I’ve never been entirely comfortable with nudity. I think that stems from my upbringing with an utterly modest Irish Catholic mother whom I saw naked for the first time two days before she died when I gave her a sponge bath. She pulled the sheet up over herself when my father walked into the room, hiding her single breast and soft belly. Made me think, perhaps, that it was an honest-to-god miracle that my siblings and I were ever conceived.
My seventeen year-old daughter does not follow in her grandmother’s sock-covered footsteps. Just last night, after her shower, she walked into my office, topless in thong underwear, and asked me to put lotion on her back. It wouldn’t seem like a big deal except my office is on the first floor in front of a picture window facing the sidewalk. People are frequently walking their dogs or slowly driving by just 25 feet away. Hmmmm. Maybe now I know why they often drive so slowly. I’m glad she’s self-assured, but geez!
I saw my first penis when I was fifteen years-old. Well, I had seen my brother’s when we were little, but of course that doesn’t count. We used to take concurrent baths and then put on a show, dancing at the top of the stairs for family or visitors, rubbing our naked bottoms together in a move we called the “nudie nude.” When I was five and my brother was three, my mother deemed our behavior inappropriate and our shared baths abruptly ended, as did my freedom to run naked in the sprinklers on hot summer afternoons. The Garden of Eden crumbled into a thing of the past and the need to cover up pervaded my life. I was the girl who changed in the bathroom stalls of the locker room in Junior High and High School. I spent much of my twenties in over-sized shirts and leggings, hiding my assets when they were in their prime.
But back to my first adult penis. We were in tenth grade and were behind the dumpster at Little Sue’s Mini Mart, adjacent to the woods where the freaks from school would hang out smoking pot in their black trench coats with their black nail polish. My friend Shannon and I used to sneak cigarettes between the dumpster and that clump of trees, dipping ever so slightly into the dark side, but not enough to significantly affect our GPAs or get Shannon kicked off the cheerleading squad. In the corner of the Mini-Mart, Shannon snuck a Playgirl between her oxford shirt and Kelly green sweater as I bought us a pack of Salem Menthols. When we got to our secluded dumpster hide-away, we anxiously flipped through the pages, at once surprised, repulsed and awed. Ok, so maybe my first sighting was just on paper, but I think it counts.
Shannon had been spending time with our twenty-three year-old Science teacher after soccer practices. They’d made out a couple of times and there was some heavy petting. She wanted to know what it was she was touching and, should she decide to take it further, she wanted to make sure she didn’t betray her innocence with a shocked expression. I was just plain curious, envious that our majorly hot biology teacher/soccer coach had shown interest in my clearly more mature friend and at the same time grateful not to be the one navigating that territory.
So while I may have been unable to confide in my mother when I was growing up and I may be a wee bit inhibited, my children clearly are not. We talk openly about sex and birth control and making decisions that are both physically and emotionally intelligent. In casual conversation the other day, my daughter told me that she saw her first penis when she was fourteen.
“FOURTEEN?!!! When?! Where?!” I was perplexed. How could I have missed this, uh, milestone?
“Oh mom,” she laughed, “It was Alex and it was backstage at the Ford Theatre.”
My daughter is a dancer and it was her first company show as a member of the Corps de Ballet. She has spent a lot of time backstage in quick changes over the years. She has very little concern about body image and is half-dressed half of the time. The Alex she referred to is an incredibly handsome, superbly fit gay man. If his had to be her first penis sighting, I suspect it was a fine specimen.
And I’m glad she’s relaxed about such things and so comfortable in her skin. I’ve done my best to ensure she feels that way. My children were still taking baths together when they could barely fit in the bathtub. It was quality time that they joyfully called “Tubby Time.” But when she was eleven and he was nine, I started to get a little concerned. I didn’t, however, want to put any shameful designations to their fun as had been done to me, so I spoke to our pediatrician.
“As long as they are both at ease with it, it’s fine for now, but don’t be surprised if at some point soon, your daughter determines that she needs her privacy or they just decide the tub is too small.”
Sure enough, about a month later, my daughter asked if she could take a shower. My son seemed happy to have the bathtub to him self and my fears of perceived impropriety were abated.
I wasn’t much older than she is now when I went to France. I was traveling with a girlfriend and we ran into a group of fraternity brothers from the University of South Carolina at a café along the Champs Elysees. We’d been out of college for a couple years and were attempting to be sophisticated women of the world with no time for guys who didn’t bother to speak French and made loud declarations like:
“Dude! After this we need to get a picture in front of that Archy thing,” or “Hey, have you guys found any place we can score some cheap beer?”
We glided through Paris to Avignon and on to the Cote D’Azur. So there we were on Lido Plage and most everyone was topless. We finally convinced each other that “When in Rome” and discreetly covered our very white breasts in sunscreen. We were comfortably relaxed in the sand feeling daring and liberated when not 30 feet away we hear, “Hey! It’s the girls from California!” and two of the USC fraternity boys bounded over to us, awkwardly placing a flip flop between me and my bikini top.
Meanwhile, in my Burbank backyard this past April, when it was barely warm enough to hang out in the lawn chairs and certainly not temperate enough to swim, and my husband and son were playing Call of Duty just a French door away, my daughter and her friends decided to skinny dip. (Sidenote: when my son heard that this had gone on just behind his hunched-over the-PS3-controller shoulders, he was totally grossed out. Won’t likely be the case by next April!)
And where, if the pool were 102º and I had even considered such a thing, my first thought would have been to strategically place a cover-up where I could easily get to it should ANY ONE come within a 50 foot radius of our pool, my daughter and her friends completely forget about towels all together. I hear my name - well that Universal Call for assistance – MOM! – entwined in a blur of giggles. They realize that they have nothing to dry off with. I throw a stack of towels in the dryer to give them that deliciously welcome warmth whenever they’re ready to get out.
The moon is bright on their confident smiles, naked teens happily floating, uninhibited and free. I chuckle as I imagine the look on my mother’s face were she visiting for the week.
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As shared at Expressing Motherhood at Spirit Studio in Silver Lake, October 3 & 4, 2015.