OPINIONS

The bully in my brain

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 rdonovan@stanford.edu.

About Renee Donovan

Renee was born and raised in San Francisco and has a serious love affair with the city. Last year she took a leave of absence to pursue a career in ballet and modern dance at Tisch School of the Arts in New York. She is glad to be back at Stanford, and especially glad to be back in California. She is an avid backpacker, Faulkner enthusiast, fair-to-middling guitarist, and wholehearted aviation nerd. She hopes to bring an amusing and provocative voice to the Daily in her opinion column, and urges the Stanford community to offer her their suggestions, questions, and criticism to keep the dialogue going on campus.
  • M

    Good article; I agree that there is an obsession with physical appearance that needs to be addressed. Not so sure that this is the best way to go about it, though…it is a little ridiculous to assert that a lifestyle incorporating daily physical activity and a nutritious (gasp, even dessert-free) diet is “insane.” If more people lived like this, maybe we wouldn’t be dealing with an obesity epidemic. Just pointing out that many people avoid desserts for reasons other than body-image problems; maybe, just maybe, some people do it because it is a good way to ensure a longer, healthier life. Don’t paint this lifestyle as a “compulsion” just because you aren’t mature enough to pull it off.
    It just seems like there is an underlying, childish resentment of people who try to maximize their health in this article. Good for you, have your candy bar; we should all be content with our bodies. That doesn’t mean that we have to (even occasionally) do something harmful to them just to prove we have a healthy body image. I just don’t think it is fair to call this choice “unhealthy.”