The Bread Thread

Emily Weitzman condemns the persistence of slut shaming over different stages in her life, and combats it with humor and…bread.

Emily Weitzman | Longreads | September 2019 | 13 minutes (3,335 words)

 

EMILY WEITZMAN IS A HUGE FUCKING SLUT.

 

The words leap out of the computer screen and hang in the air. Enlarging, colliding, rearranging:

 

EMILY WEITZMAN IS A HUGE FUCKING SLUT.

Emily Weitzman Is a Fucking Huge Slut

Emily Weitzman Is Fucking A Huge Slut

Emily Is Weitzman Fucking A Slut

Weitzman A Fucking Slut

Huge Fucking, Emily:

SLUT.

 

When I sign on to my college’s gossip site, the “Anonymous Confession Board,” there’s my name at the top of the homepage. The words glare back at me. I rush into my dorm room and shut the door. I’m terrified the entire freshman class has seen the post by now. “Anonymous” could be in my English class or my dorm room or my bed. I hide in my room and call my friend Lisle, four floors below in Clark Hall. She has seen the thread and already begun retaliating. But every time she replies to defend me, the insult continues to rise to the top of the homepage. Lisle decides we should force the post down the page by starting another thread. Instead of writing slander, we set out to find a topic that’s neutral, undeniably loved.

The answer is simple: bread.

We call it: “The Bread Thread.” Lisle explains: “Everyone loves bread!” Maybe you don’t eat bread, but you likely don’t despise it either. The first post begins: I FUCKING LOVE BREAD! Soon someone adds: I thought no one could relate to my obsession with bread! People get into friendly debates on what’s the best bread spread. They post about white bread, wheat bread, flat bread, pita bread, rye bread, corn bread, banana bread, tortilla. “The Bread Thread” spreads across campus. Everyone writes of their love for the loaf.

***

Bread is the staff of life. It is basic and biblical. The Lord’s Prayer asks of God: “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Roman poet Juvenal claims that politicians only pay attention to bread and circuses. The word “companion” comes from the Latin com, meaning with, and panis, meaning bread. My companion is one with whom I break bread. The breadwinner in the family is the provider, the maker of the dough. A new thing must stand the test of being the best thing since sliced bread.

When I sign on to my college’s gossip site, the ‘Anonymous Confession Board,’ there’s my name at the top of the homepage. The words glare back at me.

Months after the anonymous confession, I set out to write and perform a spoken word poem that plays off of The Bread Thread, an attempt to take back the slut-shaming post and make it my own. The poem addresses the anonymous poster directly:

Listen up, honey bun

My body is not your store-bought sourdough

And as for your slut-shaming, I will have plain naan of it

Even if you were gluten-free, I wouldn’t call you a prude

My body is no one else’s bagel

My hips are my buttered croissants

My breasts are my two loaves of ciabatta

My heart is my scone; my vagina, my waffle

My body is a feast of crepe and cracker and crouton and crumpet

Of biscuit and baguette and freshly cooked buns

And like my bread, I’ll take my sex, however I want it

Some days, I want to fuck like a sweet muffin

Other nights, more like a twisted pretzel

But you should not be concerned by my preferences in bread.

Though parts of me want to stick you in the toaster

Or flatten you into a pancake

They say man shall not live by bread alone

You need a bit of kindness too

Dear Anonymous Dinner Roll,

I’m sorry that I don’t know who you are

Even though what you did was really… crummy

I want to give you a new name

I want to un-anonymously invite you to my sexy pizza party

We could bake a baguette

Butter it with your unkind words

Break bread together

And eat the slut shaming away.

The poem is lighthearted and pun-y. It’s meant to be performed. To be felt in my body, shouted with my voice. To feed off audience interaction. When I say that “my breasts are two loaves of ciabatta,” I grab those loaves. When I call Anonymous Poster “crummy,” I wait for the audience to laugh — I depend on that laughter.

Throughout my years in college, I compete nationally at collegiate poetry slams, but it’s not until after I graduate and the gossip website has long been shut down that I finish writing The Bread Thread poem, performing it at The Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2016. When the performance is filmed and posted online by Button Poetry, I wonder if Anonymous Poster has ever watched me address them.


