My Body Politic

I sat next to Tanya during math on Wednesday.  She’s had very spotty attendance and I wanted to give her a mini area and perimeter tutorial so she could work with her table group.

We were talking our way through the concept of square mesaures when I noticed that she was looking at me and not at the 1-foot square floor tiles I was using to illustrate the idea.  When she saw I’d caught her staring, she smiled and shook her head.

“Miss Stacie, doesn’t your back hurt?”

“What?  No.  My back is fine.” My brain stuttered for a second, pulling itself out of geometry and trying to make sense of her question.  “What are you talking about?”

Miss.”  She looked at me ‘with meaning’ as the novels say.  She looked hard into my eyes then pointedly down at my chest and back into my eyes.  “Your back doesn’t hurt?”

“Thanks for your concern, but my back is just fine.  So look at this diagram and tell me how we can figure out …”

That wasn’t the first time a student had called attention to the size of my breasts.  Valerie called me out several times when she was my student (quite loudly, using words instead of meaningful glances, I might add).  The focus on my body used to surprise me until I remembered how closely my high school classmates and I scrutinized every aspect of our teachers’ bodies.  What surprises me is the talking.  My classmates and I would NEVER have said anything to a teacher about his or her body.  My current students have absolutely no qualms, no filter that signals what is and isn’t an out-loud comment.

What’s the fascination, really?  I might understand it if my body was more extreme.  If I looked like Dolly Parton or Morganna the Kissing Bandit,  the need for exclamations would be clearer.

But the exclamations are silly, aren’t they?  Can anyone imagine that I have yet to notice my own breasts?  While it’s entirely possible that I might be self-conscious about them, there is no way I couldn’t be aware of them.  I’m not self-conscious, however.  I have a happy, congenial relationship with my breasts.  They’re half of my hourglass, and we get along wonderfully well.

So what to do with these outbursts?  I think it’s important for the girls to see how “non” a reaction their comments get.  When these girls exclaim over my breasts (and it is always the girls … I think the boys would rather cut out their own tongues than say something about my body), there’s something more being noted than my bra size.  These girls are used to being objectified, have been taught to accept that people will make unwanted, too-intimate comments about their bodies, that men will see them as bodies rather than as people.  They’ve learned to be ashamed of their appearance and to hide themselves, or they’ve learned that their appearance is their only value and they display themselves almost to the point of nudity.  How I react when Valerie or Tanya or any of the girls point out my body is a message they need to hear, another kind of lesson for them to learn.

If they want to know if I’m self-conscious or ashamed, I hope my casual responses tell them I’m not (and that they shouldn’t be, either).  Maybe part of the calling attention is about the fact that I look so different from the teachers they are used to seeing.  I know I look not even one small bit like any single teacher from my elementary and high school days.  I had fat teachers.  I even had one black teacher.  But I never had fat teachers who looked at ease with their bodies, who dressed in clothes that were supposed to do more than hide them.  And that one black teacher actually called nappy hair ‘nasty’ the one time she mentioned it at all.   I don’t fit the stereotypes they’ve come to see as truths.  In which case, I hope my casual response says that it’s totally normal to have a big black woman with kinky hair as the instructor and that women like me can do all kinds of jobs (and they can, too).

Maybe it’s just as simple as my students lacking impulse control.  Or wanting to see if they can get a rise out of me.  In either of those cases, my refusal to be unsettled by the questions and comments keeps that conversation from going any further and gets us back to work on the work we’re actually in the room to do.

I have surely not heard the last from Tanya or the other young women I’ll teach in the future.  I don’t love the idea of using my body as a teaching tool, but I don’t hate it, either.  My body isn’t an open topic for conversation, but it is right there for all to see.  Everything about me — where I live, how I live, where I went to school, the music I listen to, the people I have as friends, the way I talk — is part of what I have to teach my students, and that includes what I look like.  I can deny that or pretend not to know it, or I can use it and work with it.  If my calm response helps even one woman feel more at ease with her own body, more accepting of women’s bodies in general, I can accept all the out-of-left-field comments.

_____

Check out the rest of the slices of life over at Stacey and Ruth’s.

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13 thoughts on “My Body Politic

  1. Beautifully written! Like you my life is fairly transparent to my students. They know my music, my family, my friends, and lots of other things; however, fifth graders never comment on my body. They love for me to hug them and I’ve had them say, “Your so soft.” I’d rather be hard and lean, but I’ll take soft for now.

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    1. I think I’d be utterly stunned if 5th graders said to me the things my students say! There’s a fair amount of hugging that happens at my job — in my classroom, with my co-workers, with my co-workers’ children — and I definitely think part of the attraction is how nice it is to hug a big soft body. A “pillowy” body as a friend’s daughter once described it.

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  2. molly

    When they say how hard it is to be a public figure (politician, actor), they forget that teachers deal with this all the time. We all get ready for classes, knowing that they will be LOOKING at us. My students hardly ever comment, but when I made a casual reference last week to the fact that I am not a fashionable dresser, there was relieved giggling. They are so kind to me that they were relieved that I have no illusions about being an example of fashion. And I agree that any kind of example of freedom that you can give them is helpful, freedom from all the stereotypes that plague people, and especially women. Good job!

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    1. You made me giggle with your “relieved giggling”! I have no illusions about my fashion forwardness, either. I just wear what I like. I was pretty amused at WE LEARN when one of the women told me I had a really great sense of style.

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  3. Yes, beautifully written. I tell you, you keep taking me back. Right now I am teaching hormone-raging teens. I don’t get many provocative questions from the girls, but rather the boys. Question with out filters about relationship issues and wonderings about what I would do, and how they should proceed. Very uncomfortable!

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  4. coldspaghetti

    I can’t decide whether to feel that it’s good that she asked, or inappropriate… I guess maybe your response makes it a good experience. Your ability to be exactly what she (and they and all and on) need to hear in that moment in their development made what could (or should?) have been an inappropriate moment into a teaching moment.

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  5. I find myself equally bemused and exasperated by level of forwardness this generation has on subjects you and I wouldn’t have dared at that age. As a trainer myself, I fully get that balance of being seen and yet professional and yet still be ME. Granted my students are business professionals, but you’re right if a comment is to be made regarding my appearance, it will almost always come from a female.

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    1. Raivenne, I would love to be in a class of yours! I’ll be you are a totally dynamic trainer! (… and I’ll also bet that you handle all those exasperating comments perfectly!)

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  6. Pingback: The March Just Posts « collecting tokens

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