When was the last time you heard another Vanderbilt student say he or she was truly satisfied? When was the last time you opened your eyes to a day brimming with the life that you were entirely happy to live? Perhaps it has been some time, if ever, since you experienced this kind of satisfaction – and in a way, there may be benefits of that. After all, we’re Vanderbilt students. We weren’t satisfied with a GED alone. We weren’t satisfied with local community colleges or state schools. Some of us weren’t even satisfied with Vanderbilt until other reach schools were no longer valid options. Most of the time, I feel as if everything we do is driven by some form of dissatisfaction – if we’re studying harder, it’s because our grades aren’t good enough. If we’re joining more orgs, it’s because we need denser resumes. The cycle may seem pessimistic, but I feel that this kind of dissatisfaction can be incredibly productive if acted upon. However, I also believe that other kinds of dissatisfaction are incredibly unproductive: namely, dissatisfaction in body image.
Both at Vanderbilt and in the “real world,” we’re hardwired into believing that hard work and determination will eventually lead to success. However, applying that idea to our bodies has powerful potential to be damaging. Oftentimes when we think about success, we apply it to very abstract, human-constructed measures of achievement, like GPA, leadership roles, internships, etc., all of which offer ladders to climb and fairly concrete benchmarks of what “success” looks like. However, this ability to “climb the ladder” can’t be universally applied as a means to make something better, especially when the thing being bettered is your own body.
Nevertheless, we, as young people who have the resources (e.g. access to gyms and healthy food on campus) to be “healthy,” often visualize our bodies as yet another way to be successful or unsuccessful in the game of life. Perceived successes manifest in being able to lift a certain weight, have a six pack, have a thigh gap, etc., and since we are Vandy students, we likely have some sense that if we work for something hard enough, we can get it. We’re here, aren’t we?
This ideology, while somewhat productive in areas relating to school/work, can become increasing painful when applied to how we perceive our bodies because unlike human-devised means of success, our bodies were not necessarily meant to “succeed.” Our bodies were made in order for us to live – to move, to breathe and to feel. Many of us like to picture fitter versions of ourselves who work out every day, feel good and look even better. That’s our image of success. But what if we can never seem to achieve the look that we want, no matter how hard we work? According to the Vandy (and American) ideology, we should just keep working harder. But in many ways, our bodies don’t work like that–their primary function is to function – not to appear. Even if you are among the “lucky” few who achieve their dream bodies, would you confidently say that you’re satisfied? Odds are, as with everything else, you’ve probably just set a higher goal for yourself.
This cycle of dissatisfaction, achievement and new dissatisfaction that propels us through other areas of our lives is instead toxic to our self esteem and mental health when applied to our physical selves. I am in no way championing a sedentary or unhealthy lifestyle in which movement and mindful eating are rare. I am drawing attention to how an active lifestyle, when rooted in the wrong motivation, can be in a way just as unhealthy to your mind.
The next time you look in the mirror and negatively critique yourself, I challenge you to question just how happy and fulfilled you would be (and for how long) if the perceived “flaw” were corrected. How long would it be before the improvement became a source of dissatisfaction again? The next time you survey your body for improvements immediately after an intense workout, focus instead on how your body feels. And most importantly, recognize how often you workout to “burn calories,” “make up for eating [insert food here],” or “try to look more like [insert name here]” versus how often you workout because you simply want to feel good and give your body an opportunity to do something it’s meant to do: move. Set goals for yourself, but love yourself every step of the way. Satisfaction is anything but a final destination.