In 6th grade, my science teacher called a parent-teacher meeting with my mother and all of my other teachers. She told my mother I was going around telling the other students I was a lesbian and it was “distracting” them.

That had a major impact since my mother was and is rather homophobic and I am rather gay. It was a bit traumatic since I was under the impression the meeting was to talk about my grades or my behavior –- not who I had crushes on.

That wasn’t what hurt me the most, though.

My school nurse and I had two interactions that have stuck in my mind for the past 13 years that I’m now willing to acknowledge as painful. The first was when she basically told me my breasts were too big and to cover them. I went to her for something unrelated, just for her to tell me my shirt was too tight, I should be wearing a bra and that she’d bring me some T-shirts the next day. She gave me some tie-dye T-shirts from a camp and told me to wear those instead.

I did have big breast for my age (36C at the time) and as they got bigger, the adults in my school were quick to tell me what shirts not to wear. I left middle school a 44DD and with an image in my mind of what the normal teenager looked like — and it wasn’t like me. The adults around me, especially my nurse, made sure they reinforced that.

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Just what I asked for, right?

My peers didn’t make things easier for me either. They’d ask me how it felt to have big breasts, sometimes even hitting them and joking that maybe I’d get breast cancer because they “heard constantly punching boobs gave you breast cancer.” What?!?!

The last people I’d turn to in school were my nurses and teachers. After all –- they made it clear that my chest was a problem. I remember once I was even told by the secretary in the office to change into a gym T-shirt because I shouldn’t be wearing shirts “like that.”

It was a tank top, the same sort of tank top 70% of the other girls were wearing in June. Go figure.

The next incident happened the very next school year. I hopped on the scale in her office; she looked at it and told me to stay there. As I waited, she started looking through my files. Glancing back to the number on the scale in shock, she said words that will remain in my head forever: “What happened?”

I had gained weight, a lot, in a short amount of time. Instead of talking to me about any feelings I had about that or asking any sort of question — she picked up the phone and called my mother. That went just as well as any other phone call home and it all ended with me feeling an immense amount of shame about the way I looked.

Students usually get phone calls home for disciplinary reasons or to tell parents about detentions and suspensions — not for this. That was my first real introduction to fat shaming as well.

Oh, and another thing. She was white and I’m black. Without giving a history lesson, in the United States (both past and present) the black female body has been a site of exploitation, objectification and has been seen as hypersexual. In 6th grade I didn’t realize like I do now the impact of a white woman calling out the size of my body and its parts. I wonder if that ever crossed her mind as well.

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The middle of 7th grade, right before I got the call home

Here we are years later and after a really great suggestion, I wrote a letter to that nurse, Mrs. E. I decided to follow through with the suggestion mainly because it’s time to start forgiving certain people in my past and she was a person who really hurt me.

Writing a letter didn’t mean I forgave her with the stroke of the keys though. Writing a letter made me sit with feelings that were coming up and gave me a chance to face them once again. Once you’re able to face something again, it can be dealt with — I chose forgiveness this time around.

The letter to my middle school nurse may or may not ever reach her, who knows. I did my part though, I acknowledged that my body wasn’t a problem when I was younger and it was the adults around me that made it a problem. I spoke that truth to myself and publicly spoke that truth to her as well.
It takes sexualization to make something sexual –- a child wearing a tight shirt would mean nothing unless it was made into something sexual by an adult. A lot of women are sexualized, shamed and embarrassed at a young age and it has impacted us in ways we may never realize. The way it manifests itself in our lives play out in various ways and that’s the scariest part; sometimes we don’t even know how someone’s thwarted perception of our younger selves harms our image of ourselves as an adult.
Now that I’ve spoken my truth to the person who hurt me, I’m doing my best to speak it to myself — to look in the mirror and say, “You’re beautiful just the way you are.”

XOJane

This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more
Justine Powell on XOJane!

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  • Kisha

    I can so relate to this story! As a young girl who went through puberty earlier than her peers, and work with young women re: self esteem and sexual trauma, situations like this happen far too often. And the fact that she was white certainly adds another level to the sadness I feel when reading this story. I hope as adults reading this, we can advocate and support our daughters and young women in out lives differently!

  • tina

    A 6th grader really shouldn’t be running around school announcing her sexuality…no one cares.

    Your mother should have told you that you should have some modesty and respect for yourself by not showing the world your breast.

    Both my daughters have large breasts and had to come to terms with the fact that they can’t wear the little skimpy tops and tinie bikini tops the other girls can wear.

    Don’t make this a black/ white thing. Just appreciate someone trying to tell you to do better.

    • Justine

      hi! so i wrote this piece and found it on this site which im visiting for the first (and last) – wanted to reply specifically to your comment.
      first – thank you for reading.

      next – i think you missed the point about my sexuality – no one should’ve cared, as no one cared about the straight kids having their bfs/gfs. (and talking about them non-stop). clearly they did care.

      also, i’m not exactly sure where you got the impression i was “showing the world my breast”. perhaps the photo didn’t load properly for you but that shirt i’m wearing seems pretty suitable, no? that particular day my shirt was tight and i didn’t have a bra – was that everyday, no. so to all who keep noting i should’ve been taught xyz, re-read how that was “one” day….when i was 11. chill.

      to mention your daughters knowing what they can and cannot wear is to miss the entire mention of sexualization of girls and the lengthy apa report linked to it.

      and lastly – unless a person has an academic background in race, racial theory, gender studies, I would not expect them to see where race fits in – particularly the policing of the black female body. that isn’t an attack and it doesn’t matter who/what anyone is……it goes for all – unless you’ve studied race relations, it’ll mean nothing. as someone with a b.a. in social work, getting an m.a.in social work and planning on a phd with a concentration in race & gender – i dont just say things bc it looks good or all the other assumptions ive seen in all of these comments. i have the studies and research to back it up. so lets all see the bigger picture of what im trying to point out.

      while i’m at it – to address everyone else, there isn’t any further talk of my mother because this isn’t about her and there is a word count limit.

      pardon any typos as i’m on my phone.

  • Shepherd

    I’m a bit torn on this. I do believe that once you hit a certain age of puberty you should be wearing a bra, but what was the usefulness of adults telling this to a child? Is the child expected to go to the mall the next day and just purchase one? It would have been way more helpful if the nurse and the other adults dropped the snide remarks and spoke to her mother in a polite respectful conversaton and recommended that she was ready to wear a bra. However I kind of doubt the effectiveness of that approach given how she describes her mother. I see nothing ‘sexual’ about the way she is dressed in her old photo and it was wrong for the adults to make her feel bad over a body she couldn’t control. I remember being that age and wishing I could cut just off all the parts others found offensive or ‘sexualised’.

  • New Attitude

    my 6th grade math teacher shamed me for not knowing fractions. And never bothered to teach me.

  • The power dynamics of my situation were different, because I was a young white girl being shamed by white teachers, but I wanted to offer my support and empathy as someone who developed early and maybe didn’t get as much guidance from home as I should have. I once had a home ec teacher call me out in front of the class and hand me a giant safety pin to close the top of my dress, because my cleavage was showing. To all those who see nothing wrong with these scenarios, I’d say it’s all in the presentation. If the school nurse had been gentle, supportive, and kind, perhaps the author wouldn’t have felt as shamed by the interaction. I doubt I would have minded that kind of intervention, but I sure did feel awkward about having my cleavage discussed in front of the class and then wearing a giant safety pin on my chest all day long.