by Mary Saracino
I don’t know why I’m telling you this. It’s crazy to think
anyone would give a damn about what I think about America’s obsession with
super-sized everything—from 8,000 square-foot McMansions and breast implants, to
those god-awful Hummer stretch limos. The bigger the better, I guess, unless
you’re talking about waistlines or the size of your butt or your nose. Trouble
is, it’s all a big fat tease—whether it’s Oprah yakking on about how losing
those extra forty pounds is going to transform your life or the nattering in
your own head that swears fitting into a size 4 dress is the fastest route to
Nirvana. The lies we tell ourselves are as artery-clogging as a double order of
greasy fries with a salt-soaked double cheeseburger, layered with Day-Glo-plastic
American cheese, and a double-huge Diet Coke (just to hedge your bets and keep
that caloric intake in balance).
Balance is important.
That’s what all those TV commercials and magazine covers proclaim. In every
supermarket checkout line I’ve ever been in, the holy voice of America’s
psycho-babble conscience insists that the middle way is the only way. Balance is
the mantra that’s going to set me free. Funny how the double-speak headlines on
those rags mess with our brains. ‘Lose ten pounds in ten days!’ is
splayed across the cover beside ‘Triple-Chocolate Cake a Real Winner!’
It’s all super-sized bull if you ask me. But nobody’s asking. And that’s the
gist of my gripe. Most any woman, who's being honest, will tell you this
balancing act is tough. I have to add: “Is it even attainable in this day and
age?” Jeez, give me a break.
Freud wanted to know: “What do women want?”
I’ll tell ya, it ain’t fast food restaurants or cheesy tabloids and vapid
women’s magazines. And it ain’t a bunch of unattainable nonsense—like the
perfect orgasm, getting your man to share his feelings, or weekend spa
Although I do consider myself to be an All-American girl, I'm not one of those
women who go around complaining because life isn’t offering them weekly
pedicures. I’m what you might call one of the last of a dying breed of women.
I’m all for equal pay for equal work, and back in the day I supported the ERA
and Title Nine. I think equality is the American way. Shouldn’t matter one bit
if you’re equipped with a vagina instead of a penis.
What I’m not for is some lame excuse for a boss yanking my chain about why
he can’t give me a raise even though I put in more than my share of overtime at
the thankless job I’ve had for fifteen years, even though he piles on the work
and the responsibility and the occasional pat on the ass, just to keep me in
the know about who’s really in charge around that place. Burns my butt to be
honest with you. But what can a gal do? Especially when she’s got two kids she’s
raising on her lonesome and an income that’s as anemic as an old fart who can’t
afford a daily dose of Geritol. But I’m not whining. Honest.
I’m your average fifty-something woman, five foot four,
one-hundred-forty-eight pounds, with green eyes and hair the color of cigarette
ashes. I don’t know what my BMI is, nor do I care. I do have a bone to pick with
the powers that be. But I can’t seem to find that bone-picking tool I read about
in all those self help books I’ve got stacked up on my bookshelf at home, right
next to my collection of cookbooks and Reader’s Digest. And I can’t locate an
email address for the ‘powers that be.’ When I googled it, all I got was some
lame Wikipedia definition, saying how the phrase refers to entities—like
politicians, TV and film writers, CEO, etc.—that lord it over others they deem
So, I’m kind of stuck in the proverbial corner. I’m starting to feel like
that ‘silent majority’ the politicians used to talk about—all the folks in
Middle America who had a thing or two to say about the way the country was being
run, but who were too timid—or too polite, I could never decide which was more
accurate—to open their tired mouths and say how truly fed up they were.
Somewhere along the way I stopped believing in all the things my mother told
me about how girls should have opinions but never share them in mixed company.
She was concerned I’d never find a husband. “No man in the world wants a woman
smarter than he is,” Mother cautioned. If a worldview like that gets hammered
into your psyche by age ten, it becomes a part of the Ten Commandments of
Womanhood by the time you reach fifteen, at which point your life turns into a
maze of rules and regulations about everything from how to sit (with your legs
crossed at the ankles) to the proper application of makeup (a little eye shadow
and rose-pink lipstick) for a first date.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself...
