Dear College Girls,
The transition from summer to college, or back to college, has been rough for me.
I tell the world the transition has been hard because classes are so much harder this semester.
I tell the world the transition has been hard because you’re living on a new part of campus, and the logistics of that have proven complicated and isolating.
I tell the world the transition has been hard because summer was more carefree, and being in a routine now is exhausting.
And those are real reasons that have contributed to why the transition has been rough for me. am not discounting those.
But I want to share with you the real, deep down reason the transition has been hard for me.
Because after some beautiful, but simultaneously heartbreaking, conversations this week, I’ve realized that I am not the only one who has the same real, deep down reason for why the transition has been difficult.
The transition from summer to college has been difficult because I am back in a place where I do not feel comfortable about my body.
This summer, I was around my family, or in a very professional job, or around friends who have known since birth. I never walked around feeling like people were sizing me up.
This summer, I had a lot of free time. Free time to work out more than just a quick run. Free time to make careful considerations of every piece of food I put in my mouth. Free time to get enough sleep, to buy healthy snacks, to plan out my day.
This summer, I didn’t have many opportunities to wear skimpy going out clothes. My body wasn’t really on display for the world to see.
In college, free time doesn’t exist. I’m sleep deprived, can’t find time to go grocery shopping, and am constantly interacting with strangers who I feel like are looking me up and down and not approving of what they see.
And I’ll tell you why all of this bothers me.
Because every person at this school is so much more than their body. Their body isn’t what got them into Duke. The amazing research they’ve done, the incredible grades they made, the exemplary leadership they demonstrated on sports teams and in extracurriculars, the dedication and determination they poured into every area of their life, their passion for making the world a better place, their intellectual curiosity and achievements, all of THOSE things got them into Duke.
Yet, when I walk around, I do not always feel the glances of appreciation for my passions or my intellectual curiosity. I feel the judgmental glares that scream, “Yes, I just sized you up. And no, your body doesn’t measure up.”
I’m often distracted in class, but not because I’m bored by the material or am checking my phone, but because I see people looking at me and go into a spiral of negatively self-thought that they unapproved of how I look.
In pictures, I hate being on the end. Because I am self conscious about my arms. I played field hockey in high school, and my arms are like muscular but not toned, a horrible middle-ground that breeds a sense of inadequacy.
I have a really round face. And a huge smile. Sometimes I get this double chin, and I’m super self conscious about it. I find myself even holding back my smile sometimes.
It’s stupid. It’s irrational.
But it’s so common.
The past two nights I’ve had intense conversations with close friends who opened up about how they “finally felt comfortable in their own skin this summer, and then came back and feel horrible again.” They explained their insecurities, various aspects of their body that make them feel inadequate, how they felt like other girls and other guys were noticing, and I sat back speechless. “You’re self conscious about THAT? You think THAT is a problem? What are you talking about?!”
Last week, for my Public Policy Ethics class, I watched a documentary entitled “How To Die In Oregon”. The documentary followed Cody, a woman with terminal liver cancer. For an hour and 45 minutes, I watched Cody die. She went from a perfectly healthy woman to not so great to okay and then finally to practically a vegetable, needing surgery every two weeks to remove liters of liver toxins that had burst into her stomach. She could barely move and felt extreme pain all the time even with consistent, high doses of morphine. During the time when she was “okay”, Cody remarked something that stuck with me more than even her most real, painful cries of fear and frustration. She said that people would see her around and remark, “Wow, you look so good!” You see, when Cody first went on medication for her cancer, the medication caused her to gain close to 100 pounds. She soon went off this medication, and she naturally lost this weight.
In a beautiful but heartbreaking scene, Cody explains to her doctor, “It’s pathetic that people have told me I look good. I don’t look good. I’ve just lost weight. Don’t you get it? I’m going to die in six months. My life is almost over. I can barely breathe from the pain. I’m helpless. And all people notice is the exterior look of my body: that I look thin, model-like. Our society is pretty messed up.”
Every aspect of Cody’s personality, strength, dignity, perseverance, determination, and value was completely illegitimized as people commented on her body, something that at this point she has zero control over.
In a less extreme way, I know Duke girls, and college girls, we all, feel like this. That our gifts, our personality, our talents, our passion, our uniqueness is completely illegitimized by the shape of our body.
And that is just unacceptable.
I don’t have a solution. I don’t have a party line to make you feel better. I can’t convince you you’re beautiful, because as I’ve said in previous posts (see past posts “Beauty” and “My Biggest Insecurity”), you have to believe yourself that you are beautiful.
But we throw that phrase around a lot: “You just have to be confident IN YOURSELF. You just have to believe for YOURSELF that you’re beautiful.”
And that is true. We do need to believe that.
But it’s about more than that.
It’s also about respect.
We girls need to respect other girls. I am not lesser than you because I am a size bigger than you. I am not better than you because I am a size smaller than you. You are not cooler or more capable or more important than I am because you have what society deems a “better” body.
But boys need to respect us, too, because I am not less deserving of your gentlemanly gestures or friendly smile or your concerned hug because I am not “hot”, or worse, “hot enough”.
So here are some challenges for us all.
Step up and make this place more comfortable for people to embrace how they look.
Engage in dialogue with your friends about body image. You are not alone in feeling insecure.
Chastise guys you see clearly not respecting a woman’s body, even if it’s your own.
Reach out to someone who you either intentionally or unintentionally disregarded because of her/his appearance. Realize all that that person has to offer and how her/his body says absolutely nothing about who she/he is as a person.
Remind your friends how beautiful they are. Not for their hair, or their outfit, but for their incredibly unique and inspiring qualities that make you proud to be their friend.
I have weird arms and a round face. I’m short, am not exactly proportional. Sometimes I eat chocolate chip cookies. And sometimes I decide to take the day off from running. But I am also a writer, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a passionate student, a unique individual. Respect me for who I am. Not how I look. And I’ll respect you, too. And maybe one day we’ll walk around not telling each other, “you look great”, but instead: “you are great.”