The Myth of Everyone

It’s right up there with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and true love–the Myth of Everyone.

The Myth of Everyone is invoked whenever someone attempts to justify their own or someone else’s shitty actions by saying, “Oh, come on, everyone does that.” For instance, my recent article against the Greek system generated arguments that all people and all groups of people do the sort of stuff I accused the Greek system of perpetuating, so it’s unfair to criticize the Greek system on those grounds. (I should’ve asked these people to find me examples of photography clubs paddling new members, or of a knitting circle forcing people to do keg stands, but I suppose that’s besides the point.)

At other times, the Myth of Everyone is invoked to explain even nastier, more specific examples of human behavior. For instance, a few months ago, a 17-year-old was gang-raped by a group of college men at a party. One of the lawyers representing the group of men stated, “This wasn’t anyone’s finest moment. It was 20-year-olds at a party behaving like 20-year-olds at a party.” Clearly, the lawyer wanted us to believe that gang-raping a teenage girl is what “everyone” would do in this situation.

Who is this mysterious Everyone? Why do they have such a hold over our collective imagination? Luckily, the field of psychology has an answer for that. It’s called the False Consensus Effect.

The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that most people have that causes them to overestimate the degree to which their particular beliefs, values, goals, and opinions are shared by the majority of people–hence, a false consensus.

Psychologists believe that this effect occurs because people have a need to fit in and to believe that others share their mindsets. Feeling “normal” increases one’s self-esteem.

The effect is particularly prominent among members of a tight-knit group that rarely interacts with non-group members, and therefore is rarely forced to encounter divergent viewpoints. It becomes really easy for members of such a group to assume that their beliefs are shared by the larger population, even when they actually aren’t. An example of this would be, say, members of a sorority or fraternity.

This aspect of human psychology probably evolved to keep people happy and feeling accepted by society. In prehistoric times, it would’ve been adaptive to keep believing you’re pretty normal up until people convinced you otherwise–for instance, by excluding you from the tribe. But today, it’s become all too easy to convince yourself that “Everyone” shares your viewpoints, since our society is fragmented and we can choose people just like us to interact with.

Unfortunately, this is exactly how things like sexual assault, binge drinking, and all sorts of other problems get delegitimized and ignored. I’ve heard my fellow students making ridiculously overgeneralized statements like “Everyone hooks up” and “Everyone goes out and gets drunk” and even “All guys try to pressure girls into having sex with them.”

It would shock many of these students to know some statistics on these things. Namely, at least at my school, nearly 50% of the student body has not had sex in the past year. 23% percent of Northwestern students do not drink alcohol–AT ALL!–and 60% do not binge drink, meaning that they have four or less drinks each time they go out. (This includes the students who don’t drink at all, too.) This puts the percentage of students who do go crazy and get drunk at a little over one-third of the student body–a sizable minority, to be sure, but hardly the overwhelmingly dominant lifestyle people seem to think it is.

I can’t cite these statistics because I received them directly from Northwestern’s Department of Health Promotion and Wellness, which does official surveys on this sort of stuff. (The surveys are distributed to a representative random sample of the undergraduate student body.) If you’re curious, though, I have contacts in that department and I could probably obtain a report for you.

So, who is this mysterious “Everyone” who has tons of sex, drinks tons of alcohol, and pressures everyone into doing the same? It’s not the average Northwestern student, that’s for sure.

The problem of false consensus goes way beyond the college campus. It helps explain why some people think that cheating, shoplifting, accepting bribes, or using drugs isn’t a big deal (“Oh, come on, everyone does that!”), why right-wing politicians think Americans want to stop gay marriage (when, in fact, 53% of Americans believe in full marriage rights for the LGBT community), and why some people persist in telling racist/sexist jokes, believing that everyone’s still living in the 1950s.

Nowadays, when someone tries to tell me that “Everyone” is doing something, I take that with a grain of salt. Such statements probably tell you more about the person making them than about the majority of people, since most people don’t bother to actually go out and find statistics about things like I’ve just done.

Reason: it’s so inconvenient, isn’t it?

Why I Oppose the Greek System

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for years now but never have. I thought that writing it would result in my ostracism from society at Northwestern. I no longer think that that’s the case, though even if it were, I don’t really care. So here it finally goes.

