If my bottom had largely felt ignored whilst I went about my daily business from 1970 – 1985, it was certainly making its presence felt now.
Almost overnight, I became aware that my jeans were tighter in the thighs and my Harry-Highpants ankle-freezer jeans were pinching in places even the most determined of curious gropers had never pinched me before.
Most alarming was the sudden weird fold of flesh that appeared just above both my knees and the dimples that appeared in my outer thigh.
Self-confidence in teenage years is always fragile. I’d already managed to accumulate my fair share of high school bullies who were seemingly both repelled yet magnetically attracted to the idiosyncracies of my appearance and personality.
I was an insecure childish bookworm and BBC re-run viewer who possessed high level of reading comprehension, a reasonably impressive vocabulary for my age and who enunciated properly when speaking.
My parents and relatives affectionately approved this way of expressing myself. They teased me good-naturedly but seemed pleased I didn’t have the harsh strine accent and coarse slang of my peers.
(My first husband used to delight in writing “dunny roll” on my shopping list to torment me with ockerisms I utterly refused to utter. Nothing would have induced the 1989 Pearl Pureheart version of myself to speak the words “spew” or “chunder”. How times change.)
“Nisey has a bit of a plum in her mouth,” my extended family would smile indulgently as I reached for another Coconut Ring bikkie to go with my syrupy tea.
I was far from popular in primary school, generally only one or two close friends who would drift away periodically to take respite from my clinginess, but in a small country whitebread school where everyone knows everyone, eccentricities of family or personal habits were forgiven and I mostly felt included even by the kids who called me by the nickname “Dictionary”.
In high school, this pivoted to male classmates using the school’s office bolt-cutter to remove the Koala padlock from my locker, smear my books with what I thought at the time was Clag glue (but in hindsight as an adult I realised was probably adolescent night emissions) to leave a note that wasn’t as kind as the aforementioned plum metaphor.
“When you talk, it sounds like you have a mouthful of piss”.
I was spotty, too. Not seriously plagued with acne, not like some poor fuckers who slathered themselves in flesh-toned medicated cream from dermatologists and prayed to get through the schoolday without anyone mentioning zits within earshot.
My spots would, as my mother said, “be hardly noticeable if you weren’t pickin’ at your face half the bloody time”. (Her strine accent lurks Pauline Hanson-like beneath a thin veneer of Menzies-era teachers’ college and the inherited genteel vowels of her Federation-era Melburnian matriarch) She was right, though. My spots were only minor blackheads for the main part but I doggedly squeezed and stabbed at them obsessively with bitten fingernails and improvised micro-surgical instruments from my pencil-case, making them worse. I had very fair skin and the scabby holes stood out on my face like bullet holes in a mobster’s getaway car’s fender.
“Pizza face” was the most oft-used Americanism used by the bullies to draw attention to my self-inflicted wounds. It was nonsensical, given my face rarely accommodated more than two pimples at a time, but bullies have a tenuous grasp on logic.
My English and Drama teacher Mr McGann, director of wildly enthusiastic high school musicals and who was indiscriminately nice to everyone, helped me survive Year Ten. I wanted him to be right about me and my talent and potential and a tiny, tiny place in my heart and my ego suspected he was right but his was a lone voice in the wilderness in 1985. (You were right, T. Mike McGann. Too late. I’ll never be fifteen again.)
I’d wanted to be an actor since my mother took me to see an amateur production of My Fair Lady when I was 7 years old. I knew with all my heart I wanted to be on the stage. I was brutally shy in most social situations but once I discovered acting, playing a role brought me to life and made me feel happy.
I didn’t mind people looking at me when I was being someone else.
Of course I thought being an actor (actress, in those gender-specific days) depended on looking like Vivien Leigh or Elizabeth Taylor or, at a pinch, Cathy Bach from Dukes Of Hazzard (what a fucking awful show) who allegedly had insured her pins for a million dollars.
I’d been bombarded with Hollywood dreams, shampoo ads featuring bikini goddesses like Jaclyn Smith, noxious Aussie John Singleton ads with an underaged Elle MacPherson flogging canned chemicals on a beach, Australian Post magazine covers featuring teenaged blondes in crocheted undies and the cult of skinny-worship since I was born.
Although shy and doubtful of my worth, I had confidence in my body. It had never let me down.
Born into a family and an outdoor loving society that worshipped sport and castigating fatties, my parents took pride in my “figure” and praised how I looked in the annual purchase of “bathers” for the season’s public school holiday swimming lessons, beach picnics, paddle pools and sprinklers and every summer’s newly made “tennis frock”. (Yes, I’m that bloody old.)
My older female cousins on both sides of my family seemed impossibly thin and glamorous when I was little. They wore skintight corduroy flares, flicked their hair and wore Bay City Roller and Sherbert T-shirts. They carried their make up and curlers around in giant embossed hinged vinyl portmanteaus with mirrors inside the top lid and went to discos and drive-ins.
I couldn’t wait to grow up and put my skinny healthy body into a strapless terry towelling boobtube with an orchid in my hair and party like it was 1976.
