Reflections on Colby’s conflicted culture of body image

A few months ago, I was talking to some peers about an individual I had seen on campus. The individual was overweight, and upon seeing them I had assumed they were not a student. My next feeling was disgust. With myself.

Students often joke about all of us looking the same, but there is often some truth to that statement. With Body Image Awareness Week upon us, I thought it would be a good time to explore the culture at Colby surrounding this sometimes taboo subject.

I spent my first semester in Salamanca, Spain. Anyone who has gone (shout out to FebFrosh) knows that the food is, depending on who you ask, delicious. My tiny Spanish host mom (or abuela as I liked to call her because she was 82 years old and treated me as her own) made me the most delicious meals every day. I ate biscuits with Nutella for breakfast, full-on feasts with salty salads, chorizo (straight from her farm, not the shitty stuff you buy in America), paella (with rabbit from her farm as well), and desserts. The hot chocolate was not made with boiling water and powder. It was thick, creamy melted chocolate. And most evenings after a full dinner, we dined on the fried goodness that is a churro (usually with more chocolate). I tell you this not to make you jealous of the food I enjoyed for about three months. Rather, what I noticed was the difference in my attitude about the food I was served and from my female peers on the trip. Most complained about a lack of vegetables. When we went on trips together to other parts of Spain, many would go on a run rather than explore the city or sit on the beach (hint: these were not me).

For a long time, I decided that I didn’t really care about what I was eating because it was my first time out of the United States and if I was enjoying the food, why not eat it. Four years later, I have absolutely no regrets. But I distinctly remember visiting a friend in Paris and poking at my stomach, asking if she thought I had gained weight since being abroad. Four years later, I still ask her that question with earnest.

I have a very supportive friend group. Rather than shame each other for grabbing dessert, we shame each other for restraining ourselves from grabbing dessert. Still, no matter how many times a friend tells me there is no shame in food, those words refuse to absorb. I firmly believe that Colby’s culture is, in some ways, at fault for that. There have been many times that I have thought to myself why do complain about others wanting to eat salad? It feels somewhat selfish to use someone else’s desire to be healthy to pin them as a reason for self-hatred, but I don’t think it all comes from the student body themselves. Colby boasts about the large number of students involved in athletics, and when you go to the too-small gym, it’s not unusual to see people running at ridiculous speeds on the treadmill only to finish the run and step onto another machine. As someone who has finally started regularly going to the gym, I can understand how there is no better feeling than finishing a difficult run. My mind is never as positive as it is while I run. Picture a miniature personal trainer yelling “YOU ARE A STRONG INDEPENDENT WOMAN” with a lot of emphasis on “strong.”

So now that I feel comfortable in the gym, most of the battle happens in the dining hall. And the fact that I do work out regularly means that my old attitude of “well, shit, I can’t run anyways so what’s the point of trying to eat healthy, too” has turned into “that dessert will essentially nullify everything you did this morning.” And then, when I do get the dessert anyways (which somewhere in my brain I realize I should not feel guilty about) I spend the rest of the day regretting a single Snickerdoodle.

So is it a bad thing that most people at Colby are either incredibly healthy or naturally built to fit in? No. As much as I wish that I fit in to that norm, I would never blame other people for living their lives or naturally looking a certain way because I wouldn’t want them to do the same to me. It’s a daily battle to focus more on the fact that at the beginning of Jan Plan I couldn’t run for more than 15 minutes without stopping and now I consistently run for 30 (and know that I could keep going). I’m thankful that Colby is a place that encourages health, but I think we can do more to make the Hill a welcoming place for everyone.

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