Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Red Flags Are Blowin' on the Tyra Show: Acknowledging the Body in Middle Grades Education

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Red Flags Are Blowin' on the Tyra Show: Acknowledging the Body in Middle Grades Education

Article excerpt

One hour and thirty-seven minutes. That was how long my conversation about topics relating to the body lasted with a group of seventh grade girls in a Barnes & Noble café. Periods, pregnancy, anorexia, bulimia, and breast size were the specific topics on that day-but just on that day. The conversation the week before involved 30 minutes of speculation about their body shapes ("I'm kinda like a Coke bottle." "I think I'm more of a pear." "I like my curves!" "Hips are what make you look feminine."); why the girls thought they should not be having sex ("I want to be in love." "The Bible says you have to be married." "I want to find the right man." "I don't need no man!"); and curious thoughts about girls at their school who had recently "come out" as bisexual ("My mom said [the girl] ain't even old enough to know what she likes yet." "I think she's just doin' it because her sister is a full lesbian." "I think she's doin' it to get attention from the boys.") The week before that we spent at least 40 minutes totally devoted to menstruation. We engaged in a "period discourse," just as my friends and I had done when we were trying to make sense of menstruation in middle school-who had "the red flag blowin'" or "the painters movin' in" and who did not, the strange smells and odors they were encountering, the variety in blood color, how long their cramps lasted, the benefits of tampons versus pads, embarrassing conversations with fathers, and ponderings about why boys don't have to "go through all of the things [girls] go through" with their bodies. We discussed all this with intermittent side conversations about which Hollywood stars recently had collagen injected into their "booties," which ones were having fat removed from their backs and added to their breasts, and why those stars felt the need to do such things to their bodies.

During these weekly writing group meetings, I was not always the initiator of conversations about these bodyrelated themes. I would try to begin our conversation most days with some provocative poem by Maya Angelou or Nikki Giovanni, and somehow I would end up hearing about the minister who had the young adolescents in one girl's youth group choose to say "penis" or "vagina" out loud five times with a partner as an icebreaker so that the youth group could become "more comfortable talking about sensitive issues." (I wonder how that would go over as a beginning-of-the-year icebreaker in a seventh grade math or social studies class!)

Spending a few hours each week for a year with this group of seventh grade girls, I eventually learned that some body-related topic would surface, whether I-the teacher/researcher figure-was present or not. Why? Because it is through the body and through bodily experiences that the surrounding world becomes meaningful for us (Dahlberg, Dahlberg, & Nystrom, 2008; Merleau-Ponty, 2002/1962). Whether or not we want to formally acknowledge the body in school, our students are always thinking and talking about bodies and are experiencing the world through their bodies. In their "body talk," young adolescents are telling us quite a bit about their experiences of being young adolescents, students, friends, siblings, daughters or sons, and human beings. And to understand and learn from those bodyrelated stories, we have to begin listening differently.

In this article, I draw upon body-related lessons I learned from a group of 12-year-old girls to offer some recommendations for addressing these issues in schools. First, I suggest that educators have to begin acknowledging that bodies, not just minds, inhabit educational spaces. Students and educators alike are sensing and experiencing subject-bodies with desires, thoughts, emotions, and feelings that are constantly perceiving and interacting in educational spaces. If we begin thinking about bodies as mediators of experience rather than remaining stuck in the mind-body assumption that the body is a mere biological object to be moved around the classroom like a piece of furniture, then we can create, understand, and live knowledge differently-as embodied. …

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