I’m 5’10” and a size 22.
I’m used to being aware of exactly how much space I take up. When I teach, I use my physical presence to my advantage. I can write way up high on the white board. I can clap my hands with my extra long fingers and command attention. I can rock a hot pink dress and the students have no choice but to lift their gazes from the phones in their laps to figure out what the fuck their teacher is wearing.
My eight-year teaching career is full of unforgettable moments. I’ve taught in all manner of odd circumstances: at midnight in a school that used to be a prison, while holding a 17-year-old student’s sleeping newborn, in the hours before I reported to the hospital to have metastasized cancer removed from my neck and lymph nodes.
But, far and away, the most memorable day of my teaching career was March 2 of last year.
Boston had been slapped with a steady succession of blizzards, such that the syllabus for my LIT201 course had become almost completely irrelevant. We were behind, only a third as far into Hamlet as we needed to be. My alarm was set for 4:55 a.m., so I could give a quick once-over to my lecture notes on Elaine Showalter’s reading of Ophelia as an object of male desire.
At 4:02, my phone rang. At first I thought it was time to wake up, but when I looked at it, I saw “unknown” flash across the screen. I thought it was a hospital or a police department and I was so scared I waited for it to go to voicemail.
When I listened, this is what I heard:
I just wanted to let you know that I don’t have any respect for you as a teacher, not a professor, I refuse to call you that. And the reason I don’t have any respect for you is because you obviously have no self-respect at all. How am I supposed to respect you if you can’t respect yourself at all. And you know what really kills me about it is that you don’t feel bad about how you look or how you .. put yourself out there. You don’t look good. You need to take better care of yourself. And people do care what you look like. You’re a slob. You’re the size of a car, Kar-a. Now fuckin’ fix it. And I just gotta say that you’re not good as a teacher … you’re not confident. You can’t be confident being fat. Fuckin’ A. I hate you and everything you stand for. Your fuckin’ feminism is autistic. Nobody thinks it’s cool. You’re not special with your fuckin’ feministic beliefs. Go do something original and stop being a trendy whore. Bye-bye.
At first, I laughed like a maniac. Because no one in my family was dead or hurt or wanted by the CIA, I found the ridiculousness of a student calling me to say mean things hysterically funny. I laughed because he called me KAR-a when my name is actually pronounced KAIR-a. I laughed and I laughed and laughed.
And then I cried.
I didn’t cry because someone called me fat (file that under, “ship that has sailed” … also, I don’t think of fat as insult anymore). No, I cried for my student who had, by 4 a.m., enough hate in his heart to locate the syllabus with my phone number on it, hit *67, call me, and express his misogyny and male entitlement in a freakishly lucid voice.
I cried for a world in which an intelligent, qualified woman can’t do something as simple as assign a little light feminist theory without being called a fat whore.
I cried because I had no idea which of my male students had left the message; it could have been any of them, and that thought made me terribly sad. I cried because female academics are the target of a truly insane amount of sexist behavior and bias. I cried because there are women in my life and past versions of myself who’d be crushed by a message like that. Women whose days would be wrecked by that hateful, cowardly bullshit. Women who’d think of it and start another crash diet, who’d remember it mornings in the shower, pinching their belly rolls and sobbing.
That’s why I did what I did next. For those women. I got up and I wrote a long letter to my students. I went to class and I wrote this Naomi Wolf quote on the board.
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
I played them the voicemail on speakerphone, and I read them the letter. I told them that I didn’t care if they forgot everything about Shakespeare or MLA citations as long as they remembered that they always have the choice to be compassionate, that they always have the choice to treat everyone they meet as more than a body.
The next day, I got an email from a woman in my class, thanking me for "being a teacher that teaches beyond the whiteboard and standing so strong in all of the woman that you are."
“All of the woman that you are,” has become a phrase I repeat to myself often.
I’ve gone most of my life worried over being too much, but something changed for me that day.
I realized that shame is tricky and ugly. It requires permission. But, of course, the trouble with the patriarchy is that women aren’t always in charge of their permission. Sometimes, it’s taken from them.
That’s why I wrote the letter and read the letter: Because, at this point in my life, I am in charge of my permission, and I refused to give it to one more man. I refused to feel bad about my body or myself. I refused to do that, and I wanted my students across genders to see this, to hear a woman saying, “Hey, that terribly shitty thing you’re saying right now, that’s not about me, that’s about you.”
Ironically, listening to my students clapping and singing along to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” (which I played after reading the letter), I have never felt less aware of my size. Being part of the big warm buzz of love and acceptance in that classroom, I have never ever felt so small.