My husband left me two years ago, said he was tired of not feeling
fulfilled, said he needed room to breathe, space to let his hair down. What he
really meant was he’d fallen for the auburn-haired twenty-something UPS delivery
babe at his office and had taken up rollerblading with her. She doesn’t cramp
his style, or so he says when he comes to pick up our sons every other weekend
and take them over to the park for a spin around the asphalt oval roadway. He
bought rollerblades for them, too. “They need to be fit,” he explained.
Fit for what, I wonder.
Most mornings I stand in front of my bathroom mirror and wonder what has
gone wrong with the American way. I see a tired face, mine, with eager wrinkles
kissing the corners of my eyes. My breasts sag and my tummy isn’t as tight as it
used to be, before I had two kids and an incessant craving for things I can’t
seem to acquire, like happiness. Sure, I’ve tried all the diet fads more than
once—South Beach, Atkins, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Slim Fast (that one
really cracks me up)—and I’ve lost and gained at least 150 pounds over the last
ten years. Trouble is, my pounds are the only thing in my life that doesn’t seem
to feel much like taking off for good. Try as I might to outrun them, they
always find me and tag along for the company. I walk two miles every day over my
lunch hour, when my rabid boss allows me to take one that is. I amble over to
the park and circle the small lake, watching the ducks and geese fight with each
other. Not even the birds can get along with one another these days. Jeez.
Even with all that walking my pounds stay put. Gotta love their sense of
loyalty. Too bad nobody else appreciates such steadfastness. Oh my sons don’t
mind. But they’re too young to think much about a woman’s body except for the
occasional hug I give them when I want them to know how much I cherish them.
They haven’t latched on to some girlfriend’s breast as a substitute for
self-care yet. I had them late in life, of course, as was the way of my
generation. Career track first, then babies. Had my first at 40. The second at
42. Give them a year or so, and then watch. Their testosterone will kick in and
they’ll see rounded nipple-clad clouds hovering over every skyline, sure as rain
Sometime between 10 and 12 something in a boy’s brain goes haywire and the
cute, cuddly child who once loved his mother with absolute conviction
disappears. His twin emerges, the one who smells sex in every rustle of wind,
launching his penis as if it were a scud missile. Blame it on the TV
commercials, those skinny fashion models, those MTV videos, magazine ads, RAP
music. God only knows what else. I blame it on bad water and polluted air,
politicians. Maybe alien invasion, I don’t know. Poison lingers ‘round every
Some days I think I ought to just lace up my Nikes, stroll down to the
corner and buy myself an unregistered, stolen gun, take some hostages at the
Safeway and make the world listen up. Seems like the only way to get someone’s
attention these days is to grab an Uzi and pop your face onto the evening news:
Deranged woman slaughters butcher at local grocery. Update at 10.
My god, but things have gone to hell in a hand-basket, as my mother used to
say. My sister’s eleven year old daughter is giving blow jobs to twelve year old
classmates in the boys’ bathroom at the Horatio Alger Junior High. My sister
found out when her daughter complained of sores on the inside of her mouth.
Turns out she had gonorrhea. God. What’s next.
The neighbor girl, a sixteen-year-old over at the high school, sports bright
orange and black tattoos across her midriff, an area of her scrawny body she
keeps perennially exposed thanks to belly shirts and low slung jeans. Maybe she
wants to be a walking billboard, maybe she already is. Maybe it’s the 21st
century’s version of the old sandwich board method of advertising. Eat at Joe’s.
Indeed. She likes to go to Raves—parties where they take Ecstasy and fool
around. Who needs Spin the Bottle any more? That’s what Orson, my neighbor, said
when he told me what that girl had said to him one Sunday afternoon when they
were sharing a ciggy butt in the alley back behind their houses. He’s an old
hippie and likes to keep up on what the youth of America are into these days. He
wants to feel hip, cool, mod, Man. He wants the youngsters to trust him even
though he hasn’t seen thirty in nearly thirty years. Far out.
