Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, debuting from Crown/Random House this week. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in fiction from the Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and teaches at Fontbonne University. You can find her and her novel at www.thebirdsisters.com.
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There’s a Whale in the Room
For the last two years, I have taught a class called Food & Culture at my little university. I love this course for so many reasons, one of which is that I strive to teach my students about what is basic nutrition to me, but what is not so basic to them. Along the way, we watch videos like Food, Inc. and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. We talk about Michael Pollen’s approach to eating only things that our great-grandmothers would recognize as food and Eric Schlossler’s ideas about Why the Fries Taste So Good. Along the way, if I am lucky, for every moment we are appalled by the industrial food system, we are also learning that we can vote every time we go to the grocery store. We learn that not everyone has to picket multinational corporations and feed lots. By the end of the semester, we turn our attention to food-related advertisements, especially ones that are geared toward women. And here’s the thing: this is the time in the semester when I end up learning that my students, particularly the women, really struggle on a daily basis with their body image. Many of my women end up writing their final essays about grappling with eating disorders, with the scale, with the mirror, and all of these essays have broken my heart in one way or another.
Here they are: bright and lovely women who think they are fat and stupid, and I always want to know why, although why isn’t necessarily a satisfying thing to figure out. One of my most recent students calls herself a whale. She’s five feet five inches tall, weighs about 120 pounds, and plays every sport a person can play both for fun and on the collegiate level. When I asked her why she calls herself this, she told me that’s what she sees when she looks in the mirror each morning and each evening. When I asked her to write more about the subject, she revealed that her mother calls herself a whale and has for as long as she can remember.
Her mother would say things like, “I’m a whale, but you’re beautiful.”
This sounded pretty familiar to me. My mother used to say the same exact thing. And I, too, struggled to view myself in a kind and healthful way for many years.
This student ended up writing a paper about how she felt about herself and how she didn’t want her little sister to feel this same way. This student wrote about her acne, about her denying herself food, about wanting boys to notice and like her, about cutting the soft flesh of her arms to gain some control.
She wrote, “I’m just ugly. That’s all.”
If ever sentences could break my heart, these were the ones to do it.
After class that day, when I handed back the papers, I asked her to stay for a minute, and there in the nondescript classroom on the second floor of the English building, I pulled her close to me and held her chin in my hand. I asked her to look me in the eyes, which she did.
“I want to tell you something, ” I said.
“Okay,” she said meekly, but she kept looking directly into my eyes. (I didn’t realize then how much she needed someone to do this–I suspected, but I didn’t realize.)
“You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. They have such goodness in them, such passion and light. I want you to know what I see when I look at you. I want you to know how lovely you are, how sweet, how smart.”
I leaned in and kissed her forehead the way I kiss my own daughter’s and I hugged her close for a long time.
And this lovely girl started crying and hugging me back.
“Thank you so much,” she said.
Is she healing?
I don’t know.
Is she looking in the mirror and seeing what I see?
I don’t know.
All I know is that when I see her in the hallway at school, she bounds toward me the way I hope my daughter will when she’s her age. All I see is her potential, the flush of her cheeks. And I hope. I hope.
Next week, an essay by Brigid Duffy. Please submit your questions and / or Q4K essays (no longer than 1,000 words, and no attachments please) to questforkindness[at]gmail.com