The Body Public, Part III

At my high school, one of the senior perks was that we could park our cars in a special reserved lot close to the school (the better to stumble into chapel just barely on time in the mornings). One day during a free period, one of my classmates came into the senior lounge looking upset. We asked what was wrong, and with a look of bewilderment, she said “I just got called into the Dean of Students’ office.” The Dean had sat her down, given her a very stern look, and said “Classmate, I saw what you were doing out there.” Classmate, confused, said “What? What do you mean?” “Why were you crossing the street just now?” “Oh, just now? I was dropping some books off in my car in the senior lot and picking up my gym bag?” “You really need to be more aware of how you present yourself, young lady. You looked very suspicious, the way you were crossing the street, and someone passing the school could have gotten the wrong idea about our students and their values. Kindly bear that in mind.” With that, she was dismissed.

The lesson that we and Classmate were apparently meant to take away from this BIZARRE chastisement is that young women are presumed to be behaving criminally or promiscuously at all times, and therefore it was up to us to conduct ourselves as nuns whenever we were out in public? I guess? The lesson that crept in subconsciously was “whatever you think you’re doing, be it crossing the street, talking to a man, going for a run, or speaking up for yourself, you’re a woman, and your body will tell the world a different story. If someone takes it the wrong way, it’s your (and your body’s) fault.”

The worst part? When Classmate told us her story, I sat listening to her and studying her. While I listened, my brain worked hard to see not her point of view, but to see the Dean’s. Because an authority figure had said “this is so”, my mind immediately began to override everything I knew about Classmate’s character and conduct. I said to her “Oh Classmate, that’s so weird, I can’t believe that happened,” but a voice inside me said “I sort of see how that could be true” and “well, I hope no one ever thinks that of me”. I knew exactly what the Dean was suggesting, and without being aware of it at all, I turned on Classmate.

Previously: Part I, Part II

Tomorrow: Part IV

5 Comments on The Body Public, Part III

  1. Mary
    May 23, 2012 at 8:05 am (7 years ago)

    I don’t remember this happening, but without naming any names, this is EXACTLY the kind of thing that would happen at [our high school]. It was where I learned to be a feminist, and also where I learned to be a victim (and that it was my own fault for being one).

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  2. Phoenix
    May 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm (7 years ago)

    I agree with Mary. Though I’ve never heard of a story like this before now, it doesn’t surprise me in the least. Simply being frequently causes problems for others. I, too, had a talking to with the Dean of Students about what was and wasn’t appropriate behavior for Girls of Our School (though, admittedly, the incident in question wasn’t my finest hour). I distinclty recall the phrase “this doesn’t happen at Our School”. Clearly, things like this story (and others) DO happen, whether you admit it or not.

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  3. Julia Lambert
    May 23, 2012 at 4:56 pm (7 years ago)

    The idea of becoming feminist AND becoming a victim at the same time reminds me of one of Sweets’ first blog posts, when she talks about wanting to hide her body away, and trying only to present the mind and intellect to the outside world. I think this is where [Our School], and many like it, find themselves trapped: empowering young minds, but trying to hide and shut down young bodies, and hoping that nothing bad happens. I distinctly remember an incident when I, because of certain traits of my body, was made to feel ashamed and encouraged to cover up and hide by [Our School]. I remember simultaneously thinking “don’t they have more important things to worry about than the length of a really, really good student’s shorts?” AND nevertheless feeling shamed by my body. (It’s rather incredible to slut shame a 17 year old girl who’s never had a boyfriend. Well done, [Our School]). It wasn’t until recently (see Sweets’ post “She Walks in Beauty”–a similar thing happened to me) that I realized how important living in the body as well as the mind is in being fully alive and whole.

    I’m not sure that the solution is “let young girls dress as scandalously as they like; midriffs and miniskirts for everyone!” As a grown woman, I find the hypersexualization of young women totally freaky and awful. There’s something to be said for teaching people that how you clothe and present yourself to the world matters, for professional and etiquette reasons. However, I certainly know that reactionary and hysterical policing of students’ dress, separate from the rest of their behaviors, is just wrong. Perhaps we need a new educational vocabulary for developing women that includes acceptance and understanding of their bodies and their physical–and, dare I say, sensual–lives, and that empowers and encourages them while focusing on their emotional and physical safety. At the very least, focusing less on their appearances and more on the core of their personhood is a good first step. Dear Schools: You can talk about values, but if all you really care about is the veneer of such, you’ve already lost the fight.

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