“Eww!” Jenny shrieks when she looks at the photo. “I hate that!”
“Why?” I ask.
“You can see the muscles and my legs look like Hulk legs. Delete it.”
My ears perk up immediately. As a female distance runner (with admittedly big, muscular thighs that I have learned to love), I’m pretty sensitive to these comments. When adults, especially men, make them, I tend to engage in a conversation or get onto my soapbox. I can argue with grown-ups about feminism, athletics and the body. I can bring up the male gaze, use pathos and even chastise about how a woman’s body, in all its muscular or curvy glory, does not have to be about aesthetics but athletics.
But Jenny is not an adult. She’s a 15-year-old girl in my yearbook class. She is sweet and funny, and her gangly body is mostly built on smoothies, Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizzas and softball. It breaks my heart a little when I hear her say these things about herself. She shouldn’t be worried that her legs have muscle. She should celebrate it—but we are still in a world where everything around her tells her to be “feminine” and that that means “thin.”
“Jenny,” I say quickly and without thinking, “your legs can have cellulite, or they can have muscle. I’ve had both. Trust me: Muscle is better.”
She laughs, nods her head and turns back to the picture.
The next night, the moment haunts me. Teachers spend a lot of time reflecting: What can I do better? How can I make that lesson more interesting? How can I give my kids more agency?
That evening’s question though: Had I done more harm than good to Jenny’s body image—and those of my other female students?
In retrospect, I hate the answer that I gave. Cellulite is not bad. I certainly have it all over. Most women have it. The last thing I want her to think is that she needs to be this super-fit-cellulite-free being that does not exist.
Fitness is good, health is good, but there is always a good middle ground we should all seek. All I want for her and for all my students is to be healthy, do what they love, know they are beautiful and say, “Screw you” to anyone who doesn’t also believe that.
The problem is: I don’t even know how to do that myself. I still measure and weigh myself every morning, despite my better judgment. While I try my best to encourage other women to love their bodies as they are, I often beat up on my own. I judge my runs when I do not meet my goal pace. I get angry if I can’t do as many reps as I want. I make myself feel guilty when I eat too much ice cream and sprint for miles after to “make up for it,” instead of figuring out how to eat healthier the next day.
This is not behavior I am proud of.
So how do I teach kids to love their bodies when I am still barely learning to love my own? If I lack the balance between fitness-extremist and unhealthy in my own mind, how the heck am I going to help my students achieve this balance?
I have often found that the best way to give my students anything is to be honest with them. I try my best to tell them about my experiences, to be vulnerable when I struggle, to show them I am open to learning from them.
So maybe that’s the next step of the process. The next time one of my students brings up her body, I will listen. I’ll honestly tell her about the struggles I have with my own body. I will try to give her as much validation as I would want someone to give me—that she is beautiful and loved. Hopefully, being open about what I want to give myself will be what I need to give my students.
Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.