A roundtable discussion about Judy Blume featuring Nell Beram, Nina Berry and Andrea Kleine.
EVEN BEFORE I OFFICIALLY hit adolescence I’d read and loved most of Judy Blume’s books. I pored over Are you There God? It’s Me Margaret several times in sixth grade. By eighth grade, I’d giggled over the sex scenes of Foreverwith my friends so many times the little paperback book fell open automatically to those passages. Judy Blume was interwoven with my tween years as much as slam books, homework, and awkward flirtation with boys. Blume’s clear, unselfconscious prose made it seem normal to think about sex, to ask questions about religion, to worry whether your boobs were big enough. Pre-teen life was complicated and weird, but by addressing it so straightforwardly, Blume made it feel a bit more manageable.
So it should resonate as a surprise that, when I got my back brace at age 14, I avoided reading Deenie, Judy Blume’s seminal book on the subject,. A few well-meaning people recommended it, but I argued that I didn’t need to read about the pain, humiliation and inconvenience of wearing a brace. I lived through it 23 hours a day for three years. I could’ve told Judy Blume a thing or two about what it’s like to go through the most awkward years of your life covered in hard plastic and metal from armpits to thigh.
In truth, I was afraid to read the book. I managed my feelings about the brace with the ultimate anti-Blume strategy: denial. I decided that my situation wasn’t complex, weird, or awkward. It was fine. I was fine. There was no problem. On my 14th birthday, as I was beginning to increase the hours I wore the brace each day, my friends and I went to the beach, then retired to my friend Diane’s house. The boy I liked was there, and I figured I’d better get out ahead of the situation so he’d know what was up. I came out wearing a baggy dress with no waist, and said, “You guys should know I have to start wearing this back brace. You can’t really see it under my clothes, but…” And I rapped my knuckles on the plastic over my stomach, the way you knock on a door. I figured that if I joked about my situation in what appeared to be an upfront, healthy fashion, my friends would leave me alone. It worked. Everyone laughed, and that was it. Later, when we played Truth or Dare, the boy I liked kissed my elbow on a dare. It made me very happy, yet very sad. Even then I knew I wouldn’t date as long as I wore the brace. A boy or two may very well have been willing, but I could not believe it. I became very good at turning men into friends instead of boyfriends. I emanated a “not available” air.
When I finally read Deenie, a year or so into my regimen, the book made me angry. The main character is a beautiful seventh grader whose mother is pushing her to become a model. When Deenie is diagnosed with scoliosis and gets a Milwaukee back brace, (a far more severe version than the one I wore, with an appliance that comes up under her chin), her mother’s plans for her are shattered. The process of getting fitted and accustomed to the brace is excruciating for Deenie, and reading about it was painful for me. I skipped entire paragraphs. This book was messing up my denial.
In addition, I resented the role the brace played in Dee...read more