We weren’t allowed to read Cosmopolitan until we were juniors in high school. Our mothers would talk about how we didn’t need to be polluting our minds with that kind of trash, that we needed to enjoy being young and innocent, that we could please boys just by being ourselves, that we didn’t need to worry about pleasing them at all. I don’t know if they knew that we had already begun to explore the complicated world of sex, in varying measures, and that most of the magazine’s advice would come woefully late for our failed teenage romances. I don’t know if they still thought of us as children, and truly thought that it would be a few printed words in an advice list that would jump-start the transition to womanhood. I don’t know if our not being able to read it was more for them, or for us. But whatever the reasoning, it was forbidden.
And so, when one of us would manage to get a copy from the drugstore, we all read it voraciously. We passed it around until all the edges were frayed and water-damaged and curling in at the corners. We underlined the pertinent advice, the bits that perfectly aligned with our own relationships, and the things that we wanted to remember the next time we were fooling around with a boy in his parents’ basement rec room. We would try all of the quizzes on one another, finding out our destiny via a few questions whose answer options so clearly revealed what your result was going to be. We would practice all of the techniques presented in the sex articles, sometimes on a banana that we would put back in the fruit basket afterwards. We felt like women, even if we didn’t really know what that meant.
When sex became such a clear part of our lives that even our hand-wringing parents would have to accept that their little girls had been deflowered, it was all about the practicality. We used to do a kind of rain dance whenever one of us found out — after a particularly stressful month — that she wasn’t pregnant after all. (The dance took on a much more somber note when the girl was with a man who we knew, on some unspoken level, would not accept or support such a pregnancy.) We had outgrown the stilted advice of magazines and were turning to one another to see if we fell within some kind of bell curve. “Does he make you come?” we would say, almost sheepishly, as though the idea of a regular female orgasm was some kind of a selfish expectation.
“No,” a lot of us would reply.
Still, even among the ones who confessed to never having experienced orgasm at the hand of a man, it would be tough to get a real admission of masturbation. Just like when we were 15, when every boy around us was a boys-will-be-boys cloud of pheromones and ravenous appetites and “jacking off” as sport, there was still something a little bit shameful in a woman’s desire to bring herself to climax. “Have you ever even looked at yourself in a mirror?” the more daring friends would ask, “Do you even know what it looks like?”
They never really gave a straight answer. You knew that they must have — that we all did, at some point — but once a girl had showed you that she wasn’t going to talk about the act of touching herself, or even being familiar with her anatomy, it wasn’t something you could push. Her sexuality, outside of the context of turning a man on, was something that she had never really been taught to encounter. For all of those articles we tittered over with a flashlight under the covers, not a one ever told her that the way she looked or the way she felt was okay. It only taught her the most seamless way to take all of those bubbling, confusing, conflicting feelings, and put them in a package that a boy will fall in love with. If she could only learn how to be less of herself, then someone would tell her that she is okay. Then everything she did could be “sexy” and not just “vulgar.”
We used to steal tubes of lipstick and palettes of eyeshadow from the CVS before we were allowed to wear makeup, and weren’t getting any pocket money to buy it. We used to pick the house where the parents were least present and make ourselves up in the bathroom mirror, following the contours of our cheeks and minimizing our already-tiny pubescent noses. We played up our eyelashes and plumped our lips and made every bit of our appearance look as primed and eager as we possibly could, even when, in its natural state, it was already bursting with youthful glow. Once, a girl’s mother caught us in her vanity mirror when she came home from work, liberally applying gloss to our pursed little lips.
“Where did you get all of this?” she asked.
“We bought it at the store,” her daughter lied.
“With what money?”
We stayed silent. She made us give her every tube and compact and palette, and drove us back to the CVS we came from so that we could return it. In the fluorescent light of the drug store, the makeup that had looked so glamorous and adult in the vanity now made us look like clowns, embarrassing facsimiles of the sexuality we were just so sure we wanted to be a part of. On the ride home, our faces streaked with the residue of our tears, she told us that we shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing anyway. “You’ll look like a tramp if you make yourself up like that,” she said, “And no boy is going to want a girl like that.”