There is a very loud, very obnoxious Stanford student in my brain who almost always outcompetes the other voices in there. Whenever I ask a question, she waves her hand and yelps so that I have to call on her. When I’m feeling vulnerable or uncertain, she bullies me and calls me a wimp. She shirks leisure time and scoffs at self-acceptance.
I think a part of Stanford does too. Self-acceptance is couched in terms of “a fine grade,” “a good effort” or “you did your best.” What in reality is a daunting and noble endeavor is made to sound like settling for less.
Self-betterment is the name of the game here. I see this crazed behavior most clearly in the fitness culture on campus. At least once a week, I engage in conversations with students, men and women alike, about shedding five more pounds of fat or squeezing in 10 more minutes of cardio. I also hear a lot of resolutions to stop eating meat, dairy, gluten and sugar for the rest of the year. I hope you like vegetables. Underlying this attitude is the assumption that you can change the way you look in an act of self-improvement. This assumption frustrates me. Yes, you can manipulate your body, sometimes to drastic extremes, but to what end? A cosmetic one? An addictive one?
The perfectionist impulse, when applied to vague terms like a “healthy lifestyle,” can take you into dangerous territory. I think it is very unhealthy to never eat dessert and never take a week off of exercising. That kind of compulsive behavior breeds fear and not much else. I am very lucky to be thin in a culture that values being thin, and I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna. Still, I think that most of the students here who adhere to six-day-a-week workout schedules and carb-free diets could benefit from taking a break from that insanity. A break is worthwhile, if for no other reason than to show yourself that you won’t gain three pounds if you eat a candy bar, or several candy bars. As I’m writing this, the pushy Stanford student in my head is yelling her head off calling me lazy, gluttonous and undisciplined. I’m telling her to shut the hell up.
Besides taking up an inordinate amount of prime real estate brain space, indulging the fantasy that you can always change the way you look can be irresponsible. You can live your life thinking about what you eat and how much you sweat 90 percent of the time, or you can do something intrepid and radical: You can accept the way you look. Everyone has parts of their body they wish they could change. It takes a great deal of maturity, poise and moxie to resist the temptation to keep fussing over changing your body and to deal with it. Maybe you can even celebrate your body for the gift that it is, à la Walt Whitman.
Let me be clear – I have immense sympathy for the great number of students on campus who suffer from eating disorders. My heart goes out to you. I don’t want my readers to get the impression that I am ridiculing anyone, or that I am insensitive to the demons some people have to face. I don’t write this article without an understanding of how lonely and frightening an eating disorder can be. I am wary of offering any advice on a topic that is so fragile and emotionally charged. I would, though, offer the gentle suggestion to be kind to yourself. What I am saying about the quest for physical perfection can be said of any obsessive behavior at Stanford: perfectionism about grades, sports, problem sets, reputation. I chose the example of the fitness craze because it is concrete and easy to illustrate, and I can only hope I did not hurt anyone in doing so.
That persuasive, critical Stanford student in your brain will tell you that you are being self-indulgent if you start to ease off the self-criticism. I would argue that succumbing to self-criticism out of fear is the indulgent behavior. Grow up. Stop living in a fairyland where you can someday reach perfection. Step into the real world and accept who you are. You might just like it.
Need advice on what to say to that bully in your brain? Hit Renée up at firstname.lastname@example.org.