During the summer between the seventh and eighth grades, my body started to feel strange. I got my period for the first time. Acne erupted on my face, and I forced myself to remember to apply deodorant each day. Boys I’d spent early days of childhood playing with now brought a fluttery feeling to my stomach. My breasts had begun to develop, too. It seemed like within weeks I’d gone from a training bra to a B-cup. I no longer trusted my body, which was betraying me with all these new feelings and changes.
That summer, I went to a pool party. In a two-piece, I walked by a group of boys from school who were sitting at a table.
“Let’s play quarters,” one of the boys shouted across the table. “Come on over, Nicole, we’ll throw the quarters down the top of your suit into that gaping hole.”
That “hole” was my cleavage, which was markedly sunken into my body. When my foster mother had noticed it years before, she’d explained that it would one day be deep and beautiful. But, standing in front of those boys, my cleavage felt like a canyon between two mounds of flesh. It felt anything but beautiful.
A friend, sounding envious, said, “You’re so popular now.” It seemed like, to her, any attention from boys was good attention. To me, though, that attention marked the first time I’d truly felt different from my peers.
On a trip to the mall that same summer, a grown man whispered, “May God have mercy on your body,” as he passed me in the crowded food court. It’s what I’m wearing, I thought as I pulled at my white off-the-shoulder peasant blouse. That was when I vowed to cover up my burgeoning breasts and what I saw as the hideous, flawed cleavage that ran between them.
When high school started later that year, I was relieved that my uniform included shirts that buttoned all the way to my neck. I hoped I’d no longer get catcalls or embarrassing comments if my chest remained hidden.
In the spring, as I tried on dresses for my semi-formal, my grandmother pulled at the top of a dress to cover my breasts. “I think this is too revealing,” she said.
“It’s my cleavage,” I responded. Exposing even a hint of its depth made everything feel revealing.
My grandmother handed me another dress. “That’s just how God made you,” she said. It was true, but it didn’t help the shame I felt about my body.
I decided I would bring up my different-looking chest at my next doctor’s appointment. When I forgot, I convinced myself that if there were something wrong, my doctor would have mentioned it. So, I did my best to ignore the stares and unwanted attention of boys and men, which followed me into college and beyond.
Years later, just after the death of my grandparents, my brother dropped by for a visit. After sorting through our grandparents’ things, he discovered several folders with information about us from when we were kids: report cards, school pictures, and medical records. As I stood in my kitchen, papers splayed all over the counter, I saw a yellowed sheet with a diagram of the human body.
My name was typed at the top along with my age at the time (5) and the doctor’s name. Under the notes were two words, a diagnosis: pectus excavatum.
Pectus excavatum is a condition that happens when the tissue that connects a person’s ribs to their sternum (breastbone) grows too much, causing the sternum to actually grow inward, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. This essentially creates a dent over the sternum, making that part of the chest look sunken.