First, here are some premises on which I’m basing my argument:

  1. Just because a particular system has certain positive qualities or results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  2. Just because there are individual components of a system that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  3. Just because a system benefits those who are part of it does not mean it is good for society as a whole.
  4. Just because a system does not cause certain issues, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue.

To wit:

  1. Just because the Greek system has some positive qualities and results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  2. Just because there are individual Greek chapters that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
  3. Just because members of Greek houses benefit from the Greek system in certain ways does not mean that the Greek system is good for college campuses or for society as a whole.
  4. Just because the Greek system does not cause issues like binge drinking, sexual assault, eating disorders, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue. As I’m going to argue, creating such an environment is exactly what it does.

It won’t be possible to understand (let alone agree with) the rest of my argument if you do not understand these premises, so make sure to read them carefully before trying to shoot down my argument.

That said, here, in no particular order, are the reasons I oppose the Greek system.

  1. Greek organizations have a long and illustrious history of discrimination on the basis of race, class, appearance, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and, obviously, gender. Whether or not they continue to do so today–and this is a subject of much debate–I don’t believe that one can support such a system without ambivalence.
  2. The very nature of a Greek organization lies in its exclusivity–the social power of current members to accept or reject prospective new members. Exclusivity has the effect of making something seem more desirable than it actually is, thus skewing potential members’ reasoning for joining Greek organizations. At a time of life when young adults should be learning how to base their self-esteem on internal rather than external valuations, the Greek system tells college students that their worth on campus is based on the arbitrary judgment of a group of older, cooler students. Desperate for validation from their peers, students are often devastated when they fail to get into their top-choice house.
  3. They lack diversity–not just racial, but mental. Every existing psychological study on the subject shows that, when given the chance, people will choose to associate with those whom they most resemble. This means that Greek organizations are essentially doomed to put similar people into boxes together rather than exposing them to diversity, because that’s how human psychology works. This is why it’s often so easy to stereotype particular Greek houses–the “awkward” house, the “douchey” house, the “slutty” house, the “Jew” house, the “prep” house, the “jock” house, and so on. Although stereotypes are usually overgeneralized, there’s usually at least a bit of truth to them, because birds of a feather flock together. And I think most people would agree that we go to college to meet people unlike ourselves, not to stick to what’s most comfortable. As regarding gender, some research suggests that spending lots of time around people of the other sex is healthy. If men lived together with women, for instance, they might gain a better appreciation for how sexual harassment and assault affects women, and perhaps they would be less likely to, say, march around campus chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” But in Greek culture, men and women interact mostly in a drunken setting, which doesn’t exactly promote dialogue.
  4. On a related note, Greek organizations judge potential members by superficial factors. Yes, yes, I know, they all claim not to judge people by appearance. However, how on earth do you decide if you want to live with and be emotionally close to a person after making small talk with them for a few minutes? There’s something wrong with this. Even if they’re not explicitly picking people based on appearance, they are picking them based on their ability to seem cool or otherwise socially acceptable, and in my opinion that is superficial. (I often hear the argument that people are picked for Greek organizations based on “social skills,” which are invaluable for adult life. This may be true. However, I also oppose discrimination based on “social skills.” There will be a future post on this.) Regardless, this isn’t even to mention that many Greek houses, particularly sororities, do explicitly judge people in a nasty, catty way. I know of a house at Northwestern that passes around a plate of cookies to potential recruits, and automatically disqualifies them if they take more than one.
  5. Most of the recognized benefits of Greek organizations, such as camaraderie, networking, and philanthropy, could easily be achieved through other avenues. College campuses are distinct from the rest of the world in that they provide nearly limitless outlets for making friends, giving back to the community, and advancing your career. Anyone who claims that they “need” a Greek organization to find these opportunities is either lazy or brainwashed. See Premise 1 above–although Greek organizations certainly have some good qualities, I do not believe that these qualities justify their continued existence.
  6. A Greek organization relies on psychological manipulation to forge a bond between its members. If you think the purpose of hazing is to provide some entertainment for older members, you’d be wrong. Or at least partially wrong. Undergoing physically or emotionally grueling situations is known to increase emotional connection between members of a group. That super-tight bond you see between members of a Greek organization isn’t a coincidence, and it was achieved unethically. Not all Greek organizations haze, but many (if not most) do–in fact, a recent study shows that at least 90% of students who have been hazed do not believe that they have! An eyebrow-raise next time a Greek member proudly tells you “Oh, we don’t haze” may be warranted.