Not that the girls today have the market cornered on wanton activity mind
you. Seems to me the old adage remains true. Tangoing still takes two. And those
wayward girls can’t go wayward on their lonesome. Their companions of choice
still seem to mostly be boys, although what with all that queer eye for the
straight guy stuff on TV these days, perhaps some of them are into girls,
instead. Ya never know for sure. Boys, it seems, still get the better end of the
That’s the way it was in my day. The more things change the more they stay
the same. Another one of my mother’s infamous sayings. Hard to believe a woman
who’s been dead for twenty years could be so insightful about what passes for
popular culture these days. Anyway, those boys get their pleasure without
returning the favor, if what my gonorrhea-inflicted niece says is true. But the
girls don’t seem to mind. They get other goodies to make it all worthwhile, like
attention and some off-kilter form of respect. They used to stone women for less
grievous behavior. But that was way, way back.
I know we fooled around too. Plenty of girls got pregnant in my day before
they got married. Plenty got abortions. Plenty more got shipped off to homes for
unwed mothers. Nowadays they just keep them in school, if they can manage to,
put them in desks side by side with the virginal girls—or at least what passes
for virginal. Maybe a virgin these days is just a girl who hasn’t gotten
pregnant yet. Then there are the fools who don’t want sex education in schools.
Figure it’s the role of the parents to inform and educate. Hell, those kids
could teach us parents a thing or two about good sex, if you ask me. Silly to
waste all that hands-on expertise. Ought to pay those kids to teach adults.
Better than a part-time job at the burger joint. And more useful, too.
I watched the Grammy awards the other night. Saw a commercial that said
Brian Wilson was gonna be on it, lots of other musicians, too, but he was the
only one I recognized. I tuned in, with my bowl of buttered popcorn, and watched
half-naked women gyrating and writhing as if their pubic hair was on fire. Guys
in tight pants that would make Elvis cringe. I know I sound like a moralist, a
prude, a dried up old hag of a woman who is bitter that her husband ran off with
a lithe young UPS delivery girl. And maybe that’s true. But there’s also
something else going on, something that no one is talking about; something that
is as true as the need to fill your stagnant lungs with clean, fresh air and
swallow a cool sip of spring water when you’re parched. And that something else
is more sinister and has nothing to do with being a puritan, anti-sex crazed,
lonely zealot. Which I’m not, by they way.
One sunny spring afternoon when my boys were at the movies with friends
watching some film with car chases in it, I decided to take a walk. I opened my
front door and stepped onto the concrete sidewalk, one foot in front of the
other, like I always do, when I looked up and laid my eyes on a bus shelter ad,
not ten feet away. There, right in the middle of suburban America, splayed for
all the world to see, was the larger-than-life, opulent bosom of a Victoria’s
Secret model, cradled in a red lacy push up bra. She needed the extra support
for those fancy store-bought breasts she was sporting, a gift from her wealthy
boyfriend perhaps. Maybe just an investment she shelled out herself to stay at
the top of her game. Her shiny white teeth glistened and her come-and-get-it
eyes beckoned. Had I been a man, my penis would have been hard in ten seconds
or less, of this I’m certain. Had I had a brush and a bucket of paint, I’d have
plastered a shawl over her exposed lusciousness and went about my business. Had
I been able to do so, she might have smiled, relieved of her duties to
titillate. The burden to be ultra-erotic must weigh down upon the poor thing,
don’t you agree?
Instead of going for a walk, I sat at the bus stop and decided to take my
own survey. “What do you think of her?” I asked everyone who graced my presence.
“Too bad there’s only her,” one guy replied. “I like it better when there’s
“Wish I had boobies like that,” one woman answered. “But with my paycheck,
it ain’t gonna happen.”
“What do I think of who?” another woman asked, oblivious to the image.
“Her,” I said, pointing to the scantily clad female.
“Oh, her,” the woman said. “It’s ones like her that make my husband buy me
those god-awful undies. They scratch. I throw ‘em out, soon as I open them. One
Valentine’s Day he bought me a pair with an edible crotch. Can you even stand
“Ooooh, yeah,” a teenaged boy replied. “Sugar is sweet. Wish I could get me
some right now.” He grabbed his crotch and adjusted his penis, winking at me.
