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Guest blogger Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English at Grove City College.
I am six years old.
Cheerful, choppy-haired, browned by the sun: I am a pixie-sprite tomboy full of energy, and I glory in the animal power of my strong legs as I ride my banana-seat bicycle in endless circles around the neighborhood. My brother and I and our pack of friends are outside all day long—driven inside only by the fierce power of a summer storm. Thunderstorms are no joke, and we know it. We watch solemnly from inside as the rain roars down in violent blasts.
The storm is brief, though—so brief that the drains can’t keep up, and when we reconvene on our bikes every neighborhood street has been transformed into a river of brown, hot, racing water. Two feet of it, at least. We whoop and swoop and loop through the river-streets—happy, soaked. The rivers eventually make their way down the storm drains, and warm steam rises from the hot asphalt to envelope our fawn-like bodies—gangly, and yet utterly graceful.
We are twentieth-century centaurs—at one with our Schwinns—and we know the uncomplicated joy of being in our own bodies.
And now I am ten.
There are five of us in our Sunday School class—four boys, and me. In my memory, I am something like a Hermione Granger—earnest, always ready to give the right answer, eager to please all authorities. I’m not as brave as Hermione, though, and I would never, ever have broken a rule since I know the rules are there to protect us.
I remember a few of the dresses I wore to church. This was the age of the Gunny Sack dress and the neo-Victorian prairie look inspired by Little House on the Prairie, and I remember dresses with high collars, long sleeves, flowered cotton prints, long skirts, and ruffles. Lots of ruffles. This was also the year I started wearing hose, as my mother called them. I was very proud of being so grown up, so much the “young lady.”
On this particular day, my Sunday School teacher asks me to stay behind as everyone is leaving. In the few seconds of quiet as we wait for the room to empty, my mind races to latch on to something, anything, I could have done wrong. I desperately search my conscience. He is very serious, stern even. I am trembling with fear.
Sarina, you need to stop pulling up your hose in class. It’s a…well, it’s a distraction to the boys.
“Distraction?” I’m puzzled for a moment—what could he possibly mean? And then it hits me in a flash—the boys are distracted by my girl body. I’ve been very careful as I pull up my hose, but I know that I’ve often pulled my skirt up a bit over my knees. They’ve seen my knees.
I want a trap door to open beneath me. I want to disappear. I feel “waves of shame” wash over my body—I’ve read this metaphor before, and I remember having the clear thought, “Oh, I get it—a wave of shame. Yes—that is exactly what this feels like.”
I need more words, though—words I wouldn’t have until much later. Because what I experienced in that moment, what felt traumatic about it, was that my body was being read as something sexually disruptive. My skinny legs—legs that weren’t large enough to fill out my hose so they kept falling down into elephant ankles—those tiny, undeveloped, girl-legs were “distracting” to the boys. I understood then that my body was dangerous—not only to the boys, of course, whom I must protect from the sight of my potentially transgressive body; but also to myself, because if I did not regulate and manage my body appropriately then I would draw the shaming attention of Authority.
Were those boys “distracted”? I don’t know. I’m still friends with some of them and would love to hear their memories of that class. As the mother to three boys now, I would expect ten-year-olds to be interested in and observant of the bodies of their peers. It’s natural; it’s part of human development; it doesn’t need to be perceived of by adults as dangerous. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not blaming my teacher, and I would be grieved if this piece were to cause him pain. I think he wanted to do the right thing—probably even talked it over with his wife about how to say something gently. He, too, was a victim of a sub-culture in which men were made to feel they could (and must) control the bodies of women.
But my mother-heart breaks for that ten-year-old girl who found herself in the double bind many women experience, globally. That is: even my sincere attempt to present my body in culturally-pleasing ways (prettiness, femininity, wholesomeness) was not enough to prevent my body from being read as a threat. At what point would I have achieved “modesty”? At what point would I be covered up and immobile enough to not draw unwanted or “inappropriate” attention? How could the object of the gaze ever be responsible for the thoughts of the subject of the gaze? This is the logic of the burqa.
And here is the big irony, of course: in his attempt to preserve our innocence, my teacher inadvertently shamed me into a knowledge of myself as a sexual, and thus—in the implicit logic I already instinctively understood—degraded creature.
It would be a very long time before I would feel uncomplicated joy in my body again.
I’ve been thinking about my own stories of body shame for the past week because of the body shaming of Donald Trump.
I understand that these statues are an expression of political satire. But satire, as a genre, often trades in ugly cultural beliefs. Read any piece of eighteenth-century English satire and you’ll find all manner of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism. That something is satiric does not shield it from other legitimate social critique.
The statues present a naked “Donald Trump” with a paunchy belly, cartoonish pubic hair, a tiny penis, a flabby butt, and varicose veins. The piece is titled “The Emperor Has No Balls,” and indeed, there are no testicles on the statue.
When I saw the statue I thought, “That body looks a lot like my body when I was pregnant.”
The visual logic, as I read it, goes like this:
1. Donald Trump has a tiny penis and a fat, womanly body.
2. “Real men” have big penises and “masculine bodies.”
3. Only real men can be political leaders.
4. Therefore: Donald Trump cannot be a legitimate Presidential candidate.
Whatever the potential usefulness of this piece of political satire, I would argue that the body shaming on which it is predicated sends enormously destructive messages to women, fat people, and men whose bodies do not conform to the Greco-Roman ideal—millions of people, in other words.
Surely we do not believe that only people who look like a Roman emperor are capable of good leadership?
It took a long time for me to reclaim an uncomplicated joy in my body. Seventeen years, in fact. I was twenty-seven, and I felt the generative, beautiful power of my body to nurture and protect a new little life—my first son.
The pregnant body, the fat body, the skinny ten-year-old body, the flabby middle-aged body, the tiny baby body, the Donald Trump body: these are all beautiful bodies.
Let’s see joy in them.