By Heather Walker Peterson

Accepting My Female Body

My biggest fear when I began to teach was that I would be inarticulate, that I would stumble, mispronounce words, and freeze at my students’ questions. But my unacknowledged fear, in the classroom and outside of the classroom, had to do with my own female form, which I concealed with baggy tops.

Raised in a fundamentalist home, I felt awkward about my body. My mother was self-deprecating, and my father was prone to long discourses at supper. I thought he was brilliant, and so did she. My quicker-minded brothers entered his flow of thought easily, and I struggled to find words.

Although we had plenty of conversations around the table, we — like many families — never talked about sexual desire. My parents provided us with a children’s book about how babies were made, but the verbal silence on sexuality led to shame about my own sexual desire. I longed to be attractive and yet was confused whether God wanted me to be sexually attractive.

Although I didn’t want to be a man, I nursed a secret frustration that God was unfair in making me a woman. Like others before me, I saw teaching at the college level as a way to focus on the part of me that felt safe: my mind. But to stand in front of a classroom of students, I learned that I needed to accept my body.

My body’s form matters.

It didn’t matter that I wore looser blouses. The fact that I was a woman affected my relationship with my students. “I’m done teaching freshman seminar,” a female colleague told me. “They look at me as if I’m their mother.”

That was it — that was why the connection I had wished for with my students hadn’t happened. But a male faculty member was reportedly a “favorite” of his students in the same course. When I stood before a classroom of students reminding them of good study habits, I was mirroring their mothers. But when he stood before such a classroom, his students looked up to him like a congregation to their male pastor.

Female friends and I have mused that whereas students who are emotionally wounded by their mothers may resist us when we give instructions, those who are emotionally wounded by their fathers often become disciples to their chosen male professor, gathering about him for his ideas.

Another kind of relationship may draw students. One of my single female professor friends found a male student’s phone number written on the bottom of his final paper. Lest it appear that such eros is only directed at women faculty, I’ve also heard first-year students commenting on the “broad shoulders” of a fifty-year-old male colleague.

What covers my body matters.

“Look at you!” I exclaimed to a colleague in the hallway who had recently begun teaching. She was wearing a flattering black-and-white striped dress. She laughed and said, “I’ve decided my students pay attention to me more when I’m dressed up.” 

I was reminded that as an anxious new teacher, my classroom presence was timid, an obvious hindrance to general education students who didn’t want to be there. An older friend advised me to wear the classy color of navy the first week to help gain my students’ respect.

Beauty has a natural authority, writes ethicist Oliver O’Donovan. When I look at a webpage of photos of popular Christian women bloggers and notice that they’re mostly thin, pretty, and made-up, it’s hard to disagree.

My body’s physiology matters.

I’ve rapidly arranged group work in the classroom and rushed to the bathroom for fear I had a menstrual leakage seeping through my skirt. I’ve walked out of a building with my jacket tied around my waist to hide one.

In my case, my shifting hormones affect my mood the week before my menses. It can feel as if my chest contains a hamster on a wheel flinging pellets of emotion at the students and colleagues around me. In my early years of teaching, I envied my male colleagues who didn’t have the same concerns, and I questioned myself about being too sensitive.

My acceptance of my body matters.

When my daughters sit on my lap and my arms encircle their waists, when I breathe in the scent of their hair, I marvel not only in their bodies but in their acceptance of them. They delight in their own physicality. They have confidence in their own skin. So far life and our family parenting style haven’t led them to critique the way God has designed them.

One of my gifts to them and to my students is my acceptance of my own body.

I’ve had a lot of counseling — counseling that included not only seeing my sexual desire as a God-designed part of me (but as only one part of me) and counseling that told me that men’s responses to my body and to my lively emotions were not my responsibility. Counseling that helped me to love my female body because God loves it. Books such as Lisa Graham McMinn’s Sexuality and Holy Longing and Tara M. Owens Embracing the Body have been helpful too.

I haven’t needed my students to adore me as they might a male teacher to indicate that I was a good teacher. I can dress in more shapely clothing and respect myself enough to look at a male student’s eyes until his eyes rise from my breasts to my face.  

I get to decide if want the authority that comes from beauty or if I would subvert the cultural expectations. I like dressing up — I enjoy outfits that remind me of my own aesthetic sensibilities, detailed textures and patterns. Yet one of my friends who started teaching with a stronger sense of self than I has always dressed simply and doesn’t wear make-up in the classroom. She wants her female students to see her as a role model who is not focused on her outward appearance.

Regarding the rhythm of my hormones, I don’t always embrace the complexity of my emotions, and yet sensitivity can be compelling. It can give my students permission to emote if they see me tear up. The week before my period, I may take medication to help me sleep so that my tiredness doesn’t exacerbate my self-criticism.

In the classroom, it is not only my mind that is present but my body as well, with all its feminine strength and its all-too-human fragility — the delicate web of hairline cracks that run across its surface to reveal God’s light.

About the Author

Heather Walker Peterson is a writer, mother, and assistant professor and chair of the Department of English and Literature at the University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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