Disco had well and truly karked it by 1985 and the Charlie’s Angels ironic reboot was still twenty years away when I first started to feel the niggle of self-doubt over the body I was relying on for acceptance, approval, romantic success and a future treading the boards.
I wanted to act. I wanted to dance.
Initial enquiries about my own ballet career inspired by fascinatingly mute dancers performing Romeo and Juliet in a late night TV appearance had resigned me to inevitable disappointment and the tyranny of distance whilst leaving me in no doubt as my place in the grand scheme of things.
I’d wandered from my bed to the loungeroom where my mother was sitting, watching TV alone and I was mesmerised by the onscreen leaps and pirouettes. My mother said I could stay for a little while as long as I was quiet. I tried.
“Why aren’t they saying anything?” I ventured.
“That’s what ballet is, telling a story by dancing instead of words” my mother said, without looking at me.
I watched quietly a little longer.
“That lady with the bun is pretty”.
Sigh. “She’s called a ballerina.”
Shy. I felt the familiar knot in my tummy and lump in my throat but I had to ask, I could see the joyful exertions onscreen and felt my core respond to the music, the momentum, the extended toes. “Can I be a ballerina when I grow up?”
“No. To be good enough to be a ballet dancer on the stage you have to start when you’re very young, like three, to be trained properly and it’s only places like Russia that take it seriously enough for it to be a career. Besides, there’s nothing like that around Donnybrook, I’d have to drive all the way to Bunbury for you to have lessons, I don’t have the time and we can’t afford things like that”.
I was five years old, Bunbury was thirty minutes away, my Dad provided well for us. But it never occurred to me her truth wasn’t always the whole truth.
I sat quietly for the rest of the ballet apart from seeking clarification when the beautiful Juliet took her sweet time waking up.
My mother sighed again but explained “She was only asleep but Romeo thought she was dead so he killed himself now she’s woken up and he’s dead so she’s killed herself, too. It’s called committing suicide.”
I was sadly outraged at the tragic waste that a misunderstanding between star cross’d lovers caused and stored “suicide” away for future reference, along with the knowledge Russian three year olds had a better chance at ballet than I did.
“Miss Jenny” arrived with weekly “folk ballet” lessons in the local Lesser Hall not long after that. I was quite awful, although I loved it, and my missteps at the end of year concert caused a ripple of hilarity amongst the captive nursing home audience who’d been wheeled in as human sound baffles.
“I was utterly mortified” said I to my sister twenty years later, recounting how the audience’s (not unkind) laughter had alerted me to the fact my imaginary baby was being rocked about four bars before everyone else.
“Oh, you’re always utterly mortified.” she replied. She may have had a point.
When I was eleven my parents took me to ballroom dancing lessons. I took to it like a duck to water. Quickstep was the closest thing to flying and jive made my heart leap joyously. I immediately wanted to do competition dancing, in fluorescent tulle and hairsprayed chignons like the studio’s best dancers, but the parents of a non-dancer, mystified by their happy and fulfilled relatives’ dedication to supporting their kids at dance events, told my parents that competition ballroom was expensive and time – consuming and they agreed I wasn’t worth the effort and I could count myself grateful I got anything at all, no-one took them to dance lessons when they were kids, they had to walk five miles on a sand track just to get to school, after they milked the cows….
I watched old black and white Ginger Rogers films (it doesn’t matter that your TV is still black and white when your preferred viewing is from the 1930s) on the ABC and dreamed.
I went to the lessons every Saturday until I was fourteen, a half hour of medal class first where I’d got up to my “silvers”, then beginners’ class where I now helped as amateur teacher, trundling four year olds around the dance floor in the same basic steps I had been repeating on autopilot for three years while I yearned for progress, flight and my Fred Astaire.
I wanted to dance more, to challenge myself, I felt silly going to the same class over and over again at my age when most students there were toddlers, but I didn’t know how to express that to myself or to my mother.
I approached her timorously in the kitchen, where she sat reading the paper at the table.
“I was thinking of quitting ballroom dancing…” I began.
If I wanted an aghast protest that my talent would be wasted and questions on why I’d consider quitting the thing I loved most followed by reassurances that she’d help me dance more often, I wasn’t going to get it. She didn’t even look up from the paper.
“Suits me. I’ve got better things to do than spend money on petrol and run around after you all over Bunbury every Saturday morning.”
I stopped dancing and my fitness decreased drastically.
My parents let me join jazz ballet lessons in the local hall the following year, after years of protesting that the skimpy costumes and makeup on little girls were “a bit much”. (They were right – the hyper-sexualisation of ten year old girls with fake cleavage shimmying to woman-hitter Chris Brown songs at my own daughters’ dance concert just a decade ago left me, you guessed it, utterly mortified.)
Ironically, the year I was finally allowed to don the bikini-line lycra and sequins and bump and grind to Madonna was the year my thighs landed, with adipose reinforcements attacking from the rear.