  7. By definition, Greek organizations discriminate against transgender, intersex, genderqueer, or otherwise non-gender conforming people. While activists are fighting to establish a vision of gender that includes more than just “male” and “female,” Greek organizations, unlike most other social clubs, are still gender-segregated. Although Greek organizations will often claim to be accepting of trans individuals, what happens when a member of a Greek house decides to transition? Or, better question–what about people who do not identify as either male or female?
  8. Greek organizations elevate social life above academics in terms of importance. I’ve witnessed professors tripping over themselves trying to schedule exams and other academic events around Recruitment, Rush, and other Greek events. I’ve witnessed mass outcries on campus because a chemistry exam coincided with Gone Greek Night. This is ludicrous. I don’t know when college students began to assume that they have some sort of God-given “right” to certain social opportunities at college. You have a “right” to an academic education. Everything else, you need to seek out on your own.
  9. Greek organizations promote an old-boys’-network style of career advancement. Many Greek organization members proudly tell me how helpful their chapter is in connecting them to alumni and job opportunities. But since whole point of going to college is to have access to such opportunities, it’s fundamentally unfair that certain students receive more access just because they were cool enough to join a social club. No, the Greek system didn’t cause nepotism–refer to Premise 4 above–but it does promote it. As I see it, there’s enough inequality in the world as is. We should not be institutionalizing it in our universities.
  10. One word–groupthink. When your entire life revolves around one organization, this creates an environment in which nobody can publicly disagree or “cause trouble.” In Alexandra Robbins’ brilliant investigation of the Greek system, Pledged, she describes how sorority women refused to let one of their sisters accuse a fraternity man of raping her because their sorority and the man’s fraternity were partnered in some way and they didn’t want to compromise the relationship. This also partially explains why sorority women (sometimes) allow each other to barf up their meals, and why fraternity men (sometimes) allow each other to sexually assault women–they’re afraid or otherwise unable to speak up. Although these problems are thankfully not as prevalent at Northwestern as they are at other schools, having your entire social life controlled by one organization is never a healthy thing, because it means that you have to keep your problems to yourself or face social exclusion.
  11. They are financially prohibitive to many (if not most) students. Yeah, yeah, there’s financial aid available. But that doesn’t erase the problematic fact that one should never have to pay money to have access to friendship. Given that Greek houses also provide access to career-related networking and, on occasion, academic resources of dubious ethicalness, the fact that all of this comes at a price of hundreds of dollars a semester is just another way that class divisions are perpetuated at universities. Furthermore, membership in a Greek organization requires a sizable time commitment, and students who have to work to pay their way through college often (not always) cannot commit to it.
  12. Greek organizations promote binge drinking. There’s not much to say on this point. Even if nobody’s literally shoving alcohol down your throat, many Greek events come with the expectation that one pregame and/or get drunk. Much like sexual assault and eating disorders, this is the sort of issue to which Greek organizations love to pay homage by having special events about how to drink safely, etc. However, unhealthy drinking habits are entrenched in Greek culture. This is another great example of Premise 4 from above–while college students are certainly going to drink no matter what, examples like Europe show us that binge drinking is absolutely not unavoidable. It’s quite possible for young people to drink in a safe and healthy way. But Greek organizations are helping to keep the binge drinking tradition going strong.
  13. Although most Greek organizations do not encourage or promote sexual assault, eating disorders, discrimination, or other issues, I believe there is something inherently wrong with a system that has still produced so many examples of dangerous, violent, and/or prejudiced behavior. It’s certainly wrong to stereotype all Greek organizations as being hotbeds of this sort of stuff, but we need to seriously ask ourselves why it’s happening at all. Every time one of these terrible incidents hits the news, a Greek member is always quoted as claiming that this is “an isolated incident.” Then why does it keep happening? (For instance, at least one student has died of hazing-related injuries every year since 1970. Where’s the outrage?)
  14. The strongest moral argument for keeping Greek organizations around–philanthropy–is fatally flawed. First of all, as I mentioned in item 5 above, one does not need to belong to a Greek organization in order to participate in philanthropy. Not only are campuses absolutely full of philanthropic events of all kinds, but it really isn’t too difficult to find such opportunities on one’s own. Second, with the exception of programs like GreekBuild, the sorts of philanthropic events that Greek chapters tend to have basically consist of people paying admission to some fun event. Why not just call it what it is–a fun event–rather than pretend that the whole purpose was to be charitable? Furthermore, throwing money at a charity rarely solves actual societal problems. What helps is meaningful, time-intensive contribution to an actual cause. But it’s hard to find that kind of time when you’re too busy partying and hosting bake sales.
  15. Another major argument for the Greek system–tradition–is just, for lack of a better word, stupid. People love to pay homage to tradition. I know plenty of people who found it very important to join the very same Greek organization that their parents did before them, even if it’s at a different school. Alumni would probably have heart attacks (or roll over in their graves) if the Greek system were abolished. But why? Why do we need to keep around an outdated system that originated in the 19th century? Somebody give me a good reason. Why don’t we create a new system, a new tradition? Why don’t we create a tradition of improving the social climate on our campuses rather than keeping them the same as they were decades ago? When someone pulls out this argument, you know they’re just grasping at straws–when you ask “Why?” and someone answers, “Because,” you know they have no real reason.

