It was a Wednesday afternoon. The sun was high in the sky, shining brightly, its rays feeling warm on the skin and causing the atmosphere to be hot. White puffy clouds were floating along the clear blue skies. The trees planted along the street pavements were full of green leaves in bloom. Some of the branches supported nets of stalky sticks and grass that housed birds that kept tweeting and making sounds like whistles. Nana skipped from one block to the next, whilst sucking a long thin red candy stick bought at her school’s tuck shop. She was looking at the trees along the roadside and comparing them while she kept counting the blocks of concrete. She felt joy and pleasure doing all these activities and enjoyed her journey back home.
Later in the afternoon, Nana was home in her bedroom changing from her school dress into her blue training shorts and a round neck t-shirt that was a bright yellow colour. Nana packed her sports bag as she was preparing for a field hockey training session. After packing, she realised that she was still wearing socks and her training shoes were nowhere in sight. She knelt down and crawled along the floor on her hands and knees as she kept bending her head to look for her training shoes beneath the bed, dressing table, chest of drawers and inside her closet where she found them.
Nana was sitting upright on the carpet floor wearing her training shoes. She heard her mother calling her, “Nana! Nana! You cannot be late again!” She added, “Your coach has already given you a warning! Hurry up, Nana!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Nana shouted back, walking briskly out of her room and down the passage leading into the living room where her mother was standing at the wide-open front door.
Moments later, when their car drove into the sport’s ground parking area, Nana felt a sharp cold feeling in her stomach, a sudden surge of mixed reactions of fear, resentment and sadness. The car engine stopped when her mother turned the key and pulled it from the ignition. She swung the driver’s front door open and grabbed two water bottles with an extra towel she took from the dryer just before they left. “Come Nana!” her mother said, observing Nana’s sudden still and frozen state in her seat, showing reluctance to climb out of the car.
“Yes, Mom,” Nana mumbled softly while unstrapping the seat belt.
Her mother titled her head slightly inside the car and asked with a gentle voice, “Nana, are you okay?”
“Yes, Mom. Just fine,” replied Nana, with a dismissing tone and a sharp voice. Walking toward her teammates, she felt heavy and even more awkward and out of place. She surveyed the grounds and everyone else, dropping her sport bag mid-way to the ground parking area extending onto the lush green grass that stretched across the entire field.
Nana walked straight to the bench and dropped on a seat sluggishly. She breathed a sigh and greeted everyone with slightly parted lips and a tight grin. Soon after her arrival, the coach called out, “Everyone, gather around!” The girls stood in a circle formation around the coach who towered above them. The coach held a clipboard with papers attached to it and a string tied to the top end of a pen. Around her neck hung a string with a silver metal whistle.
When Nana’s name was called out, she grabbed her hockey stick and walked to the second group standing close to the goal post. She stood with her hands joined together holding the hockey stick between her legs, with one foot resting on the curving end that extends outwards. She was standing next to two other team members, Thandeka and Nontobeko. Nana’s teammates were both taller in stature, had a more defined physique with wider hips and curves and protruding breasts that were held up by sports bras that made them look fuller and rounder. Comparatively, Nana had a smaller frame and looked a lot skinnier than her peers, with budding breasts held up by a training bra and no sign of hips showing yet.
Nana was very conscious of her late maturing body because most of her 12 year-old peers were already showing signs of maturing. She felt awkward around her peers because the shorts they wore with matching tight tank tops displayed their silhouettes. Nana’s most dreaded moments were the group photos taken before matches. She avoided these by arriving moments before play time or by rushing to the changing rooms after matches to wait until everyone else was done.
After many weeks of practice and matches, Nana’s mother noticed that Nana became more enraged each time she had to go to a practice or a match. Nana also displayed symptoms of headaches, aching stomach cramps, a runny tummy or reports of being dizzy. One evening, when Nana was helping her mother wash dishes after supper, Nana’s mother decided to talk to Nana about her behavior. “Nana, how have you been lately?” she asked.
“What do you mean, Mama?” replied Nana.
“How is school, the team, just about everything concerning you?”
“Uh-uhm. Well, uhm,” Nana cleared her throat. “School is fine, I really like my friends and have been doing well with my studies – especially with Geography. I have developed a keen interest in it and I’m considering travelling the world after completing my schooling.”
