hey, don’t shoot my girlfriend!’ and then he asks if I mind him calling me that, and I find that I can’t answer but there is the smallest bit of something good to feel, and it stays there.
When he does go, he leaves me in the pub where he found me, a full pint of Fosters ready to go. There are no tears or long strange goodbyes. All is as it should be. A hug, a big kiss and then an extra one on the cheek and he’s out the door with his rucksack and his straight back. I drink to the bulge of my pint glass and one of the bar men comes in. He hands me a bus ticket. ‘I passed your friend at the train station – he asked me to give you this’ he says and winks. On the back of the bus ticket in blunt pencil, it says Take care, please don’t sleep with anyone horrible X.
I go home early and alone that night, and I think of things in a different way for a while. For a few nights I stay in, and I sleep. It has become the end of summer, and I sit in the garden and read a little. I paint over the meat red walls in my bedroom, white this time, and I pull up the carpet which has drops of acrylic paint all over it.
There are only a few weeks left until university starts in a new city, and I go back to the pub to say goodbye. I say goodbye to the manager who follows me out into the parking lot and masturbates at me. I stand in front of him holding my hips and laughing and laughing. He is unperturbed, used to me by now and neither of us cares that we don’t touch each other. We go back inside and he gives me a free pint of Kronenburg as it’s a special occasion. I have such a fun night that I leave early, around midnight so that it stays that way.
When hitch-hiking, a woman should know the license number of the car, check for inside door handles, and know how to get out quickly. Lifts with more than one man in a car should be refused and a woman should avoid getting into the back of a 2-door car.
At the bus stop, a limousine pulls up, with five men inside. We are on holiday, one of them says. Come with us, we’ll have some fun.
No, I say. I’m going home.
Come with us, he says, we will take you straight home, it’s starting to rain.
No, thank you, I say, but they don’t leave.
Come with us, he says, my daughter is your age, come with us, we will take you home.
I can’t just get into your car, I say.
Come with us, he says.
Yes come with us, they all say.
And I go with them.
All they do is they drop me home, and when I get home, I sit in the front room until the sun comes up and then I take a bath.
My father is away and I get into bed with my mother and we lie facing each other in silence while the day begins around us.
Using makeup G23
Makeup can accentuate the face’s good points and disguise its bad ones, such as: a broad nose, a long nose, a broad jaw, wide cheeks, a round chin, a broad forehead.
We draw dots above our eyebrows and I paint a line that runs from the furthest point of my tear ducts back to meet with the outer tips of my eyebrows. Moon boots and PVC trousers and just a bra on top to display the line drawing of a shark I’ve had tattooed onto my midriff. On Saturdays we go to Pop Scene. We get in because the alcohol makes us know how to stand in the line. We know to look the bouncer in the eye and smile, and if that is not enough, my friend has her boobs with her.
We dance and, like the rest of the women there, we grind against boys to music and kiss them with our eyes closed, as if we are so into it we need to shut down our other senses. I try going to the bar with one boy and he buys me a drink. There is no conversation, because none will come, and when he asks my age I tell him the truth, and he leaves to go to the loo and doesn’t come back. It’s an altogether better thing when no one talks.
At school in art I draw my face over and over again, because I haven’t done any thinking about what I should be drawing, and also because I feel like I don’t know what I look like anymore, as if different bones have grown up and over my old ones. I stay up through the night in my bedroom and paint over the black walls with what I decide is blood red. My makeup gets stranger and heavier.
In Pop Scene I meet a boy with lamb chop sideburns and glasses and it’s the start of a good thing. I lose it to him on a kitchen counter in Ealing. We break up three years later, on the same day that I get a letter from a university. My mother says of him ‘Well, I’ll always love him because I feel like he saved your life.’
Something happens the year I turn eighteen. I stop wearing high heels and makeup. I cut my hair, which until recently has been long and dyed blue-black. I cut it myself to a close crop and bleach it badly so that some patches are white and some are yellow. I start wearing baggy jeans and singlet tops with vague logos on them – an 8, or a badly drawn dragon, a pair of lips, or an apple with a worm poking out of it. It makes little difference to me. I take after my mother and become a bra-less type so that my breasts nose at the front of these tops, not purposefully, but like I’m wearing what I slept in. I only wear trainers and I do not shave my legs – I can’t imagine ever bothering again. I learn to throw a punch, learn how not to break my thumbs in the process and I adopt a new walk with a low centre of gravity. I want to be strong and stocky, both feet evenly planted on the ground like I’d be hard to knock over.
Photograph by Sonia Belviso