How a panicked, hairy woman realised her body’s teaching potential.
I will become a teacher in a far-flung part of the country in September. During my summer training, we – the trainee teachers and tutors alike – spoke about ‘setting an example’. The intent was to stress that we must be role models in our teaching, in our behaviour, in our interactions (with both pupils and colleagues), and in our dress.
For me, three quarters of this list fell upon compliant ears. The ultimate part – “dress” – however, made me feel uncomfortable. Despite the course featuring much discussion of maintaining a ‘work-life balance’ as a trainee teacher, it seemed to me that even when dragging myself round Morrison’s on a Saturday morning or dancing the night away in Lincolnshire classiest bars, from now on I’d have to maintain ‘Teacherly Standards’ of appearance and deportment. My fear that once I began teaching, that is all I would ever be – a Teacher Automaton, rather than a Person – seemed to becoming a reality.
These Automatons eat, sleep and breathe teaching. They do nothing else, they are called “Miss” or “Sir” by their relatives. They go nowhere without a red marking pen in their hand. They think about their pupils before they get to school, and on the way home, and all the way through their holidays. They mourn pupils when they leave.
A childishly hyperbolic fear, perhaps. But on a less drastic level, these ‘Teacherly Standards’ did look set to hold me back: in terms of my feminist leanings, how was I meant to imbibe pupils with an understanding of the women’s movement without using my body as an example? Thoughts of visual, audible and kinesthetic learners whirled around my head. I am one of those women that believe that my body is political, and although – truth be told – it is mostly a lack of energy and overwhelming boredom that lets hairs grow on my body, surely there is some responsibility to use it in the teaching arena, where it holds such huge potential?
So while it wouldn’t really be an effort to hide my hairy armpits and tattoos, more problematic for me was whether or not I should shave off my little bird nests in order to prevent awkward armpit discussions. I was worried that they would be a distraction, and I didn’t want to alienate the classes in the first few lessons by being labeled ‘The Mad Ma’am With Hairy Pits’. Who would I be if I did that? I could not claim to use my body as politically demonstrative if I was scared of explaining it to a class of fourteen year olds.
So the challenge was clear: should I open myself up to focused attention (and possibly ridicule) at the hands of hundreds of teenagers, or shave to avoid it becoming an issue the classroom? Realistically, there are far more obvious distractions in the classroom than slightly visible armpit hair: the insane urge to swing back on your chair, to doodle penises on every available surface and, possibly, work.
If I’ve learnt anything from having hairy armpits, it is the speed at which they open up discussion on a myriad of things, with deodorant choice suggestions and upper body work out advice peppering the feminist chat. So surely this is the best way to spread The Word, not through scaring women and men into submission, but using visual tools to open up debate about notions of femininity.
This, I feel, is important. A society with a healthy understanding of gender relations depends upon education. If we can contribute to a change in understanding of modern day beauty standards, or at least open up questions about it, then education is surely the way to do it. If views on ‘normal’ femininity can be questioned and held to account from society at a young age, what a great step in the right direction that would be! Again, calm explanations of my tattoos in a way that treats the kids like real people will be my modus operandi. Treating them like real, inquisitive people is – apparently – quite a good way to go in building relationships and ensuring classroom engagement. Who’d have thought?
Keeping the underarm fluff marks me out as a feminist, sure. It also demonstrates my standing as a person, an individual. It cannot take over me completely though – it is also vital to show the pupils that you are, indeed, a relatable human with whom they can talk. The idea of sitting in a lesson being talked at by a droid makes me shudder with remembered dread, so the thought of me being the one stepping into that role is even worse.
If your outfit (or behaviour) can open up discussion of the history of the trouser, or the baldrick, or the bra, then surely everyone is better for the learning. Education comes from and through hundreds of different modes of explanation, and those experiences that are made relevant to us are the ones we find easiest to recall.
I have recently learnt that kids will understand a lot of concepts that adults don’t give them credit for. They instinctively empathise with Macbeth, they appreciate a full explanation of why they are getting punished, and they accept that people are different – once differences are explained. This is why I think living outside what some deem as concrete constructs of beauty can be so powerful.
Being an example – a role model, just as my tutors told me to be – to young girls and boys who may think that gender roles and ideas of beauty are eternally engrained, is very powerful, especially with regard to that most important of things: choice. Of course some women love having cleanly shaven legs and finely plucked eyebrows. My decision not to do that is my personal choice and should have no effect on my standing as a woman, or as an individual.
And it’s not just my armpits that benefit from a measured explanation. Where eleven year olds voice homophobic views, the likelihood is that no one has taken the time to explain why “gay” used as a derogative term is offensive, or why is isn’t just “banter” to accuse a girl across the room of being “a shlaaaggg”. When these issues are explained to them in a heartfelt, honest manner, children who have known no different surprise us, and comprehend such issues with almost tear-jerking ease.
We must demonstrate – model – what we are trying to instill in them. For me, my personal teaching philosophy is inherently linked with gender equality and feminism. If I dare not demonstrate the choice to so young an audience, then I am a coward. These ‘challenges’ in the face of intrigue and curiosity (and slight malice, as all school children are partial to exhibiting on occasion) are nothing to those faced by activists in the past. Even though my fight is not in the slightest bit as dangerous as the challenges faced by those feminists who have gone before me, or those still suffering the blight of being born a woman in parts of the world today, it is an important one.
So, I have resolved my feelings into the following action: I will dress (comfortably) for myself as a person not as Teacher – displaying or not my underarms as the weather permits; I will display elements of my own personality within the system (they and I are humans, after all); I will not encourage them to get into trouble, but endeavour to give them the intellectual tools and understanding to open doors for themselves, with their eyes wide open; and try and teach them things that they will take out of the school gates.
Rebellion it might be – in a downy, quiet kind of way.
Image Credit: CliffMuller via Compfight
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