Finally, some caveats. Do not accuse me of these things, because you will be wasting your time.

  1. I have nothing against individuals who are involved with the Greek system. I don’t judge them. I wouldn’t emulate their choice, but that’s as far as it goes.
  2. I have never been involved with Greek life in any way, not even Recruitment/Rush. I have never been rejected from my favorite sorority since I’ve never wanted to join a sorority. Nevertheless, I’m involved in many campus groups, have plenty of great friends, and have an active social/dating life. Therefore, the reason I oppose the Greek system is not because I’m “just jealous.” (To those who are unfamiliar, this is a common claim Greek organization members use to try to delegitimize arguments against the Greek system.)
  3. I fully respect the experience of anyone who claims to have had a wonderful time in his/her own fraternity/sorority. However, as you can see in Premise 2 above, just because there are some great Greek chapters does not mean the overall system is healthy and just.

This is the bulk of my argument against the Greek system. I hope I have shown that even when the Greek system benefits its own members–which it does not always do–it is a mostly negative force in society as a whole. The positive things about it, such as philanthropy and fun, could easily be achieved through other means, and the negative things about it cannot be repaired without completely altering the Greek system as we know it.

I believe that universities should be, and have the potential to be, spaces of equal opportunity for advancement. I believe that they can be melting pots of people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and opinions. I believe that they are places where people can grow both intellectually and psychologically, and begin the process of becoming confident, self-motivated individuals. I believe that universities have the power to change themselves for the better, and that they can work to solve the various issues they currently face, whether concrete like binge drinking and sexual assault, or abstract like lack of intellectual openness. I believe that the Greek system undermines universities on all of these counts, and many more.

Resolved: the Greek system is unethical and should be abolished.

Let Them Eat Snacks

Next up on the syllabus: snacks.

In what might be the best argument for the abolition of the tenure system that I have personally heard of, a professor at Cal State Sacramento has walked out of his own class to protest the fact that some students didn’t bring snacks.

To elaborate, the professor, George Parrott, has had the following “snack policy” since shortly after he began teaching in 1969: students must “work in teams” to provide a homemade snack for each class, or else he’ll refuse to teach it. Apparently this helps promote teamwork and teach students about the consequences of unreliability.

Well, recently Parrott was forced to follow through on his threat because some students failed to bring snacks to class, and now university administrators are investigating the matter. (I don’t really know what there is to investigate. Dude’s been doing this since the 70s, so I’m sure it’s not news to them.)

