Time for loving, time for caring, time to move, yes it’s time
– 1972 ALP campaign jingle
I must, I must, I must; I must increase my bust!
— 70s schoolgirl chant
In 1971, the co-ed Tech school I went to introduced Cookery and Needlework classes for the boys and, a year later, Woodwork and Sheetmetal for the girls.
Looking back, I don’t remember anyone complaining. Maybe they did, and we just didn’t hear about it. Or maybe it was incredibly gasp-radical for the first few weeks, and then just became incredibly normal. Like David Bowie wearing make-up, and Gary Glitter’s platform shoes.
For the first few years these classes (unlike the less physical Maths and English) were always segregated.
We liked having these all-girl classes, and we liked Sheetmetal, because Mr Harvey let us listen to the radio. Wednesday afternoons were passed happily watching Mr Harvey make anodised nut bowls and enamelled pendants while we perched in rows up on the benches, swinging our legs, brushing each other’s hair, singing along to Suzi Quatro and the Kinks.
Music, taught by Mr Foster the Senior Master, was another ‘physical’ and hence segregated class. Our class chose ‘Nobody's Child’ and sang it with great passion (just like a flower…). Mr Foster, in his tweed suit, sat on the edge of the desk and said we were very sensitive; much more sensitive than the other class who had chosen to sing ‘Dizzy.’
And then out of the blue he shocked us by talking about how opera singers always have such large bosoms.
No-one said a word.
The thing was that if Mr Foster (who was at least forty) had noticed the bosoms of opera singers, well perhaps he had noticed ours.
And if he'd noticed… (way too horrible to think about!) perhaps our fathers had too.
We knew the younger teachers had this area under surveillance after the famous case of Belinda Tilley who sprouted over the holidays (real breasts, firm and grapefruit-like, not the pointy embarrassing and painful things most of us began with); with Mr Saunders commenting on it at the Sports carnival as she sped past round the track for the 200 metres, breasts streaking jauntily ahead in her new larger sized blue t-shirt.
‘Jesus. How long has Belinda had tits?’
And then that terrible time in Maths when the relief teacher (who no-one liked anyway) mistook Berenice McKenzie for a boy.
‘You there, young boy, what's the answer?’
Berenice’s skirt was hidden by the desk and all that was visible was her round freckled face, short hair, and her straight as a board chest with white shirt, tie and blue jumper.
The room went ice-quiet. Berenice blushed beetroot and tears came to her eyes.
The relief teacher said, ‘What’s the matter? What’s the matter?’
No-one said a word. (Too slow, Mr Turcotte, go to the bottom of the class.)
When he realised he tried to make light of it, as if it didn’t matter, or as if it was Berenice’s fault for having short hair and a flat chest.
It was the season for big changes. Not just Brenda Tilley, but out there in the wider world too.
The Australian Labor Party started the ‘It’s Time!’ campaign and every night on the news there would be another of those Labor devils – Gough Whitlam, Lionel Murphy, Bob Hawke, Jim Cairns – spouting off and causing my father to rattle his spoon in his teacup.
Actually I thought the ads about the environment and equal pay and free education made a lot of sense, but then the Liberal’s ad would come on, with a big black ball and chain and the ominous words: ‘Don’t sentence yourself to 20 years hard Labor!’
If Labor got in, the ad said, they’d change the laws so that we’d never be able to get them out. Hmm. Well, we couldn’t let that happen.
Around this time a new women’s magazine started up, called Cleo. They ran jaw-dropping articles about sex and orgasms, with nude centrefolds of famous singers and actors (with a fig leaf or guitar to cover the bits). It was a roaring success, although not in our house.
I wasn’t allowed to watch Number 96 either, but Elaine Murphy would come to school and tell us what happened. We’d stand around her in a group and when she’d talk about things we weren’t sure about, like a girl being gang raped, we’d all nod our heads wisely. ‘It’s very educational,’ Elaine would say.
In Social Studies we learnt about the developed nations compared to the underdeveloped ones. And at home on television Big M girls pranced around in bikinis drinking flavoured milk, spilling it down their chins; and on the covers of Cosmo they had a fondness for halter tops, apparently because of the way they squashed the girl’s boobs together to show a good cleavage.
Cleavage: such a magical word. The split, and the join. The thing that links, and the thing that divides.
Sometimes at night I could feel my breasts against my upper arm when I lay on my side. I had to manoeuvre myself slightly to become comfortable. I loved this feeling.
And once Anthony Braccio brushed his arm against me when we were mucking around. His blue-grey jumper and the blue-grey of my jumper, and millimetres below, my newly sensitive nipples.
‘The no-bra look is a myth. No woman older than twenty can go without a bra.’– Michael Herstom from Hestia
‘Women can slim down their hips with dieting, but that doesn't help their busts.’– Brian Ettelson, Australian Chairman of Formfit
‘A great relief!’– the Cleo team, circa 1972
It may have been a great relief to Ita Buttrose and the rest of the Cleo staff to abandon their foundation wear, but at thirteen a bra was the holy grail. Glorious key to femininity and sexiness. And I wanted one so badly.
Beth Spencer’s recent books are Vagabondage (UWAPublishing) and The Party of Life (Flying Islands). Awards include The Age Short Story Award, the Inaugural Dinny O’Hearn Fellowship and runner up for the Steele Rudd for How to Conceive of a Girl (Random House). She also writes essays and for radio. www.bethspencer.com.