It takes sexualization to make something sexual –- a child wearing a tight shirt would mean nothing unless it was made into something sexual by an adult. A lot of women are sexualized, shamed and embarrassed at a young age and it has impacted us in ways we may never realize. The way it manifests itself in our lives play out in various ways and that's the scariest part; sometimes we don’t even know how someone’s thwarted perception of our younger selves harms our image of ourselves as an adult.
It Happened To Me: My Middle School Nurse Body-Shamed Me
In 6th grade, my science teacher called a parent-teacher meeting with my mother and all of my other teachers. She told my mother I was going around telling the other students I was a lesbian and it was “distracting” them.
That had a major impact since my mother was and is rather homophobic and I am rather gay. It was a bit traumatic since I was under the impression the meeting was to talk about my grades or my behavior –- not who I had crushes on.
That wasn’t what hurt me the most, though.
My school nurse and I had two interactions that have stuck in my mind for the past 13 years that I’m now willing to acknowledge as painful. The first was when she basically told me my breasts were too big and to cover them. I went to her for something unrelated, just for her to tell me my shirt was too tight, I should be wearing a bra and that she’d bring me some T-shirts the next day. She gave me some tie-dye T-shirts from a camp and told me to wear those instead.
I did have big breast for my age (36C at the time) and as they got bigger, the adults in my school were quick to tell me what shirts not to wear. I left middle school a 44DD and with an image in my mind of what the normal teenager looked like -- and it wasn’t like me. The adults around me, especially my nurse, made sure they reinforced that.
My peers didn’t make things easier for me either. They’d ask me how it felt to have big breasts, sometimes even hitting them and joking that maybe I’d get breast cancer because they “heard constantly punching boobs gave you breast cancer.” What?!?!
The last people I’d turn to in school were my nurses and teachers. After all –- they made it clear that my chest was a problem. I remember once I was even told by the secretary in the office to change into a gym T-shirt because I shouldn’t be wearing shirts “like that.”
It was a tank top, the same sort of tank top 70% of the other girls were wearing in June. Go figure.
The next incident happened the very next school year. I hopped on the scale in her office; she looked at it and told me to stay there. As I waited, she started looking through my files. Glancing back to the number on the scale in shock, she said words that will remain in my head forever: “What happened?”
I had gained weight, a lot, in a short amount of time. Instead of talking to me about any feelings I had about that or asking any sort of question -- she picked up the phone and called my mother. That went just as well as any other phone call home and it all ended with me feeling an immense amount of shame about the way I looked.
Students usually get phone calls home for disciplinary reasons or to tell parents about detentions and suspensions -- not for this. That was my first real introduction to fat shaming as well.
Oh, and another thing. She was white and I’m black. Without giving a history lesson, in the United States (both past and present) the black female body has been a site of exploitation, objectification and has been seen as hypersexual. In 6th grade I didn’t realize like I do now the impact of a white woman calling out the size of my body and its parts. I wonder if that ever crossed her mind as well.
Here we are years later and after a really great suggestion, I wrote a letter to that nurse, Mrs. E. I decided to follow through with the suggestion mainly because it’s time to start forgiving certain people in my past and she was a person who really hurt me.
Writing a letter didn’t mean I forgave her with the stroke of the keys though. Writing a letter made me sit with feelings that were coming up and gave me a chance to face them once again. Once you're able to face something again, it can be dealt with -- I chose forgiveness this time around.
The letter to my middle school nurse may or may not ever reach her, who knows. I did my part though, I acknowledged that my body wasn’t a problem when I was younger and it was the adults around me that made it a problem. I spoke that truth to myself and publicly spoke that truth to her as well.
Now that I've spoken my truth to the person who hurt me, I'm doing my best to speak it to myself -- to look in the mirror and say, “You're beautiful just the way you are."