I sought reassurance from my mother as she ate frige leftovers in her TV chair whilst I sat on the brown nylon carpet in front of the oil heater. I’d just returned from Thursday night jazz ballet class, wriggling my toes in footless sheer black tights and “practice pants”, high cut black briefs. I thought I looked like Madonna in her “Into The Groove” video.
“Don’t you think I have nice legs?”
My mother glanced away from the TV to give me a quick critical once-over then said as her eyes returned to the screen “They’re a bit plump, ‘specially the knees – and you have no ankles like the women in your Dad’s side of the family. You look at Grandma next time you see her, her leg goes straight down at the back from the knee to the heel. Never shaves them, either.”
And that was that. My legs weren’t nice at all. I didn’t look like Madonna and never would. I still loved dancing but dancing in front of people would never be the same.
One day in school, I heard a male voice behind me mutter “That’s the weirdest arse I’ve ever seen”.
I looked over my shoulder to see who spoke. It was a boy from my Maths class who’d hitherto always been friendly towards me but his fixed mock-horrified stare hurt me and left me in no doubt that the offending bum was my own.
It was thirty years before the term “First World Problems” became a hashtag for matters of fashion, style and vanity – I had yet to develop a sense of perspective and there was no-one giving me positive messagaging about my developing body.
Getting a little plump around the thighs and bum shouldn’t be looked on as a trauma or a tragedy – but for a self-conscious teenager in Australia in 1985, it certainly felt that way.
“Dolly” magazine prided itself as a resource for Australia’s teenage girls on all things. It was all powerful in influencing its teenage readers and its fashion and advertising were followed slavishly.
I remember in particular wanting to mimic the sultry dark looks of a Dolly model sporting a red bandana knotted around her brown bicep all the better to display a pack of Winfield Red smokes.
Cigarettes: Model’s own, read the caption listing the fashion outlets paying for the ad.
Yeah, sure. In 1985, it was legal to buy cigarettes aged 16. Most corner delis didn’t blink an eye at handing over the coffin nails to a kid in school uniform. The “cool” kids had “cool” mums who would indulgently say “I was the same at their age” when they glimpsed a smoke packet tucked into a handbag on the way to a bluelight Disco (the name stayed but the music was gone).
My mother had heard of the link between cancer and smoking back in the 60s at teachers’ college and left me in no doubt as to her opinion of the suicidal death wish and IQs of smokers or my mouth’s inevitable dissolve into “lipstick gutters” should I take up the filthy habit. On the rare occasions I tried it, I bought Alpine Lights. I didn’t know menthol from methane but I liked the Alpine cinema ads where lovers dressed in white capri pants and billowing linen shirts galloped white horses on a Caribbean beach.
The most prominent recurring ad in Dolly was a two page spread for suntan oil.
Not sunscreen, although the “Slip, Slop, Slap” television campaign by the Australian Cancer Foundation had been a familiar refrain since the late 70s as more and more Aussies succumbed to skin cancer as the ozone layer fizzled out and swimwear became beach fashion not designed for immersion in water.
Suntan oil. The two page spread invited its massive reading audience of teenage girls to compare beautiful skinny youths in shoestring swimwear on the left page to the superior melanin in the epidermis of the beautiful skinny youths in shoestring swimwear on the right page, where they gleamed like beeswaxed mahogany.
SUNTAN vs REEF TAN, screamed the ad’s copy.
Obviously the inability to wear an XS g-string, baste oneself liberally in coconut oil and literally tan my Caucasian hide to leather was another social failing on my part.
School beach outings invariably left me radiantly purple, blistered, shivering, teeth chattering and fantasising of deep baths filled to the brim with Vaseline’s Intensive Care, everyone’s go to for sunburn relief before they started selling aloe in bottles.
1985 was the year I naively parked the virgin flesh of my bum leeward on the beach in a swimsuit cut low at the back, low in the front and high above my hip bone. My friend Dolly had assured me the higher my togs were cut, the longer my now inferior “dumpy” legs would appear, compensating for my shortcomings.
I couldn’t sit down on the school bus that afternoon and I vomited from sunstroke while my Dad near-wept at my teenage stupidity. I didn’t blame him. I felt pretty stupid.
According to the iniquitous ancestry.com, my DNA is 43% Irish, 39% French, 10% English. Whichever idiot thought it would be a good idea for people of that genetic make-up to lie naked in the Australian sun needs a kick up the freckle. I’m looking at you, Coco Chanel, you little Nazi tailor.
(No, really, she did make suntans fashionable from the 1920s after a trip to the French Riviera & the original designer of the LBD was far too nice to WW2 German occupying forces, with tragic results).
Sunning oneself in order to look like everyone else became as much of an intrinsic part of the Aussie beach myth and advertising culture as smoking and dieting.
That summer on the beach, as I straightened my towel for a sunbake, my mother said,
“You’re going to have to start being a bit careful, Nisey, you’re getting a bit of a bum on yer. You’ll end up as big as me, if you’re not careful.”
I was now a fifteen year old pasty non-smoker with a big bum and dimpled thighs.