Usually, when I begin writing an essay, I’m hopeful, or at least determined. Not this time. I’m making myself write this essay, even though it scares me. Writing about bodies – about my body – scares me. Our bodies are so sexualized and commodified that talking about them in school or in relation to school feels almost forbidden.
When we talk about our bodies, especially bodies perceived as feminine, many people immediately think about sex. This reductive perspective, indicative of how deep the madonna-whore complex is embedded in our collective psyche, deprives us of the opportunity to discuss our bodies, the site of all contact with the world around us, with the nuance and fullness of our lived experience. Our bodies – and this essay – are about so much more than sex.
For years, decades even, having a body has felt like a burden, a liability. Becoming a teacher has exacerbated this immensely. I am doing the work of building a relationship with my body that is authentic to my values and beliefs and not my conditioning. Doing so within schools and institutions that have been used to uphold and pass on predominant cultural norms and values for centuries has been challenging, to say the least.
I know that the same forces of socialization that warped my perception of and experience in my body are acting on my students every day, inside and outside school. Our bodies carry us from our homes to our classrooms and facilitate the reading, writing, speaking and listening that learning often requires. In essence, our bodies and how they are perceived shape our classroom experience in ways that can support or detract from our learning.
In one-off conversations and acute moments, my students have shared their experiences, struggles and concerns about their bodies with me but rarely is there space made for discussion about these realities in more public, group settings. What are we telling our students when their bodies only come into conversations in sterile anatomy and sex education lessons or punitive dress code conversations? What happens when our students’ perceptions of their bodies come primarily from social media, the feedback of their peers, or their own self-consciousness without guidance from the adults in their lives who care about them? I want more for them, for us all. I want there to be space to discuss our bodies in their fullness, beyond their sexualization and commodification.
Attention Not Invited
Throughout my 29 years of experience in schools, both as a student and a teacher, the volume of societal expectations has consistently drowned out my wants and needs in relation to my body. In my first job interview at a public high school where I would spend my first year teaching, my body and the clothing that covered it were spotlighted from the beginning of our conversation.
There was no air conditioning in the small office where the three staff members of the school and I sat. It was July in New Orleans. After we all finished introducing ourselves, I was visibly sweating in my sleeveless top and blazer. The woman who would become my assistant principal asked if I wanted to take off the blazer. I thought for a moment and declined. She smiled and told me that that was the correct answer and that my outfit would have been inappropriate if I removed it. The sleeveless top in question revealed no cleavage or hint of my undergarments, but, apparently, it would have still been unacceptable in this room or one that contained students. This set the tone for the rest of the interview and my employment at that school. Moving forward, I selected my outfits accordingly.
Despite my desperate attempts since then to hide my body like Billy Eilish so that it would not determine how I’m perceived, I have been sexually harassed at every school I attended or worked at. Sometimes, I reported these incidents, but not all the time. Throughout my career, I mastered the art of firmly and decisively shutting down inappropriate comments from students without damaging relationships, but these moments are much rarer than incidents with adults who regularly make unprovoked remarks about my body shape to this day. The response from school administrations has ranged from wholly supportive to skeptical.
Our Bodies Are More Than Anatomy and Sex Education
There are so many things about my body that I would rather talk about than its shape, attractiveness, or lack thereof. I have been diagnosed with complex PTSD and fibromyalgia that impact my physical capacity and reactions. I am also autistic, which informs my interoception and sensitivity to stimuli. I have been socialized as a woman and many of my experiences with my body reflect this identity, though I have no personal investment in the gender binary. I have finally accepted that I am, relative to most people, short. I have a visceral reaction to touching things that are cold or sticky. Each of these things is more important to me than whether or not I am desirable by heteronormative societal conventions.
I want to talk to my students about how sexualization has impacted them and affirm that their bodies are more than how they are perceived through this lens. I want to provide space for my boys who wear sweatshirts in the heat of New Orleans summer to hide their shape so peers won’t judge them for being too big; for my girls who are sent home from school by administrators who believe the supposedly inappropriate amount of visible skin is a bigger issue than their presence in the classroom; and for my nonbinary students who often find themselves left out of gendered conversations entirely.
I want discussions about our bodies to be more expansive than this. I want to talk about which of our family members we see when we look at our own faces and how we feel about it. I want to talk about how and where emotions, positive and negative, manifest in our bodies and how we can work with them. I want to talk about consent: what it is, what it isn’t and how to navigate it in unclear situations so that everyone feels safe in their own bodies. I want to talk about how what we eat impacts our bodies and how complicated making decisions about our food is. I want to talk about our minds and how they operate and shape how we process and make meaning of what’s happening around us. I want to celebrate how unique our bodies are and interrogate the diversity of experiences we’ve had in them. I want to give my students space to talk about all these things I’ve had to work out on my own, at great personal cost.
Possibilities and Dangers
In my first week of class this year, I asked my seniors if they thought our class theme, “Bodies,” should be discussed in school. They spoke brilliantly and at length about how important doing so was to them and how excited they were that space was provided for them to explore the topic.
I believe there is space in our curriculums to discuss our bodies in their fullness and that teachers can manage these conversations with the grace and expertise we use to address other complex topics. I also believe that students want and need the space to process all the experiences that inform their self-images. I believe these conversations can be held without crossing into a territory that is inappropriate for school.
Luckily, I have my school’s support in conducting discussions, assigning readings and providing writing prompts about our bodies. However, I fear our bodies and discussions about them will continue to be made more taboo, and perhaps illegal, in some cases. Right now, for instance, there are vicious culture wars that demonize life-affirming healthcare for trans children and portray queer educators like me as groomers, despite the overwhelming evidence that dangers to our students often come from more conservative institutions of society and within our children’s homes.
I know we can support our students in understanding their bodies, but I am afraid we will bow to pressure to avoid talking about them entirely. Moreover, I’m afraid of what doing so will cost.