Two things disappoint me most about this occurrence. The first is that the aforementioned wingnut is a member of his school’s psychology department. It always seems like it’s us psychologists who fuck everything up. Forcing people to electrocute each other, turning them malicious by pretending they’re in prison, having live sex demonstrations on stage…and now this. Seriously, academic psychology can’t seem to catch a break.

The second disappointing factor is that one of my favorite magazines/blogs, GOOD, has come out with an article in support of this inane policy. GOOD is all about alternative education, which doesn’t surprise me since its education section is “in partnership with University of Phoenix,” which might be the biggest baloney of a “university” I’ve ever heard of.

Anyway, the article claims, among other things, the following:

It’s well established that students who have close relationships with their peers or professors are less likely to drop out. At a time when only 30 percent of adults over 25 have a degree and only 56 percent of college students earn a degree in six years, colleges are looking for ways to ensure that students feel like they belong on campus.

Leaving aside the fact that canceling a class doesn’t seem like the best way to facilitate close relationships, I have this to say about Parrott’s methods: he clearly hasn’t studied his own field very well. The technique Parrott is using when he denies a lecture to the entire class because of one student’s mistake is a grade-school staple called collective punishment. It’s something I’ve fervently opposed ever since I was old enough to understand what it was (which, for me, was pretty damn young). Collective punishment is based on the premise that if one person causes negative consequences for the rest of the group, the other group members will convince bully that person into changing their behavior. What a great way to make students “feel like they belong on campus.”

Of course, there’s lots more wrong with this situation than just the dubious use of social psychology to manipulate people. First of all, if you poll random college students about why they’re in college, things like getting a degree and acquiring knowledge in their chosen field are likely to be higher on the list than learning about teamwork. Is teamwork important? Sure. But that’s not what we’re paying thousands of dollars for.

If he were that passionate about students learning how to work together, the professor could’ve taught a class about teamwork and petitioned to have it made mandatory. Or he could’ve had the class work in groups to carry out research projects or make short presentations at the beginning of each class. Or any number of things that are less stupid than forcing people to make their own snacks on their own time and money.

Some might defend this, saying that many of his students like the policy and that it’s not that hard to make snacks and whatnot. But I would argue that, when it comes to education, it’s the principle of the thing. Nobody should be picking classes based on whether or not they have time to bake cookies. Nobody should be denied a class because some random idiot forgot to.

Sleep: Forgotten Martyr of College Life

See? It's even on a shirt.

Academicssocial life, and sleeppick two.” -popular advice given to college freshmen

I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. Most college students, it seems, pick the first two.

What surprises me isn’t so much the fact that they do, but the fact that sleep deprivation is considered such a routine part of college life. Nobody seems to see anything wrong with this idea that getting through college necessitates depriving oneself of sleep.

I have a different way of looking at things because I have a different body. More specifically, living with depression means that sleep takes on a central significance in my daily life. Get too little, even by an hour, and I’m facing the sort of fatigue most people experience only after an all-nighter. Get too little too often, and I’m significantly increasing my chances of relapsing.

Most people don’t have depression (though many do, especially in college), but everyone knows, in the backs of their minds, that sleep is really, really important. Lack of sleep is implicated in all sorts of health problems, from susceptibility to stuff like colds and flu, to obesity, diabetes, attention and memory problems, and, of course, depression. Fatigue also makes the other two items on that list, academics and social life, nearly impossible to handle.

What’s strange is that sleep is probably unique in its complete invisibility as a college health issue. Dining halls increasingly provide healthy options, including full salad bars at each of Northwestern’s. Campus medical centers provide free condoms and cheap STI testing. Campus gyms are open from 6 AM to 11 PM each day and provide plenty of free (or cheap) classes, intramural sports teams, and what have you. Counseling centers provide free counseling and stress management workshops (though of course there’s much to be desired in that department). Anti-binge drinking initiatives abound.

But sleep is that subject that nobody ever seems to touch. After all, exercise makes you look good and can be fun, grabbing a free condom is easy, and getting a salad instead of a pizza is no big deal. Getting enough sleep, meanwhile, requires actual lifestyle changes–and, sometimes, actual sacrifices.

Ultimately, though, I think that the whole “pick two” joke is a false dichotomy (trichotomy??). I know that having all three is possible, because I have all three. I have great grades, I have great friends, and I sleep a solid 8-9 hours a night.

