SPOTLIGHT: Never Wear White by Susan Darlington

(With reference to the Stephen King novel of the same title)

I learn about the shame of a woman’s body
from my mother’s handwritten notes.
The ones I pass, red-faced, to my teacher
that excuse me from showers and swimming.

I stand at the edge of the echoing pool,
flush under the stare of my classmates
and imagine every laugh is aimed at me,
humiliated by my exclusion

and worried that while I stand here
everyone can smell the iron of my blood;
see the stain seeping into my skirt’s fabric
and dribbling down the inside of my thighs.

There is no pride in womanhood here;
no sisterly bond in the changing room
when our pubescent bodies are revealed
from under layers of baggy clothing.

Where every breast bud and roll of fat
is scrutinised and found wanting;
where pads and tampons are bad
but not even needing them is worse.

Steeped in lessons from Carrie
we fear becoming targets of ridicule;
are cruel and careless with our bodies
as we absorb a shame we don’t understand.

Changing Room

He was the first boy to see me semi-naked
in the body I was still trying on for size.

Hemmed into the changing room in the starter bra
and plain cotton pants my mother had bought,

his face appeared over the partition –
as yet unspoiled by the acne rash of facial hair –

too young to feel shame at being caught peeking.
Old enough to be interested in a woman’s secret curves.

I turned my back to him as my skin flared red,
prickled with the heat of embarrassed want.

Conscious of the fuzz on my legs that barely covered
the razor burns of a figure in transition.

Raised on sugar and spice I said nothing
as I pulled up the dress that was too old for me.

Aroused at being considered worthy of attention.
Chastened that this was a body I’d never truly own.

The Unkindness

I was twelve when mother
called me in from the woods,
sat me on a kitchen chair
and brushed my hair into braids.

She told me I was now of age
to stop childish games;
that it was time I learned
the unkindness of womanhood.

Silenced, she cut off my plaits,
wound them around her head
and affixed them with pins
that made her scalp bleed.

She kicked off the red stilettos
in which I’d play-acted seduction
and ran into the darkening thicket
without a backwards glance

while my brothers fought
over a plastic rifle in the yard
and father slouched on the couch,
one hand on the fly of his jeans.

(With reference to Heavens To Betsy’s “My Red Self”)

It was the summer
we made a pinkie promise
to always be sisters.

Afternoons spent locked
in our bedrooms, we bloomed
from schoolgirls into goddesses

with our knee-high socks,
vintage camisoles,
and gloops of lipstick

in the darkest plums and reds.
It was the colour of menstrual blood.
It was the colour of power.

We used it to write
‘slut’ down our arms
and ‘witch’ across our bellies.

Marvelled at how liberated
we were as we sang
to our favourite records.

“Never wear white/
Or your shame will creep thru.”
Knowing that in those vinyl grooves
there was the possibility of change.

Eve’s Rib

I watch my mother
exhume the dolls’ bones
from under a willow tree.

She wipes damp soil
from its eye sockets
and from its Eve’s rib.

Handing them to me,
she tells me it’s the sister
she couldn’t carry to term.

That I must now learn
how to stretch skin
over its growing limbs;

pull hair from my scalp
to seed the roots
in the skull’s softness.

She cups my cheek
in her palm’s jigsaw –
bone created from bone –

and I can only nod,
silently reaching out
to open the nursery door.


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