Dear Virgie: Do Teachers Promote Fat Shaming and Victim Blaming in the Classroom?
A few years ago I decided I wanted to switch careers and become a primary school teacher. I fulfilled my dream, and just finished up my first year with my class of second graders. I was surprised to discover that the hardest part about being a teacher was being retraumatized by watching how boys treat girls and how fat kids get treated by thin kids. Maybe the saddest thing is the conversations I had with my coworkers about what to do about this rampant fat shaming in our classrooms. I found that there wasn’t the will to think critically about it or to really change it. The only piece of advice I got as a teacher was the same advice I got as a fat kid: tell them to just ignore it and be the better person. I know we are tired and overworked, but I think the culture of silence ends up leading to victim blaming. I can tell that the kids feel like it is their fault that this is happening. I am determined this summer to come up with something better for when the new year starts. Do you have any recommendations?
Congrats on the new career path! Always a big deal. Second grade was a big year for me. I’m so glad that these babies are getting the benefit of your insistence on being a contemplative human bean!
I was a high school teacher for a year right after college and I can attest to both the reality of teachers being overworked and also the ways in which this leads to a culture of indifference. I think also many teachers are dealing with a lot of emotional stuff in the classroom and this can lead to just being in survival mode. Like when I was a teacher I was dealing with my students throwing desks across the classroom and taking picture of my ass, and so, yeah, creating a culture of emotional accountability centered in radical self-acceptance was like the 1014th item on my to-do list.
I have a few thoughts on your query:
First, I think it’s super important to take care of yourself. As you mentioned, you’re getting set off when you’re witnessing fatphobia in the classroom. My therapist always reminds me of the words of stewardesses before take-off: always put your oxygen mask on first and then you can help the people around you. Girl, get that oxygen.
Second, I really like what you said about victim blaming because YEAH, duh you’re totally right. The current advice given to children experiencing emotional violence is, essentially, internalize the blame for that shit. And that’s awful and totally unacceptable.
I think there are some solid things you can do to change the way you (and maybe in the future, even your colleagues) think about and deal with this:
To begin with, I think the word “bullying” is inappropriate. Like systematically robbing someone of their sense of self is not “bullying.” It is violence.
It’s important to start thinking of it that way. I think the word bullying invokes this sense of normalcy. It’s a word used to minimize the very real ways that society’s most important lessons in culturally-acceptable violence begin in childhood. This word obscures the mechanisms of childhood sexism, fatphobia, homophobia and ableism. This word makes the absorption of violence tantamount to developing resiliency. This word obscures the sexist nature of bullying and makes it harder to recognize that even in childhood, boys disproportionately bully girls as well as children of other genders.
Bullying, in many people’s minds, is part of the “natural” toughening-up process that we call “socialization” in the hope of creating adults who have “grit” and are not super sensitive. Why? Because sensitivity is feminine and we live in a culture that actively seeks to squash and control all that is feminine.
The word “bullying” also minimizes the realities of its long-term effects. Like, due to the “bullying” I experienced primarily at school I developed disordered eating, an obsessive exercise habit, and a severely diminished ability to advocate for myself in romantic, sexual, medical, professional and social environments.
To wrap it up, start thinking of emotional violence as emotional violence, and allow that to percolate as you move forward into making a plan for your classroom.
I love the idea of creating a little community of both self-acceptance and radical accountability. I have seen educators create these kinds of environments before, and honestly they thrive on honest discussion. Like, I think it’s important to be honest with kids about the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other oppressions they/their peers may be experiencing. And allowing them to learn about it and talk about it gives them tools for understanding their world.
We don’t have to have a deep, Judith Butler-esque convo with kids. We can listen to them and then offer straightforward contemplation: for example, “what you’re talking about is called fatphobia, and fatphobia is when people are mean to other people because of the size of their body. That is wrong because all bodies are good bodies. There is no such thing as someone having the wrong body size.” Accountability can also look like this. I think when kids have the vocabulary to express when something negative is happening, they are empowered to push the onus of experience away from themselves.
The last thing I’m going to say is that it will probably take a minute to come up with a plan that you feel good about. That’s OK. You are taking on a MASSIVE system all on your own in your classroom. That’s rad and a big deal. Maybe the very start of your plan can begin with some core tenets — sort of like a mission statement. Like if you could distill what you want these kids to know and hold in their hearts, what would that be?
No matter what you end up doing in terms of creating the environment you want in your classroom, what I’d like to impress upon you is that you stay consistent. Even when you’re like OH MY GOD THIS ISN’T WORKING, stay on message. Even if all you can do is repeat the mantra once a day for a month, do that. It makes a difference. It plants a seed, and you might not be the one who sees the day when that kid reaps it.
Hope this helps!
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.