Editor’s Note: This story includes mention of eating disorders.
Do you ever have something you need to do, and then something you don’t really have to do, but somehow you feel like you have to do that thing you don’t really have to do more than the thing you really have to do? Let me explain.
Right now, I have to study for my Accounting II exam next Tuesday. I’m a few chapters behind in even reading the material, let alone applying it, and I don’t anticipate spending Halloween locked in Hes finally figuring it all out. Right now, I don’t have to write a letter to the editor of The Observer exploring the complex relationship between my socioeconomic status, eating disorder and sense of belonging on campus, yet here we are. Empirical evidence from the past hour suggests my textbook will remain unopened on my desk until I manage to get this melodramatic introspection off my chest.
To anyone walking past me on the first floor of Duncan, I don’t look like I’m writing a particularly vulnerable letter for the student newspaper to publish for the entire student body to read. I probably look like I’m writing an essay or an email. As a matter of fact, no one is really looking at all. Students are grabbing coffee with friends or studying for their own very important exams, and everyone and everything else becomes a fixture in the background, including me and my existential crisis. Usually, that’s exactly how I like it to be.
Recently, however, I’ve had a problem with how I “look,” not only to the people passing by or in the reflection I see in the mirror. The people closest to me were surprised this year when they found out I was a QuestBridge scholar because I don’t “look” like a low-income student. As someone who was desperate freshman year not to “look” like I was on a scholarship (one that my high school self worked tirelessly to obtain, might I add), I expected to feel relieved that my ruse had worked so perfectly for two years. In reality, I was left feeling utterly misunderstood, alone and unknown.
I learned early on to dress, talk and act a certain way: to show people who I wanted to be instead of letting them make up their own mind about me. I wasn’t ashamed of my background, but there was a fear when I first arrived in South Bend that I would be solely defined by it. The greater fear, however, was that I wouldn’t be understood even if I shared it. In a school where less than 1% of students come from a poor family, what was the point of being open if seemingly nobody could relate?
Keeping quiet about growing up in poverty meant I also kept quiet about the traumatic effects that few realize are associated with such an upbringing. Specifically, my anxiety led to the development of an eating disorder that thrived in the isolation and secrecy that had become normal to me. I didn’t look sick; I didn’t look like I needed help. On social media, I appeared to be happier than ever. Once again, I was a victim of the image I had created for myself. My physical and mental health relied on parting ways with the persona that only I cared so deeply about maintaining. My friends wanted me to be happy and healthy — not just to look like I was.
Isn’t it about time I want that for myself too?
The question about why it’s so hard for me to be who I am is probably better left to my wonderful therapist to figure out. I have good friends. I am actively involved on campus, and most people I meet are kind and open and probably really don’t care that much about knowing anything about me. But I can’t shake this feeling that if I feel so pressured to change my own narrative and pretend to be someone I’m not, maybe other people do too. Maybe the girls whose Instagrams I look at and think they have the most perfect, put-together lives look at mine and think the very same thing. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard to be honest about who we are and where we come from. Maybe you don’t have an eating disorder or didn’t grow up poor — but maybe you feel this unspoken pressure to fit into an unspecified mold and look “normal” too. Maybe this letter is nothing more than a therapeutic release for me, but maybe, just maybe, one other person can read it and feel a little less alone. Maybe I should get back to studying and everyone will keep passing through Duncan while I have this life-changing realization, but maybe I needed to say this more than I thought I did.