My older sister and I were outside a hidden glass door of a hammam, a Turkish bathhouse. We were there to experience a ritual, born in the seventh century, of washing and purifying one's skin. Up above the glass door was a giant gray, faded dome, made of huge chunks of stone. We had traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, eager to see the world after saving up enough money for a summer trip. I was 24.
"Are we in the right place?" I asked her, as we navigated down a wide staircase with no signs. When we got to what appeared to be the entrance, we found arrows on the floor which indicated women were to turn right. This took us down to a locker room, made of more stone with black and pink pebbles.
This was no American locker room. Instead of women changing, we walked straight into a group of Turkish women in a circle, dancing, clapping their hands, and shaking everything Allah gave them. One woman yodeled while another clucked her tongue, in what seemed like a festive femininity dance. The women were of all shapes and ages. Some had the build of sumo wrestlers, others resembled tiny fairies.
All were completely naked.
"You didn't tell me we had to be nude?" I yelped to my sister. I was terrified of showing anyone my small breasts. The only person who had seen them since puberty was her. I turned back around into darkness. I was getting out of there.
Growing up in a family of six as a Muslim-Bangladeshi American, I was always the flat-chested one. My mother's side of the family is filled with curvaceous cousins much further along in the alphabet than me: Cs, Ds, and beyond. Their breasts and womanly figures propelled them into all sorts of torrid affairs I heard about three continents away. If I was to inherit the family history of diabetes, surely it would come along with a nice pair of double Ds. It had passed down to my older sister, who started wearing a bra at age 10, and was deemed a prized beauty. I, in contrast, was given the part of a small boy in our high school production of "Our Town." I was medically underweight and undersized.
My mother, my Mamuni, took me to a nutritionist to figure out what the problem was. After carefully taking my measurements and writing detailed notes on my eating habits, the nutritionist looked up from her notepad and declared, "She needs more butter." Mamuni dutifully began to put butter in my rice at dinner, which made my previously delicious Bangla meals much less desirable, all in the hopes of fattening me up. It didn't, but it did give me high cholesterol.
After I got my period, Mamuni resigned herself to the fact that I wasn't going to grow. "Well I guess that's it, then," she said, looking at my chest. She didn't bring it up again, but people outside of our home did.
In a middle-school typing class, a boy I had a crush on, with green eyes and pale skin, once pounded on the side of his machine and said, "You're as flat as this computer." My crush soon faded.
I would often go to my sister, whom I called Apu in Bangla, for solace and education in these times, lamenting the fact that my chest looked nothing like hers.
"What's cleavage?" I asked Apu. I had a hard time understanding what all the fuss was about. "It means you can push your boobs together, stick a pencil in between, and the pencil won't fall." She demonstrated. I didn't get it. What exactly was so sexy about that? Nevertheless, I tried it. The pencil dropped straight down to the floor. I tried to press my own breasts together. If I mashed them really hard, I had a hint of something.
"I don't even have cleavage."
She tried to cheer me up. "Neither does Keira Knightley. And she's gorgeous!" Apu didn't need to add what we already both knew. I was no Keira Knightley.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.