I grew up a skinny kid that people addressed as Sir. That's what happens when you're six feet tall at the age of 12, with the body of a pubescent boy, covered in stretch marks from growing too fast. I didn't fit in anywhere. I was an alien, a freak. When we moved to a small town, our next-door neighbor, a man in his fifties, asked me if I was a boy or a girl. The question didn't bother me that much except that he was obviously someone who didn't listen to David Bowie and therefore couldn't be trusted.
Food repulsed me and hurt to swallow. There was a constant lump in my throat. As an adult I found out there's a name for it: globus hystericus, what Freud called "the throat monster." I was a sensitive, tense kid, and it manifested in my neck. In addition to the troll in my throat, I didn't want to risk growing any taller and subconsciously ate as little as I could to (barely) function.
At 14, most of the girls in my class could wear a bra. My chest was closer to concave than convex. I instinctively knew that boobs weren't something that I was going to be blessed with. It pissed me off because all the women in my family had great tits, but it didn't piss me off quite as much as it did my mother.
To her the most important thing in life was to fit into the conventional standard of Scandinavian female beauty. When people commented negatively on my looks, she exploded in a fit of rage. How dare anyone point out that her kid was anything short of perfect?
I skipped school as often as I could and used TV as a form of escape. I was a smart kid but had problems concentrating. To get out of a German language exam, I cut class. I switched on the TV, ready for the first program of the day. I watched the analogue clock on the screen approach 5 p.m. — tick, tock, slowly, slowly... As ever, I was waiting for time to catch up. I couldn't wait for the day when I was old enough to move somewhere bigger, somewhere better, where everyone didn't look the same. Somewhere where it was OK to resemble David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Mom sat down beside me. Her sudden presence felt like keeping up with a TV show that I had no idea how it was going to end. Every episode was a surprise. I stayed loyal in a blind hope that it would get better — that she would ask me how I was or if I wanted to do something fun. Maybe she would say that she loved something other than a new lipstick or her new trousers.
There was a stack of magazines on the coffee table. An issue of Playboy at the top. How it had appeared there was unclear but I'd seen it before. Mom had no problem with that kind of magazine being in the house. Men have their needs, she used to say, as if I'd asked what the opposite of a feminist was.
She picked it up.
"I can understand that you don't want to go to school or fancy learning to speak German, but to sit here throwing your life away in front of the TV is beyond me," she said. "Stop sulking."
She flicked aimlessly through the magazine. Page after page with tight, perfect skin. No bruises, no stretch marks, no pink tones, except for the nipples as big as half a lemon — tiny spaceships on perfect aliens who could have anything and anyone they wanted.
"There are things you can do, you know," mom continued, like she could read my mind. "Surgery has come a long way. It would be expensive of course. You'd have to pay for it yourself. But I would support you."
She was referring to breast augmentation.
I looked at the pictures and pondered the best place to have the incision. In the armpit or in the boob crease? Because there would definitely be a crease there when it was done. No point in half measures. All in!
"Men want someone they can project their dreams onto," she said. "Someone who smiles. Someone they look up to but aren't threatened by. Men want to fantasize about the kind of life they could have with a woman. It's a game and a fantasy. Men don't want someone like you — someone who sits at home moping or stare at them in the school corridors.'
How did she know that I stared at boys?
"Your dad loves me," she said, proud. "But it comes with a price. You have to keep in shape, make sure other men want you. Then they make an extra effort." She kept going through the magazine, studying the women with their arched backs. "It's a game. You can never lose the ball. If you do, turn your back and walk away. If they come back, then you've got the power again. If they don't, well, then you still have your pride. Men have their needs. You just have to understand that, on an intellectual level, that's all. Then you won't fall."
She tilted her head and studied the face of a Playboy model dressed in white, frilly, lace panties. How did lingerie like that work under jeans?
"If you're not going to learn German or physics, then at least learn this. It's simple math. There's a formula to everything," she said and got up to leave.
She was done.
Her words etched into my mind like a dodgy prison tattoo. I wanted to be like her. I had to change. Become normal. There was no way I was going to become a successful human being without boobs.
My best friend, Sebastian, lived down the street. He was the male version of a tomboy. Growing up in a small town wasn't easy for us, but his big brother saved our sanity with his record collection.
"Which rock star would you fuck?" I asked Sebastian, sitting on his bed and hugging his arm with both of mine. My family weren't huggers.
"Axl Rose. Did you know that his name means oral sex? I mean, if you re-arrange the letters?"
"Really!? Cool. But, I mean, if it was a girl?" I asked, hopeful.
Of course. Madonna. Everyone loved Madonna. I wanted to be the exception. Like Madonna. Someone Sebastian would fuck. Someone like Bowie. Someone who everyone wanted.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" Sebastian said.
"I want to be someone who is loved by people that they don't know and who know close to nothing about them."
"Ok. I mean, what do you want to do? For work?"
"I want to become someone else, someone famous. If that isn't work then I don't know what is."
Sebastian and I played supermodels in his garage. We danced in the driveway to a soundtrack of Bowie. Practiced our choreography while the speakers boomed "Modern Love" and we pretended that judges who knew a thing or two about beauty and modern dance were giving us 10 out of 10. Sebastian's big brother had lent us "Let's Dance" on tape. David Bowie became mine. An older role model. A brother from another mother. Someone who told me that it was OK to not want what everyone else wanted. That it was OK to pick multicolored glitter as your favorite color. It was OK not to look like the other girls.
Sebastian understood me. We were the heroes, the superstars of Smallville, if only for a day, or for half an hour at a time. On that sunny day, dancing on the rain-soaked streets of suburbia, I knew I was going to be OK. There would be people out there, people like Sebastian, people like Bowie, that would somehow accept me. One day. Boobs or no boobs.