I am about to break a silence that has lasted some eighteen years. I am about to tell you something I have never told my best friends. I have never told my mother. I have never told a doctor.
Are we all ready?
When I was a teenager, for a while I had a bad thing happening in my nipular area. I don’t know how long it lasted, all I remember is that it felt like years.
Here are the basic details:
I have had eczema all my life. When I was a kid, it only ever showed up in my elbows and behind my knees and the doctor told me I’d probably grow out of it. Oh, doctor. You sweet, naive fool, if only you had been right. I think of that alternate-universe Janina, from time to time. The Janina who can buy moisturiser freely and without fear, experimenting with joy instead of sticking with that one brand that seems to work consistently most of the time (Aveeno, by the way). She must be so happy.
While the rashy patches on my legs and arms did fade, they were replaced by weirder, more painful, less predictable rashes literally everywhere else. When the weather is hot, for example, I get pompholyx on my hands and the soles of my feet. This particular brand of eczema consists of tiny, itchy blisters that recently saw me tear my shoes off mid-exercise and clutch my feet in agony. My shoulders, neck and back are popular sites also, which can make wearing a bra downright painful.
But nothing has ever been so bad as the Year of the Nip.
It started slowly. A weeping crack here, a weeping crack there. First the left nipple, then the right. Eventually, the peaks atop my boobs were more weeping crack than nipple. Literally a pair of open sores on my chest.
It was unpleasant.
They would dry onto the fabric of my clothes and I’d rip them open every time I got changed. So I put plasters on them, obviously. But friends, my nipples were too much for your common-or-garden plaster. I had to find an upgrade.
It is at this point that a doctor might have been able to help me. Doctors are good at helping with this kind of thing. But I was young and embarrassed and I couldn’t figure out how I would tell anyone what was happening in the secret confines of my underwire.
So I MacGyvered a solution. I chopped a sanitary pad in half, and put a half in each cup. I slathered them in emollient cream and prayed for salvation. It wasn’t perfect. They would slide around sometimes. I would find one making an escape towards my cleavage, and be flooded with fear that someone had seen it poking out from my t-shirt.
The thing here is, that it was happening elsewhere as well. Specifically, to my lips. I’d had to take a full two weeks off school, because my face had basically exploded – I had conjunctivitis, a cold sore that made my jaw swell to three times its size, and lip-eczema that had left my lips so raw they had – brace yourselves – scabbed themselves shut.
You would think that, given all the highly visible grossness that was happening one floor up, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to say, ‘oh, hey, also my boobs are revolting right now!’ But sometimes it’s difficult to talk about boobs, in that kind of way.
We can talk about cleavage and cup size, of course, we can talk about plunge and balcony and lace and underwire, and how few people wear the right size bra. We can talk about how to feel for lumps – in theory, at least. But talking about things being really wrong in that area is scary. Or if it’s not scary it’s shameful.
There is one thing every teenage girl knows to be true: boobs are important. Apparently. They mean you’re growing up, they are the most obvious thing that might make you desirable – if something goes wrong with them, does that mean you no longer are?
Added to that is the fact that we only hear about things going wrong with boobs if it’s really serious, so when you think about boob health, the first, terrifying, thing you think of is cancer. But little things can go wrong too. No one talks about the infected ingrown hair they once had on their left breast, or all the other small problems that might seem huge at the time.
The happy ending here is that, eventually, my disgusting nipples healed. I am still scared they’ll come back, of course, but if they do I think I might just be brave enough to go to the doctor about it.
And for a silver lining, after all that, periodically plucking out long black nipple hairs doesn’t seem like that big a deal at all.