“Don’t get fresh with me young man,” I scolded. “I have two sons at home and
I know how to handle you.”
He scoffed, but backed away and turned his gaze to the ground.
The remarks from teenaged girls took me aback. “My boyfriend told me he’d
give anything in the world if I looked like that,” one said. “I’m trying hard to
lose ten pounds. If I get skinnier, he promised to buy me a lacy black bra for
Her best friend added, “Guys gotta have it these days. And we girls gotta go
along. What else we gonna do? It’s the men who make the rules.”
“Think so?” I urged.
“Damn straight,” she came back at me, eyes flashing. “Ever try to tell your
man to back off and let you be just the way you are?”
“Got a point,” I agreed. “But, we aren’t all made the same way. Us women I
mean. Some of us have big breasts. Some small. Some of us are fat. Some of thin.
Some old. Some young.”
“That’s the sorry truth,” the girl continued. “Sorry for us. The men, they
still get to have their coffee served just the way they like it.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Fifteen,” she replied.
I shook my head and sucked in some air. “But, it ain’t gonna change unless
we women change it,” I offered.
“Ain’t gonna change, ‘cuz we women ain’t gonna change it,” she retorted. “We
get some juice out of it, too. Not just the guys.”
I thought about her comment all that night and into the next week. What kind
of juice did we women get? And was it enough to off-set the poison? Those girls
seemed to think so. But I wasn’t buying it. Sure, women get attention,
affection, sex, maybe even someone to pay their rent and put food on their
tables, educate their children. But the price tag was tattered. Its gilded edges
had long ago lost their glitter. Way more than anti-mother’s milk was served up
with those lacy-bra clad breasts; a woman’s entire self—all the complicated,
mix-match of jumbled feelings, sensibilities, brains, spit-fire, venom, and
kindness that makes us human and lovable and elusively real—was reduced to tits
and giggle, and a glimmer of ass. And while sex is fun and beneficial (think of
the pluses that go along with procreation, not to mention the sheer joy in a
kick-ass big O), we are so much more than that. When did our brains morph into
nipples? Are women’s bodies today’s version of the fast-food fix? I’ll take two
super-sized titties and a salty cunt to go with that large shake. Jeez. We need
to get a grip.
I sat in that bus shelter every day after work for two weeks, surveying men
and women, teens and youngsters who came and went. I waited through rainstorms,
chilly winds, full moonlight, starry brilliance and cloudy haze, wanting to
gather as much representative data on the impact that red-brassiere clad image
had on the “man on the street” as was humanly possible for a nonscientist such
Midweek of my survey experiment, one guy who was an engineer said it the
best. “You gotta understand the physics of it all, Ma’am.”
“The lines and angles?”
“No. The gravitational pull. It’s the magnetic field of power and dreams,
the lure of counter-point forces swirling in the vacuum of lust and envy, human
greed and our animal desire to conquer and own. Possess.”
“So you guys want to possess us women?”
“Indeed. And you want to possess us. It comes down to who’s zoomin’ who, as
that old Aretha Franklin song said.”
“Seems rather cynical and sad to me,” I replied.
“Can’t disagree with you,” he affirmed. “Try to look at it this way. In the
long run, the species gets repopulated, guys and gals get their jollies, and
life goes on.”
His reasoning was sound, of course. You’d expect that from an engineer.
Still, there was something unsettling about a Universe that spiraled around such
a shameless lust for control and power. It wasn’t what I’d seen those summer
evenings of my childhood, lying on the lawn, still warm from the heat of day,
staring eyeball to eyeball with the Big Dipper and her twinkling friends. There
seemed to be a certain sense of order up there, that was true, but the order
seemed contained in something less willfully mean-spirited and more co-creative.