“Good to hear, that’s wonderful!” said Nana’s mother, but she continued probing, especially as she had noticed Nana’s evasive behavior of speaking about hockey by avoiding the question.
“Nana! I need to know the truth. I love and care about your wellbeing. Are you happy with playing hockey and being part of the team? Has there been any incident that may have discouraged you from finding pleasure in playing hockey?”
A sudden silence permeated the kitchen and diffused Nana’s attempt at bravado. Her eyes started twinkling and became glossy as tears swirled up in her eyes. This made her feel tense and distressed. She quickly pulled closer to her mother, buried her face in her mother’s chest and stretched her arms tightly around her mother’s waist. Tears were now streaming down her face and she let out sounds of deep, heavy breathing. Her mother drew her closer.
Moments later, Nana was still in her mother’s embrace. Her mother gently stroked her back and reassured Nana, “It’s okay dear, crying over what makes you sad or upset is perfectly normal. People cry to release emotions and to soothe themselves from any pain caused by these emotions. Never feel ashamed, stupid or bad about crying. Like I said before, I love you and I care for you.”
“Thank you, Mama,” Nana said, “it’s just that…”
Nana moved slowly away from her mother, turning toward the round kitchen table standing in the center of the room, adjacent to the kitchen sink. Nana stopped in front of the kitchen table with her back turned against her mother who remained standing at the sink. Her mother was leaning against the sink, with her arms folded and her head titled to the side in anticipation, waiting to hear more from Nana.
Nana’s head dropped. Her neck was stiff with tension and her shoulders were raised. Her hands were locked into each other with their palms facing upward. She kept fiddling with her thumbs, twisting and encircling each in turn. She had stopped crying by now and was feeling ashamed of all that had happened. “Mom, I…er…” she sighed. “Mom, I don’t like my body, I don’t look pretty like the other girls and I feel awkward around all the other girls and their defined silhouettes!” Nana threw her hands lightly upwards and left them hanging loosely at her sides, her shoulders still raised and arched forward and her head hanging.
“Nonsense!” That’s not true. You are just as pretty as the other girls. You look beautiful just the way you are!” said her mother rushing towards her, resting both her hands on each shoulder as she turned Nana around. “Nana, you are a very beautiful young girl. I also think that you are beautiful even if you are different to your peers, because they too are each beautiful in different ways. I know and understand what you are talking about and what it is that you are experiencing. Look at me!” said her mother, walking slightly backwards and stretching her arms widely sideways.
“Look at me, Nana,” she said, making gestures with her hands, moving them up and down her torso and across her chest and waist as she pointed to her legs. “I also have a tiny frame, just like you. Just like you, Nana, I was also a late bloomer. I was probably the last girl amongst my friends and in my class to mature physically. I also felt quite saddened by it until my mother shared these words with me. Nature doesn’t struggle to grow or change, it just does. Seasons know when to start and when to end. Animals too never struggle about how they look or sound, they each behave how their kind behaves. So Nana,” her mother said as she wiped her tears from her own eyes and cheeks, “I learned to accept and love myself just the way I am, because my body is the best it can be and I am grateful that it is healthy. Maybe I should have shared this with you sooner and saved you the pain. I am sorry for neglecting to take care of your emotional wellbeing. I assumed that since we spoke about your body’s changes and maturing you would be OK, especially after I saw and heard the way you were reacting and responding during our talk. I’m so sorry, clearly you weren’t coping with all the changes as well as I thought.” The two of them stood hand-in-hand with their arms stretched out towards each other. “Please forgive me?” her mother asked.
“I do,” replied Nana. “But you don’t have to apologise, you have always been open with me, loving and caring. I guess I grew fearful of sharing because I listened to the self-talk I started having and ended up believing these thoughts that were mostly caused by fear.”
“Why were you scared though?” asked her mother.
“I’m not sure, because you are open about most things and easily approachable,” answered Nana.
“Well, maybe like most teenagers you started to doubt everything about yourself and needed constant affirmation through support and love,” replied her mother. “When you doubt yourself, it becomes easy to entertain negative thoughts that cause fear, make you sad and also irritable,” said her mother, chuckling. “Oh Nana, you are growing up too fast. Soon you’ll be a grown woman travelling the world like you said, huh?”
“Yes Mama, I believe I will,” laughed Nana, as they both drew closer to embrace each other in a hug with chuckles leading to laughter.
Tell us: Have you struggled with your body’s development? How did you handle it?