(A few weeks ago, frustrated by the fact that I’m usually exhausted by the time I come home from classes at 6 or 7 PM, I called my mom to complain. She said, “Of course you’re tired. It’s normal to be tired after a long day of classes.” Until she told me this, I’d never realized that. Because the campus culture I’m steeped in tells me that I should come home in the evening, go to meetings and do homework until midnight, and then engage in a social life until 2 or 3 or later–or, if I’ve been procrastinating with my homework, I should just stay up all night.)

What worries me most is that people wear their sleepless nights like badges of pride. You never hear anyone say, “Dude, I’ve legit been eating three slices of pizza EVERY DAY this week,” or “Man, guess how long I’ve managed to go without working out!” or “Guess what, guess what? I totally didn’t use a condom last night!”

But they make those comments about their lack of sleep. The only comparison is the way people talk about binge drinking.

Why is sleep deprivation cool? Probably for similar reasons as binge drinking is. It’s a mark of physical endurance, in a way, and it’s a way of displaying that you have the “right” priorities–socializing, usually–and not the “lame” ones.

Yet colleges actively try to combat the culture of binge drinking, but they ignore the problem of sleep deprivation. Why?

The Gym: the Poor Man's Runway

But don't try TOO hard. Like this girl.

Yesterday, one of the main student publications at my illustrious university came out with this gem, titled “Dressing to Impress at the Gym.” After the title and byline, the article takes an unfortunately predictable route:

So the gym might not be the sexiest place on earth. But, who says that it can’t be one of the most social? However unlikely, SPAC, Blomquist and the Evanston Athletic Club are some of the best places to meet guys on campus. Yes, The Keg or a fraternity party would be obvious choices, but those get old quickly. Guys flock to the gym from all corners of the university and, like it or not, they could be on the prowl.

Oh, dear heavens no! Guys could be “on the prowl!”

First of all, I just want to congratulate the author of this article for her implied success in “meeting guys” at the Keg or at a frat party. I have never been able to find decent specimens there, but clearly, this girl is just more skillful than I am.

Anyway. The article goes on to list helpful tips for girls who are super duper concerned with the scant possibility that someone may look at them while they’re working out. Most of the tips involve buying severely overpriced clothing and accessories at places like Lululemon and Gap. One of them involves wearing a bright-colored bra (way to attract attention while also looking completely fucking ridiculous).

The one that really gets me, though, is the last tip:

Don’t be that girl. “You can tell when a girl is trying too hard,” Medill sophomore Antonia Cereijido said. “They’ll wear no clothing and walk on the treadmill rather than actually getting a workout. They just look kind of silly.”

That’s right, ladies–don’t be that girl who “tries so hard” and cares so much about how she looks while working out, but do go ahead and read an entire article that tells you how to look good while working out.

There are so many things wrong with this article. Where to begin?! Well, first of all, with the assumption–never stated in this article, but implied nonetheless–that no matter what a woman happens to be doing, what matters most is always how she looks doing it.

We’ve seen this before with women like Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Elena Kagan–women who are helping to run the country but find themselves subjected to neverending commentary about their looks.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to find this same principle at work in the student magazine of what I had hoped–before I got here, that is–was a fairly intellectual college. Women, according to this article, exist to be looked at (by men, of course). And this completely ignores the fact that many men find it really sexy when a woman is working out and doesn’t care how she looks.

The second major problem I had with this piece was the implication that even if you’re not at the gym in order to pick up guys, you should still concern yourself with the fact that you may be looked at. As the introduction says, “Guys flock to the gym from all corners of the university and, like it or not, they could be on the prowl.”

Like it or not? Well, I suppose I don’t, but what the hell do I care if they look? It’s not my job to make sure that no man is ever, G-d forbid, offended by my appearance–especially not while I’m at the gym. I don’t owe anyone anything, and if they look at me and don’t like what they see, they are free to look elsewhere.

But no. According to this article, girls should always care that they’re being looked at, which is why they should always look good, even while working out, even if they’re not even looking to meet any guys. How empowering!

