It’s May, and Idaho has made that quick and awkward transition from cool-and-almost-springy to my-kids-come-in-from-recess-hot-and-smelly. I have third-graders who needed to start wearing deodorant this spring, which is a new one for me. My second year of teaching, I had that fun conversation with my fifth-grade boys about DEODOROANT>AXE**. Their big takeaway was, Ms. Danielle taught us how to get chicks in middle school! But, it got them to start showering daily and give up the Axe in favor of pit stick, so I marked it a success. I’ve had fourth grade girls start their periods before. But third grade… I was just not expecting it this year.
That first group of students I taught? They’re sophomores now, for three more weeks. Most of them are taller than I am. You can insert any number of cliches here about how they’ve grown, and how old I feel. It’s been fun, though, to watch them. That’s one of the perks of working in a small school–I can see them every day, if I make a point to be in the hallways between classes or after lunch. We have high school students who have transferred to our school, too, over the past seven years who have added to the mix of personalities. And to the dating pool. I bring up this last point because that’s a Big Deal in the middle school and high school. When I taught these students, boys and girls played together and were friends. Now, it seems everything is viewed through the lens of dating and pairing up and sex. This is not just the perspective of the students, but also the staff. When you are teaching students who are preoccupied with who is dating whom and the tangled webs thereof, it’s important to pay attention and to be proactive and involved.
Here is my disclaimer: I am not in these classrooms. I don’t interact with these students much. And there is a lot I’m missing.
What I see is this (in the hallways, staff meetings, and handbook revisions every spring): Girls have been chastised for wearing tank tops; boys are not. Girls’ clothing is sexualized; boys’ is not. Girls try to take up less space; boys try to take up more.
Toxic body image affects girls and boys. Girls see one version of the ideal body, and learn to lose pounds and inches and to take up less space. Boys see one image of the ideal body, and learn to build certain muscle in certain places. Self-perception and self-worth often hinges on these limited definitions of acceptable physical femininity and masculinity. (I’ll expand these more in the future, and provide more nuance).
In my anti-diet support and resource group, we talk a lot about giving ourselves permission to Take Up Space. To wear tank tops, even if our arms are not toned. To wear the clothes we want before we reach our goal weight. To wear the clothes we want without allowing our body parts to be scrutinized or sexualized. Do you know why we have to consciously give ourselves permission to do this, at the age of 20, 30, or even 60?
Because this kind of body shaming and sexualization starts in high school. When we talk about the dress code, we talk about girls wearing tank tops, and the boys getting distracted. We talk about the girls not having enough “self-respect,” about the girls using their clothes to get attention, about it detracting from the learning environment. When we talk about the boys wearing tank tops… we don’t. We have not, in my recollection, talked about boys wearing tank tops. A former student wears tank tops and sleeveless muscle shirts almost daily. I have never seen nor heard him told to cover up or change shirts during the day. I have seen multiple girls forced to wear t-shirts or hoodies or zip-ups over tank tops that were deemed inappropriate.
It starts before high school, when I am expected to tell a second grade girl that she cannot wear a tank top on a 90ºF day because of the dress code. Second grade girls (generally) do not have bra straps or breasts, and they definitely do not have sexy shoulders. Second grade children do not think about their own bodies in that manner, unless the adults in their lives create environments where those aspects are amplified.
Are there adult men and women who find shoulders, breasts, cleavage, or clavicles attractive? Yes. Are there adult men and women who find well-defined biceps, triceps, and pectorals attractive? Yes. Do we objectify every adult human that walks past us in a tank top? I sure hope not. Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same?
Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same? I might raise a stink if the dress code comes up again. I might bring it up myself. Our girls should be allowed to take up space; they should not have to “hide” their bodies. The boys should not have free reign to take up as much space as they want by wearing shirts that reveal their entire torsos from a profile view, especially if we’re using the idea of “professionalism” as the rationale behind other pieces of the dress code. Melissa Atkins Wardy at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies had a pointed piece about reframing dresscodes as “Don’t Wear Saturday on a Wednesday.” It strikes a sensible balance between allowing girls to retain agency of their bodies and clothing, respecting boys’ ability to control themselves and treat girls as humans, and teaching students to dress for the situation and venue.
Happy Spring! I’ma go garden in a T-Shirt while it’s still cool enough to do so. Once it’s mid-June…sports bra. Lots of sunblock. Not because it’s sexy, but because it’s just too hot. Also I have six-foot fences, soooo..
**I have to credit my sister Katrina with the approach to this one. This was said in a very kind manner. I am not the Takes No Prisoners teacher with my kids.
When you rub an onion and an orange together, it doesn’t make the onion smell better, it just makes everything smell kinda gross. Trust me, you don’t smell good. I used to be a middle school girl, and the people around you would much prefer you to shower daily and wash your hair than to smell like a can from a commercial. This is your homework for the next two weeks: Shower every day, wash your hair, wear deodorant. There will be a test, and it will be the asthma of the para across the hall who cannot breathe after you spray that stuff in the boys’ bathroom.