Lessons on Female Empowerment Learned from the School Lunch Table

If you are like me, you watched the Superbowl this week. If you are like me, maybe you were disgusted one or more times by ads and made uncomfortable by the halftime show. (And maybe you also got really excited when there were fights between the players. Oh! That's just me.) The last few days I spent a lot of time darting around the internet, reading posts about empowerment and our oversexed culture and feminism and Biblical morality and the like. I read some posts I liked, some that made me think, and some that I vehemently disagreed with. The two that I related to the most were these, by Kristen at Rage Against the Minivan and Nish from Nish Happens

Rather than write anything overt about why I was unsettled about Beyonce's performance being equated with women owning their sexuality, I thought I'd share a story about one time in my life when I was empowered. I normally wouldn't hold myself up as some standard for anything (and still, really, don't), but this was more an accidental empowerment. So, yeah, I'm no hero. 

Still reading? Here goes my little (okay, maybe long) story of being empowered and owning my sexuality. 

I did a lot of stupid things when I was 14. (If you read my recent letter to 13-year-old me, you get a taste.) I lied to my parents. I made fun of people. I talked too much, too loudly, about nothing important. I crushed on different boys daily.  I made frequent calls to the local radio station, requesting terrible pop songs.

I was a pretty normal 8th-grader.

I sat at a lunch table with all girls. You remember the middle school cafeteria, right? A terrifying place. The most autonomy you really get in middle school to make your own choices, walk around freely, and spend the lunch money your parents gave you on Hostess Chocolate Cupcakes and a Dr. Pepper. There are infinite ways you might humiliate yourself during this twenty-five minutes of fairly unsupervised freedom.

Our girl table was right next to a table of guys, with whom I shared classes and that same mid-level tier of popularity. Because interaction between the genders was mostly limited to being forced to work with a partner in Science or those awkward "relationships" where you might hold hands between classes, at lunch there was no real communication. Once, a kid named Ben threw an apple at me, which I think was flirting, and I threw it back, which was definitely my attempt to flirt back. That was about as far as male-female interaction went.

Until one day when, without warning, the table of boys began shouting unintelligible words. They were definitely directed at our table, which resulted in a collective feeling of panic and a lot of checking to see if anyone had started her period without noticing or had something in her teeth. The general checklists came up fine and we couldn't decipher their words, so we spent an unsettled lunch period. There was a joke, and we were the butt, but we didn't know what or why.

I'm not sure who figured out later that they had been shouting at me. More specifically, at my breasts. The unintelligible insult was actually a brilliant new name they had come up with for me: Sboob Gib. Which is Big Boobs spelled backwards.

This was really the first I had heard about even having boobs at all. Perhaps my generation was not as affected by hormone-laced milk, making me an anomaly of average-sized breasts among a sea of A-cups. In any case, I was startled by the name and by the knowledge that anyone had noticed my breasts at all. (Clearly, I had not.) I did not have long to be surprised, because as soon as I sat down at lunch the next day, the shouting began again at my back.

Our normally chatty lunch table was silenced in the face of this public humiliation.

Though the taunts were directed toward me, the embarrassment of having a table full of boys jeering in our direction extended toward everyone. No one would look at the boys, no one would look at me. Though I knew the girls felt sorry for my plight, I was also shocked to realize that not one of them was going to speak up. 

I spent the entire lunch period red-faced and sweating, utterly humiliated and feeling completely alone. These boys that sometimes talked to me in other classes like a normal human were now treating me like something else. And the girl friends at my own table had no help to offer, no support. There was no girl power to be had.

The period directly after lunch was reading, a sort of study hall in which my teacher fell asleep at her desk, leaving us to do homework, play games, or generally get into as much trouble as possible without waking her. I left lunch that day and walked into reading--where I sat next to Camden, a boy who had spent the last twenty-five minutes yelling about my breasts in front of the whole cafeteria.

He did not look at me. But five minutes into class, when Ms. Baker's head came to rest on her grade book, he pulled out a deck of cards. "Your turn to deal?" he said.

Had lunch not even happened? I could see, though, a trace of shame in his face, and the apology as he held out the cards. He was always the dealer in our marathon two-person games in the back row of class.

What I wanted to say: I thought you were my friend. How can you do that and then want to play cards like nothing happened? Why would you do that to me? I thought you were different. 

What I said: "Sure." And so we played cards, like we had every other reading period that year.

This went on for some time. Weeks, maybe. I would arrive at lunch, turning red as soon as I walked through the doors. I learned to stall at my locker until hall monitors shooed me along. I got in the very back of the longest lunch line. But no stalling could halt the lunchtime chorus behind me. In the hallways or in class later, these boys acted as they always had toward me, with maybe the tiniest trace of guilt.

I kept waiting for someone to speak up for me. If I played cards enough with Camden, if I made him laugh, maybe he would say something to the other guys. Maybe one of my girl friends, someone more outspoken than I was at the time, would finally turn around and tell them definitively to shut up. I even held out hope that the teachers who half-heartedly supervised lunch might tell the boys that they were being too loud.

By week two, my hopes in any of those scenarios had been extinguished. I thought of changing schools, or lunch periods. I wore baggier shirts. I considered hiding in the bathroom during lunch period. I walked with my shoulders hunched forward, my chest concave. I felt like everyone in the school at all times was staring at my breasts.

I was humiliated, but I was also angry. Angry with my friends who sat silently by, wearing shame-faced looks as though the taunts weren't solely mine. Angry with the boys who acted like my friends during class and then turned into hormone-fueled apes during lunch period.

And then one day as I approached the lunch table with my friend Emily, I said, "Switch seats with me." She looked surprised, but shrugged and took my seat, her back to the table of boys.They were already jostling each other with elbows, grinning at my approach.

I set my tray down on the table and I sat facing them. Already, they faltered at the change in pattern. I did not smile. I did not look away. I made eye contact, daring them to speak. All that anger blazed through my face as I stared. The anger at being made to feel like I wasn't a person anymore. The anger at betrayal of boys I thought were my friends. The anger at suffering humiliation for something I could not change about my body.

One by one, they closed their mouths. They looked down. They ate their lunches in silence. Without a word, I effectively shut down their entire operation.

It took more than one day of this, and I never felt like I could turn my back to them again, but it worked. I wanted to cry with relief that first lunch period. I felt proud that I stood up for myself. I felt empowered. 

I took control of the situation and sent a message that I would not be bullied, harassed, or objectified. (Though I'm sure I would have used none of those words at 14.) I owned my sexuality. (Again, a term I did not have then.) I communicated that my breasts and my body and my person were not fair game for anyone else to make fun of (or admire--the two are a bit muddled in junior high). In my yearbook, several of the boys addressed their comments to Sboob Gib, but none of them ever had the guts to say it again to my face.

Many times later on in life, I got it wrong. I did not speak up for others when I should have. I said nothing when what I meant to say was no. I wore revealing clothing to get the wrong kind of attention. But this one time, albeit accidentally, I got it right.

This story came to mind this week as I thought of female empowerment and owning your sexuality. I believe it says more than any posturing I could coherently form right now--and plus, so many people have already weighed in on this in more eloquent ways. Whatever your view on the Superbowl or its ads or its halftime show, the greatest lesson I learned about empowerment was learned at the 8th grade lunch table.



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