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If I got the chance to speak with Anonymous Poster directly, I would ask about their diction: EMILY WEITZMAN IS A HUGE FUCKING SLUT. First, the verb: is, a state of being — simple, ordinary, defining. Kind of boring, easy. Why not remains a huge fucking slut or endures as a huge fucking slut. Or scrap the verb and add a colon: that would feel more like an announcement of my promiscuity. Ta-da: SLUT! At least I’m just a huge fucking slut. Not the huge fucking slut or number one huge fucking slut. What makes someone a huge fucking slut as opposed to enormous fucking slut or average fucking slut or minor fucking slut? The number of sexual partners, the length of the dress, volume of the voice? By labeling me a fucking slut is Anonymous Poster implying that I am the kind of slut who is fucking, as in participating in sexual intercourse, and if the simplest definition of slut is “a woman who has many casual sexual partners,” then isn’t being a fucking slut redundant? And finally, why slut? Why not huge fucking: whore, tramp, harlot, floozy, prostitute, tart, fallen woman, strumpet, wench, or cum-guzzling fuckhole?

I imagine saying this to Anonymous Poster instead of saying how that post mortified my college self. Even now, I pretend that it was always funny. It’s easier to make the joke.

***

Three years before the anonymous confession, I’m a sophomore in high school. Catherine’s parents are gone for the weekend. Her basement smells of mildew and tequila and dust. We are in the basement until we’re not. Everyone is here until they’re gone. I don’t know that I’m drunk until I do. I stumble upstairs; follow him down the hall. His hands are as cold as the doorknob. It creaks as we push through the door. The room is pink, her little sister’s. I feel the thud of bodies onto bed. Hands thieving into skin. Head spins and — room goes numb. Shut your eyes. Let him kiss you. No one will know. You are here and you are somewhere else.

On Monday, I overhear the murmurs in the hallways of my high school. “Pretty slutty for the principal’s daughter.” “I heard — he said — she’s such a — .” “Slut.”

I do not stay home from school. I do not pretend that I’m sick and hide in the nurse’s office. I do not cry in the bathroom. Instead, I huddle with my group of 10 girlfriends at lunchtime — our usual spot at the lockers near the gym. I tell them the story: how we were in Catherine’s basement, how the tequila came too quickly, how we stumbled upstairs, how I couldn’t remember much of the rest, how the rumors spread so fast, how it wasn’t all true, how some of it was and I didn’t know if I wanted it to be.

I tell my friends the story and they laugh. I tell my friends the story and they laugh and so I laugh. And then we all laugh. The laughter trickles down the hallway. Every giggle sounds like my body on display. I tell my friends the story and we laugh and we laugh and then I go to English class and wonder what’s so funny.

***

Though the term “slut shaming” wasn’t coined until 2010 (the year of The Bread Thread), the act of shaming the slut holds a special place throughout literature, politics, and history. Yet, in high school, I don’t quite notice the slut shaming right there in front of me: in the books I’m reading in English class, or in the performances of my high school’s Shakespeare company.

In Much Ado About Nothing, fearing his own humiliation, Leonato says of his daughter: “Death is the fairest cover for her shame.”

Hamlet scolds Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery.” He suspects it would take a convent for her to stay faithful. Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself in a river.

My high school’s Shakespeare company puts on two plays a year: a comedy and a tragedy. I’m never cast in the tragedies. I’m always the comic relief. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I play Titania, the fairy queen. My first line in the show: “What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence: I have forsworn his bed and company.” I drink magical potion and become “enamour’d of an ass.” As I fall in love and flirt with the donkey, the audience reacts. I’m just reciting these lines, performing this character; the laughter brings no shame to Titania. Over the weekend, the Shakespeare company gets drunk off cheap beer while rehearsing lines from Midsummer and I make out with more than one of the boys in the cast. What a slut they say again and what a hilarious night, I tell my friends at lunch on Monday. I can laugh off anything.

Months after the anonymous confession, I set out to write and perform a spoken word poem that plays off of The Bread Thread, an attempt to take back the slut-shaming post and make it my own.

A few months after Catherine’s basement, I am assigned a classic in the canon of high school literature, the story of Hester Prynne: forced to face public trial for committing adultery, she’s shamed into wearing a scarlet “A.” I, like most every high school student, complain about having to read The Scarlet Letter for English class. I do not see the connection to my own life.

