Pubic Shame by Caitlin Bergh

Caitlin Bergh remains one of my favorite contributors to The Steamroller, as well as one of my favorite comics in Chicago. She's remounting her one woman show, Chunks, at Powell's Bookstore every Saturday from April 20th (that's this weekend!) until May 11th, at 7:30pm. This June, the show will be a part of the second annual Chicago Women's Funny Festival and will be hitting the road as a part of Core Project Chicago. Caitlin sent over this story to run in advance of the new string of dates, with a brief explanation about the story's context as it fits into Chunks.

"Chunks is a show about being yourself, even if you are disgusting. The first run focused a lot on sex and dating realizations, but in this run I'm going to incorporate stories from my childhood, too. I think we can all relate to feeling like an outsider as a kid, and those early feelings of insecurity can stick with us forever. I know that I'm constantly paranoid when I'm in a group of women, and this story about my experience at camp is just a little piece of the reason why."

Pubic Shame

When I was growing up, I had the privilege of going to sleep away camp.  It was a beautiful all-girls camp on a lake, where we were not allowed to have candy, electronics, or a lousy time.

I really loved camp. In fact, from the ages of 9 to 11, I felt like the camp’s meow. I had lots of friends and participated (hard) in all camp activities. Every year I starred in the camp musical. I won sailing races and archery contests. From the ages of 9 to 11, I smiled and danced my summers away. Life was perfect. It couldn’t have been better. And it never would be.

When I came back to camp as a twelve-year-old, something had happened. Something had changed. It seemed that something terrible had swept the nation that winter. Something they were calling “puberty.”  Devastating, indeed, puberty had left no girl my age untouched. No girl, that is, except for me.

My friends got off the bus that summer with boobs, stories about boys, tons of razors and an array of lotions. They arrived with periods, lots of periods, and the corresponding sense of heightened importance. Now that I’m 27, I get it, too. Having your period is so cool.

It was immediately clear to me that I couldn’t let anyone know that I was still a kid, still shopping, in fact, at Gap Kids. Unless I wanted to go from the camp’s most popular 11-year-old to the camp’s most made fun of 12-year-old, it was imperative that I live a summer of absolute secrecy.

It started with shaving. At our camp we had a bathroom with long trough-like sinks. The newly preteen girls were really crazy about shaving their legs. More frequently than they needed to. But who wants to shave alone? They loved to line up at the long trough sink, stick their legs in and shave and gab about their lives. It was cool and I wanted in on it. It was a crucial social event.

There was only one problem. I didn’t have any leg hair. I didn’t have any shaving equipment. But I knew that if I missed these parties, my life would be over. I had to think fast. I walked into the shaving party one day and asked the question that would change my life: “Hey, does anyone need me to hold their towel?” I tried to say it with confidence. To my delight, they answered “yes” almost in perfect unison, like a bunch of lovely ponies, all in a row, with one leg up at the trough.

From that day on, I became a sort of Golf Caddy of shaving equipment. Primarily, I held towels, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Not only did I have to remember whose towel was whose, I also had to watch attentively so that I was beside each young shaver right as she finished her final stroke. I monitored the brightness of the lights so that as many nicks as possible could be avoided by the young pony shavers. I was sort of a shaving lifeguard, too, ready if anyone got cut or dropped anything. If anyone asked why I didn’t join, I would just say that I preferred to shave in private, but I was sort of a “born helper,” which was only partly a lie. I am a born helper.

Another area of concern was the annual skinny dip. I knew this was not something I could weasel my way out of. There is no skinny dipping caddy; that is just a perv.

On the night of the dip, I said I needed to be alone with my thoughts. This made them suspicious, and being suspicious made them mean. The next day when I arrived in my cabin, my stuffed animals were hanging from the rafters by their necks, drenched in lake water. I tried not to cry. They were on to me. "It's okay," I told myself, "they are just threatened by my inner child." Which was also, of course, my outer child.

It was only a matter of time until my cover was blown. When one of my cabin-mates was grabbing tampons out of her drawer one day, I accidentally blew it myself. “UGH!” I said to the tampon-gatherer, “Getting your period is the worst. I get mine all the time.” The whole cabin heard me. They looked at each other knowingly. They knew they were amidst a fraud.

The next night, I was trying to get dressed in my cabin, using my tedious process of wrapping myself in a towel while I put my clothes on so that no one would see me naked. I had done this—so far successfully—every day that summer.

But my cabin mate was standing by her bed watching me, and I saw her eyes filling up with evil. I knew she knew I had something to hide. I knew she could sense my weakness. But I wasn’t ready for what came next.

In one fell swoop, she leapt across the cabin towards me, and ripped the orange towel off my body. The moonlight was pouring into our cabin with such force that it might as well have been 2 o’clock in the afternoon. And in the moon’s bright glow, there I stood, totally naked. And there it was: the thing they had all suspected. NO PUBES.

My whole cabin was staring in frozen laughter as they did the puberty math in their heads: no pubes means no leg hair; no leg hair means no armpit hair; no armpit hair means no period. My pube lies were suddenly compounded by the millions of tampon lies, shaving lies, big fat period lies, lies about kissing boys, about touching them “under their pants.” I was the biggest 12-year-old fraud in history.

I had committed a crime. I deserved to die. Or at the very least, I deserved to be sent to a younger cabin (actually, that would have been really nice). But they settled for letting me live out the rest of the summer in total misery.

Years later, as a nineteen-year-old in college (who, yes, had been hit by puberty finally at age 17), I was as clueless about what to do with my pubes as I had been about having them at age 12. One day, I overheard my college friends talking about what they do to groom their pubes for their boyfriends. What? Groom? You have to do things to them? Panic set in like the panic I felt when my orange towel hit the cabin floor that fateful day. Oh my god. I had been fooling around with boys with an inappropriate bush? But I thought I learned at camp that having pubes was the goal!

“I go to a great gal, Sofia, and she does a Brazilian for $80” one of my friends bragged. Brazilian? What the fuck was that? A special way of growing pubes? I Googled it later that night to find an enraging discovery.

I had been wrongfully bullied as a 12-year-old at camp. I hadn’t been behind the curve with my bald vagina after all. I had been way, WAY ahead of it. How dare those twelve-year-old brats not understand my artistic vision! Unfortunately, though, NOW I was behind the curve for sure… at a time in my life when actual people were seeing me naked because I invited them to, and not because they were just ripping my towel off. Once again, I was pubic-ally shamed. Maybe Alanis Morisette would call it ironic. It’s like having too many pubes when you’re 19, or not enough when you are 12.

-Caitlin Bergh