Something wide enough and deep enough to swallow paradox and spit back
It hadn’t proven to unfold that way in my own life, of course, with my own
husband or with the boys and men I’d dated before I married. Each encounter was
guided by other, less benign, laws of nature or at least that’s what I told
myself. Opposites attract. Men are stronger; women are more loving. Men hunt;
women gather. Stone Age principles that survived the test of billions of years
because they were simply true. But maybe they weren’t so true after all.
I still found myself choking on one nugget of thought when trying to swallow
this theory whole and complete. In my childhood, women weren’t considered social
equals to men; but they were considered moral peers — sometimes even moral
superiors—even though one could rightfully question whether that distinction was
merited. The “fairer” sex didn’t mean lighter skinned or lesser build; it meant
more just and compassionate. Way back before I was born, a woman couldn’t own
property or vote. Our wombs were too problematic, they believed. Being in bodily
possession of a uterus would get us into trouble, muddle our thinking if we
tried to solve problems. A uterus simply oozed strange hormones and made us
weepy and unfit to run businesses, countries, churches, universities, board
rooms. That was the plain fact of the matter, in those days. Case closed.
What would those folks say now about wardrobe malfunctions at Super Bowl
half-time events? A woman’s exposed breast controlling the airwaves — or at
least sending the FCC into a tailspin. Did it matter that the exposed flesh
belonged to a black woman? Would we have turned away if the skin revealed during
that fateful song-and-dance number had been rosy Caucasian? Or would we have
looked closer, deemed it less obscene, in a world that still defines white skin
as preferred flesh?
The way I see it, we’re all tapping our way through one long song-and-dance
number. Sometimes we can hear the music, memorize the beat and repeat the steps
without thinking, autopilot dancers shape-shifting to the cultural rhythms.
Other times, we lose the bass, get confused and fall out of sync. That’s called
middle age for most of us. Especially most of us women. When our breasts no
longer swell into the contours of a push-up bra or worse yet, when our wardrobe
malfunctions elicit disgust rather than scandal, we lose our usefulness, our
purpose. Beyond our prime as mothers, no longer seen as sexy lovers, we wallow
in the wasteland, our aging hands tugging at our sagging flesh, cursing the
added pounds in a dirge of grief that should rock the world, if only it had ears
to hear such wailing.
That summer, after my random sampling, non-double-blind study at the bus
stop, I bought a red lacy Victoria’s secret push-up bra. One morning I wore it
under a silk shift dress and walked to my favorite bus shelter. There, under the
bright light of day, I unbuttoned the shiny pearl buttons of my dress, exposing
my ample, lace-encrusted breasts to the sun and the gentle summer breeze. I sat
on the bench inside the shelter, as bare breasted as I have ever been in public,
and waved at the people who came and went, waiting for the Number 9 Downtown
Express to show. I smiled, but few of the passersby, or the other people waiting
at the bus stop, smiled back. Most glanced my way, the beginnings of a grin
tickling their lips, then quickly averted their eyes to inspect the graffiti,
the dirt collecting in the corners of the bench, their wrist watches, the
roadway, searching the horizon for the bus. While most knew me by now, thanks to
my long survey project, none called me by name or asked me what I was doing.
Someone must have used their cell phone to phone the police, though. An hour
after my self-imposed sit-in, a squad car pulled up and out spilled two
scrubbed-faced youngsters in blue uniforms. They sauntered up and addressed me.
“Ma’am. You need to button your dress or we’ll have to haul you in,” the
blond-haired man said. A slight blush colored his pale cheeks.
I smiled but did not respond. I continued to sit, hands folded ladylike in
my lap, breasts cooling in the air.
“Ma’am,” the first officer’s brown-haired partner spoke. “We’re serious. You
can’t sit here like that. You’re defacing public property.”
I stared at the blond-haired officer, then at his buddy. “If I go, so does
she.” I nodded at the Victoria’s Secret poster.
“That’s paid advertising, Ma’am. That’s not indecent.”
“I’ll pay then,” I insisted. “I’m advertising, too.”
“What you selling Ma’am?”
“Common sense, young man. Human integrity. Respect.”
