Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

Let’s Talk About It: Body shaming starts young, but it doesn’t have to

Posted on April 18, 2017 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By: Johnna Ossie, News Editor

This morning I saw an article from the Portland Press Herald about a student at King Middle School (KMS). She and her classmates broke the school’s dress code on purpose after “a teacher asked Molly and another girl to stand up and measure their clothes [in front of other students]. Molly was told to lay her fingers across her shirt strap to make sure it was at least two fingers wide, and the other girl had to put her arms straight down to gauge whether her shorts were above her fingertip length.” According to the Press Herald, the student said, “[The teacher] made us feel really uncomfortable.”

I went to King Middle School almost fifteen years ago. I still remember moments where I was publicly reprimanded by teachers because my clothing was a “distraction to boys.” I was eleven years old when I attended KMS. I was flat-chested and lanky and still wore high waisted jeans (a fashion trend that was not yet back in style). But it shouldn’t matter what my body looked like, really. I write that because it was important at the time in my confusion and misunderstanding of what adults were telling me. I write that because it was also when I became aware of what my body looked like and of the fact that it seemed to matter to everyone around me. It mattered to the adult teachers, to the principal, to strangers on the street, to the boys in my classrooms.

What I think is important to remember is that I was a child, as were the other girls in my school, regardless of what their bodies looked like. When I entered sixth grade I still played with dolls. I still played make-believe and games of MASH with my best friend in her bedroom after school, to decide if I would marry Leonardo DiCaprio or not and if I would drive a van or a sports car. But I was being told by the adults around me that my bare shoulders were too distracting to not be covered in public. My body was sexual. My body did not really belong to me; my bare skin meant something that I had never even thought about before.

I learned then, at eleven years old, that my body was unacceptable. It was distracting. It was a threat to boys’ ability to learn. It needed to be covered, tucked away and concealed. I still remember the hot shame of those moments, when my teachers asked me to stand to measure the width of my tank top straps or the length of my shorts. I remember how unfair it felt and how powerless it made me feel. I had no language then to explain the ways it made me feel, but I felt it deep inside myself and it lasted for years and years.

Summer is coming and I’ve been thinking about bodies. About the ways that I learned to think that my body was never good enough, and how I learned my worth was inherently tied to whether or not men were attracted to my body. I’ve been thinking about the ways I learned my body was inappropriate, distracting and hypersexual.

It took me years of struggling with an eating disorder, learning about the ways we are taught to hate our bodies, working every day to unlearn those things to get to a point where I can feel comfortable with myself, and even that comfort takes daily work. This isn’t to say that King Middle School’s dress code was the reason for my struggle. Rather, I remember it as the first time I learned what the expectations were of me as a woman – a girl – in the world I lived in. Those expectations were reinforced for me as I grew up by everything around me: television, movies, magazines, teachers, my family, my peers, strangers on the street. My body never, ever felt like it truly belonged to me

I might just be sappy, but I teared up when I saw that King Middle School student on the cover of the Press Herald, staring straight into the camera in her tank top, in her defiance. I wished I had known about feminism and sexism when I was young, and known that there were adults who would stand behind me, who would protect my right stay young, to remind me that my body is mine and only mine to control.