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Inclusivity: A Deeper Look at 8th Grade Pajama Pants

Written by An Anonymous Handwork Teacher

Pajama Pants. The quintessential 8th grade project. Yes? YES. Of course! It’s the culmination of all your Waldorf students’ hard work! They get to walk through the industrial revolution! They have learned how to use their machine! It opens a world of opportunities to define themselves through clothing and style!

Except, what happens when those things are overshadowed by something else entirely?  What happens when your student hides in their sweatshirt and baggy pants because they can’t get comfortable in their skin? What happens when your student is counting the lettuce leaves on their plate? What happens when your student can’t quite sit still in their chair because they’re so cognizant of their waistline that they want to make sure that it appears flat and trim at all times? What happens when they miss directions because they’re focused on their body? What happens when that student lives by numbers? Scale numbers. Inch Numbers. Calorie numbers. I was that student. I am that teacher. 

Before I dive in, I want to make clear, I am not a human to be pitied. I am strong. Resilient. Persistent. I am a phenomenal teacher. I’m empathetic. I feel deeply and strongly. So often people with severe mental health disorders, and yes, mine are severe, are put into a box labeled “scary.” I do not “look” like I have struggles. I’m smiley and friendly and you’d never know that on the inside, I have a racing mind, thorns, vines, and black pits of despair. I was conditioned as a child to make sure no one saw my struggles. No one saw anger, willfulness, pain, anxiety, or anything that resembled a complaint. I went to dozens of therapists who told me how amazing I was. How incredible my achievements were, how beautiful I was, how thoughtful. All of those perfectionist, people pleasing, overcontrolled behaviors landed me in treatment for severe illness as an adult. My maladaptive coping mechanisms made my outside the vision of control and grace, while the inside was literally wasting away. THIS is why I’m writing this piece. It’s less about the pants and more about seeing the iceberg below the surface.

I have an eating disorder. I actually have two. What they are doesn’t really matter, and I have struggled with many others through my life. Eating disorders most often (though not always) co-occur as a coping mechanism for another often undiagnosed or untreated mental health problem. For me, that was undiagnosed OCD and anxiety paired with diagnosed depression and ADHD. While all of those are struggles for me on a daily basis, what I’d like to talk about for a little bit is the resulting body dysmorphia I developed. 

I’ll pause here to make a distinction between body dysmorphia and body dysphoria. In short, dysmorphia means you have intense, persistent focus on perceived defects or flaws in your appearance. It is all consuming, and you intensely focus on your appearance, check the mirror, check your body, repeat behaviors in grooming or eating, and it greatly impacts your daily life. You can learn more about it here. Body dysphoria is generally related to gender and it is the feeling of discomfort or distress that occurs in people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. You can read more about dysphoria here. Both are real struggles and it’s not something that can just be wished away. 

Before you say, it’s just pants! They’re baggy! I want to tell you about my recent experience making pajama pants. First, I stressed about the pattern. How would they drape on my body? How will the pockets lay? Will it make my waist look (insert disordered words here)? That took me about a week of constant research and discarding of patterns. Then I cried as I bought the pattern in the correct size. I cried as I taped together the pieces. I could not physically measure my own waist. It took a therapist and my spouse working together to do that. I could not trace out my own size, my spouse had to do it for me, and add my markings, making sure that NO numbers were present. I had to have my spouse fold the pattern and put the pieces away, so there was no chance of me seeing a number. Once cut, sewed, and on my body, I cried because of how large the waist opening had to be because, as any gathered pants must, it needed to be larger in order to be gathered with elastic at the waist. As I pulled the elastic around my body to cut, I was physically nauseated. I struggled through the process, feeling like someone was sticking me with pins the entire time. I have the most beautiful pants. They’re my favorite color, a color halfway between aquamarine and seafoam. They’re the softest, most snuggly flannel. They fit me perfectly. I cannot wear them. They sit in the bottom of my drawer and I stare at them and feel guilty for the time and money spent on them, because I cannot stand the way they look. I cannot stand the way they feel. I cannot stand the struggle I went through to make them. I have used up every scrap of that fabric for other projects that I use and wear all the time. It’s the pants that represent pain for me.

I cannot speak for your students. All of our human experiences are different. What I can say is that if I’d been given pajama pants as a project in 8th grade, it would have been devastating for my eating disorder. I would have obsessed over every measurement. I would have struggled with using the number I knew I needed to use, and which one I wanted. I would have struggled to make myself GET to the number I wanted. I would have been upset if and when my body rebelled against my trying to make it do things it was not physically capable of. I would have had SO MUCH SHAME surrounding the pattern size, no matter what it was. It would have consumed every part of my being. 

While I’m here, with your current students. I’d like to make a case for not talking about their food or putting restrictions on lunches. I’ve worked in “crunchy” spaces for a long time. Some Waldorf, some not. We, as people who love our children, want to make sure we’re putting the healthiest, most nutritious food in their bodies. We talk about processed food in scary ways. Tell them that sugar is bad and will hurt them, and that some foods are superior. To a person with an already unhealthy obsession, this is gas on the fire. I hid my eating disorder behind “healthy living” for decades. I was constantly praised for my attention to health, ingredients, and dedication to so many things that were highly, highly disordered. I cannot stress enough that this started in elementary school. Please, consider your words when speaking about the morality of food around young people. ALL food has value, even if it isn’t food you’d choose.

There are students in your classes, right now, struggling as I did. Some you can see. Students with sensory issues may not want to have fabrics touching their skin in such unnerving ways. Then there are students with body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, anxiety, eating disorders, and many other things, hidden in deep dark places, trying to be the perfect student. It may be that they’ve been conditioned to be the “perfect person” or to “never stand out.” It may be that they know if they put a toe out of line, there will be consequences. Whatever it is. I promise you, they’re there. 

I’m not saying you can’t make pajama pants. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t. What I am saying is that you should think deeply about what you want your students to learn. Is it possible to teach that in multiple ways? Is there another project that could accomplish the same goals? Would a bag teach lines and curves? Would visible mending teach eco-consciousness and thrift? Would quilting in a collaborative, class project fit the bill? Go to ANY sewing blog, or any local library, and search for 1 yard projects, and you’ll be surprised at all you find. 

I wish you joy and fulfillment in teaching. Love, warmth, and compassion in your classroom, and all the very best in your endeavors forward. Thank you for listening.

NEDA- National Eating Disorders Association

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