“That wouldn’t fit in an ad, Ma’am,” the officer chuckled. “Now, come on. Be
reasonable. Get yourself decent and go home. We don’t want to cause you no
“What about her?” I asked, pointing to the Victoria’s Secret model. “Does
she have to go home, too?”
“Don’t start up again on that, Ma’am,” the brown-haired officer grunted. “No
sense in making a scene. Write a letter to their corporate offices if it’ll make
you feel better. But you can’t do a damn thing about her right now.”
“I see,” I replied. “Well, I think I’ll just sit here a bit longer, then.”
I undid the rest of my shift dress and shimmied the cloth off my body,
dropping the cloth in pools around my ankles. There I presided, enthroned in my
cotton panties and my lacy red push up, my sagging stomach proclaiming its right
to live and breath in the presence of that bus stop lingerie model’s more nubile
flesh. I swear I felt a tiara settle on my graying head.
“Get a grip, woman!” the blond officer yelled, as he grabbed my wrists and
twisted my semi-nude body, pushing me to my knees. He cuffed me then and hauled
me to the squad car, leaving my dress puddled on the bus shelter floor.
I rode in the back of their cruiser, humming Helen Reddy’s 1970s classic
anthem, “I am Woman” as forcefully as I could. I smiled and tapped my feet while
the young officers shook their heads.
At the station house, the sergeant told them to get me a blanket or
something to cover my ampleness. Apparently he found it overpowering. Or
distracting. He is only a man after all. How could I expect him to concentrate
and complete his paperwork while he was bedazzled by my Victoria’s Secret push
up bra? You just can’t suppress the potency of a sex symbol.
I spent the night in jail. I called my ex-husband and asked him to pick up
the kids, feed them dinner and house them for the evening. The following morning
he came to fetch me. The police must have told him to bring me a change of
clothes. He arrived with my gray sweats in hand, and my Nikes.
“Vicky, next time you feel like taking a walk,” he told me, “choose more
I glanced at him without reply, pulled the sweatshirt over my head and
tugged on my sweat pants. Underneath the soft fleecy top, the lace from my push
up bra rubbed against the arc of my breast, reminding me that I was still an
outlaw. I felt sexy in a funny sort of way. Sexy. And powerful. Not because my
sagging breasts were launched into permanent perkiness under the astute support
of Victoria’s secret invention; but because I had invented my own secret weapon,
one that would forever change the way I looked at the world.
Now, each time I stroll pass a Victoria’s Secret billboard or bus stop sign,
I smile and wink at my sister-in-arms. Incognito as she may be. Once, on a
fleeting summer day, we stood shoulder to shoulder embracing our fierceness.
She’ll never spend a night in the slammer for exposing her breasts to the world,
but it doesn’t matter. I’ll never spend another night worrying if I’m obsolete.
I’ve tossed the Ten Commandments of Womanhood into the Red Sea of Wake Up and
Smell the Coffee. I’m no longer a has-been creature who has lost her purpose in
the world. If you sit in that bus stop as long as I did that summer, you’re bound
to hear it, humming like a drunk bee stoned on rose nectar. Beneath that
lingerie model’s coy, come-on smile lurks a secret message sent to all the women
of the world, if they would only listen.
“Your hidden power is safe with me,” she whispers. “Use it. Or lose it.”
is a novelist, memoir writer, and poet who lives in Denver, CO. Her latest
novel, The Singing of Swans (Pearlsong Press 2006) was named a 2007 Lambda
Literary Awards finalist in the Spirituality category. Mary’s first novel, No
Matter What, was a 1994 Minnesota Book Award fiction finalist. Her second novel,
Finding Grace, earned the 1999 Colorado Authors’ League “Top Hand”
Adult/Mainstream Fiction award. Mary’s memoir, Voices of the Soft-bellied
Warrior, recounts the author’s four year body-mind-spirit healing journey to
reclaim her voice after the onset of a rare voice disorder.
Mary’s poetry and creative nonfiction/memoir writings have been published in
a variety of anthologies and literary/cultural journals, both online and in
Mary also teaches writing classes, offers writing coaching services, and
teaches workshops on the Sacred Feminine.
For more information about Mary visit www.marysaracino.com.