While I laugh about it with my friends, when I pass the basement boy in the hallway, I do feel something branded across my chest. I wouldn’t call it shame; I don’t have that language yet. Whatever feeling I’m not naming, I feel it privately. A few years later, with the anonymous post and The Bread Thread video, my shame becomes public. I’m taken back to the high school hallway laughter I pushed far away.

YouTube Comment on “Bread Thread” by Emily Weitzman: A Found Poem

Post By: citizenintime, anonymous YouTube account (*Comment has since been removed.)

Jeez

Yet another

Feminist failure

Who blames her lack of success

On men.

Besides, what’s wrong

with slut shaming?

If there were no shame

you wouldn’t be called

Sluts! Admit it, cupcake,

You WANT to be a slut.

Enjoy your cats, sugar.

So the cycle continues: my poem, created as a feminist response to being slut shamed by an anonymous poster, is slut shamed by another (same?) anonymous poster. At least this dude encouraged me to “enjoy my cats” — I guess implying I will die alone, man-less, in a pile of felines; Anonymous Poster would be disappointed to learn that I recently developed a cat allergy.

I’ve only watched the YouTube video of The Bread Thread all the way through twice. A performance caught on video cannot capture or recreate the moment, the feeling of performing on stage, the audience response, the palpable energy in the room. The more truthful reason: I hate that video. I can’t stand listening to the recorded sound of my voice. It sounds scratchy, shrill, like I’m pulling for the words and they’re just out of reach. I’m not sure if I had lost my voice that day, or if it’s the trick of the camera recording, or if it was just a bad performance, or if I always sound like that. The recording pulls my voice forward and makes the audience laughter in the background fade — the laughter is what I remember most. Anonymous strangers have listened to my annoying inflection and heard me screech: I’m a slut I’m a slut I’m a slut. I’m supposed to be reclaiming the slut-shaming post, but I wonder if this kind of proclamation is better left to a whisper.  

***

On a Friday afternoon six years after the anonymous confession, I stay late to grade papers at the high school where I now teach sophomore English. I’m walking through the mostly empty building when I hear a boy’s voice from across the hall, far enough away that I can’t make out who it is: “I love bread!” The sound is muffled but each word enunciated. The voice has the confidence that my own cannot muster. The voice has the desire to be heard.

My students have found the video of me performing The Bread Thread poem on YouTube. I rush into my classroom and shut the door, hiding at my desk for an hour until I’m sure the hallway stragglers are gone. In a world where high school hallway gossip has been replaced by Instagram and Snapchat, I realize that by Monday morning, the entire student body, 400 teenagers, will watch me shout I want to fuck like a sweet muffin.

In one of my classes, of the 20 students I teach, 14 are boys. I imagine the three rowdiest boys getting together by their lockers at lunchtime and planning the game: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we slip the word bread into every conversation in Ms. Weitzman’s English class?

The Bread Thread game develops discreetly. The very word bread becomes a code, a secret whispered under their breath when they think I’m not listening. It comes up casually, woven into a discussion on Macbeth: “I would characterize Lady Macbeth as a muffin!” They laugh.

I’m terrified that The Bread Thread video will end up on my boss’ computer screen. Maybe a conservative parent or student with bad grades will complain. I’m convinced I’ll be fired. I decide to tell the principal myself. I would rather talk to a woman, but there are only men on my school’s administrative team. I explain the situation and the principal doesn’t look me in the eye. Then he says that what I do out of school isn’t his business. He won’t go looking for any videos. I laugh, awkwardly, thank him, and leave.

But The Bread Thread game continues. One day after class, I work up the courage to confront the main perpetrator of an onslaught of discussions on scones. He denies the whole thing: “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ms. Weitzman.” He keeps a straight face but looks terrified. “I just really like bread. And what can I say to that? I hear Lisle’s voice: “Everyone loves bread!” My student is just being one of everyone. There’s no shame in that.

He hardly makes it through the door before he blurts out to his friends in the hallway: “Ms. Weitzman called me out on the bread thing!” He laughs and they laugh and I laugh and we laugh.

