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.