I’m planning to teach The Scarlet Letter later that week. I imagine the conversations: Hester Prynne was such a slut. Yeah, Hester Prynne must have really liked her sourdough! I picture my student, slouching at the back of the classroom, his roaring laughter as my students paint a loaf of bread across my chest. I teach The Great Gatsby instead.

The teenagers move on to the next big scandal. It should all be over, but I can’t forget. The truth is, I do find The Bread Thread game funny. Or rather, I would if I were a part of it. What I’m really afraid of is what I’m not hearing. As I tiptoe past clusters of sophomore boys, the hallway erupts into laughter, and I’m sure the joke is on me. I imagine the things they say once I’m gone. Did you see what Ms. Weitzman is wearing today? Ms. Weitzman’s voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Ms. Weitzman is a huge fucking slut.

***

A Working List of Bread-Related Instances of Sexuality, Seduction, and/or Shame:

In 2015, Zoe Stavri, a feminist blogger, bakes a loaf of sourdough leavened with yeast from her own vaginal infection. She mixes “as much vaginal yeast as [she] could scrape off a dildo” into the dough. Stavri posts a picture of the bread, writing #cuntsourdough. The comments in response are brutal: mentally ill; dirty; I’m never eating bread again. (If one woman’s vagina can ruin all of bread for you, maybe you never really liked bread that much.) Before deleting the original post, Stavri responds: lmao men. why so angry? i thought women were supposed to be in the kitchen…

I’m planning to teach The Scarlet Letter later that week. I imagine the conversations: ‘Hester Prynne was such a slut. Yeah, Hester Prynne must have really liked her sourdough!’

An urban myth: cockle bread, baked by women in 17th century England, serves as a love charm and aphrodisiac. A woman kneads the dough against her buttocks, shapes the dough to look like a vulva, bakes the dough, brings the bread to the man she desires. Woman as witch; bread as potion. No anonymous online confession board available for comment, but the ritual was later turned into a nursery rhyme:

My dame is sick, and gone to bed.

And I’ll go mould my cockle bread!

Up with my heels and down with my head,

And this is the way to mould cockle bread.

 

Commercial from the 1950s: Every woman needs to be herself at times. Your answer? Baking! Baking good, baking often with Gold Medal Flour.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a 19th century Nova Scotian politician: Wise men, like wine, are best when old; pretty women, like bread, are best when young.

Obnoxious Internet meme: A slutty girl is like the first piece of bread in a loaf: everybody touches it but nobody wants it.

In a Wonder Bread advertisement from 1968, a woman with silky hair, flawless skin, seductive green eyes, and luscious lashes hides her mouth with a double-decker sandwich. The text on top of the advertisement: Boy Trap.

***

My student approaches my desk after class with a look of desperation. She wants to tell me something, but cannot quite find the words. “He told everyone we kissed. He posted my picture on Snapchat. He yelled, ‘Slut.’”

I tell her that high school boys are… high school boys. She laughs and we laugh. I tell her that she’s a strong woman and they can’t handle that. I tell her what they say doesn’t matter. I tell her they’ll forget about it next week. I do not tell her the truth. I do not tell her about nine years ago: Pretty slutty for the principal’s daughter. I do not tell her about six years ago: Emily Weitzman is a huge fucking slut. I do not yet know about three months from now: If there were no shame, you wouldn’t be called sluts! I do not tell her that it never ends. That it sticks to you like sweat. That it can make you feel smaller and smaller. I do not tell her, but I suspect that she knows.

***

When I perform the poem, I’m on stage, my body on display, but I have chosen that visibility. The best moments come when the audience laughs, because I want them to laugh, so they laugh and I laugh, and we laugh and we laugh, and I finish the poem and I exit the stage to the basement, and I stumble up the stairs into the classroom where I hide out at lunchtime, and I’m rushing down the sidewalk in New York City, baguette in hand, when a man from across the street shouts, “Hey you! Nice buns!” It’s my smirking student. It’s Anonymous Poster. It’s hallways and basements full of high-school boys. I look down at the baguette. I do not wait for a knife. I gnaw into the loaf with my teeth. I rip. I stuff. I devour. “Thank you,” I reply. The man across the street is already gone. I am speaking to the bread.

* * *

Emily Weitzman is a writer and teacher in New York City. She is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia University, where she also teaches undergraduate writing.

Editor: Sari Botton