A third issue here is the implication that the gym is only for people who are able to fit their bodies into the cute, tight little shorts and tops that the article practically advertises. Um, last I checked, many people go to the gym in order to lose weight and/or become more fit, not to show off their already-perfect bodies.

But then again, the article isn’t really aimed at those people, is it? Because, after all, who on earth would want to look at them, anyway?

And that’s just the thing. Articles like this always imply that gyms are for attractive people only, which is just as ludicrous as saying that French class is for people who speak French fluently, and art class is for people who can already paint.

Finally, even though the article is obviously aimed at women (men, after all, don’t need to concern themselves with such petty issues as appearance), it nevertheless constructs the gym as a man’s space–one that women may occupy only as long as they follow the rules. As a guy quoted in the beginning of the article says, “I think it’s good that girls take care of their bodies and that they’re not afraid to go into the gym where there’s guys lifting heavy weights and stuff.”

Not afraid to go into the gym? Please.

Of course, the fearlessness that this guy finds so incredible comes with strings attached–women must always look good at the gym, or else…well, I don’t know what happens then. Do our memberships get revoked?

What’s really disappointing about all of this is that I’ve always thought of the gym as a great equalizer, of sorts. Anyone can go there, anyone can benefit from going there. It’s the one place where I’ve never felt like my appearance was being scrutinized, and I’ve always felt comfortable letting go and getting into the flow of exercising.

But clearly, some of the people I go to school with don’t see it that way. You’d think that there are few pursuits more self-directed than exercise, but to them, the gym is just another place to “be seen,” and its health benefits are secondary.

Of course, the author would argue with me here. She even writes at one point, “Remember ladies, health is important, so when at the gym you should still be the number one priority.”

But if she really feels that way, why didn’t she write an article about, say, how to figure out what your heart rate should be while exercising? Or how to use all those damn strength training machines I still haven’t figured out how to use? Or how to work out as many different muscle groups as possible in as few different exercises as possible? Or any number of other health-related topics?

I’m very idealistic about journalism. I think that all journalists, even students at a campus publication, are, in a way, setting the agenda for us as a society. Every moment spent writing piece-of-shit articles like this is a moment not spent writing about stuff that actually matters.

Rather than writing an article that practically shits out the same sexist tropes we’ve all grown up with–that women owe it to men to look good, that only thin athletic women are worth looking at, that men are only attracted to women who actively try to look good rather than just doing what they love with abandon–this student could’ve written an article about why it doesn’t fucking matter what you look like when you’re working out.

But she didn’t do that. She chose to promote the sexist tropes instead, thus doing her small part to keep an unfortunate aspect of our culture going strong.

You Can Leave

[TMI Warning]

You’re allowed to leave. You’re allowed to walk away from things that hurt you.

Nobody ever tells you that, so I will.

~~~

Tonight should’ve been a great night. SHAPE, a campus organization that I’m involved with–it stands for Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators–was holding an event in which a documentary filmmaker screened and discussed her documentary, which concerns college hookup culture. The event was mandatory for SHAPE members, but I would’ve come anyway because the subject interests me.

I should’ve known what I was getting into, but I didn’t really…

The documentary took a critical view of hookup culture and interviewed various students, as well as some professors and campus health professionals. It also interviewed a few frat guys, who were, of course, allowed to remain anonymous with their faces blacked out in the film.

The things the frat guys said stuck with me.

I can’t remember exact quotes, but it was the typical stuff–about “picking and choosing” girls, about how alcohol makes them less likely to protest, about how a girl who’s slept with at least three of the frat brothers is called a “toaster” because she’s “toast.”

Suddenly, I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable and anxious. It was hard to breathe. It made me think about the past.

~~~

“Come on. You know you want it. You let me touch your tits before.”

“No, I don’t. I’ve already told you. I’m interested in someone else and that’s the only person I want to sleep with right now.”

“You know, you’re lucky. Some guys would just…”

Would just what?”

He just smirks at me.

~~~

Nothing happened to me that night. Nothing physical, that is; he left me alone after spending three hours trying to manipulate me.

But emotionally, I was never the same again.

~~~

Another night, many months before that. My first college party. It was “registered” so there wasn’t even any alcohol.

I’m dancing with my friends. None of us have been drinking; we’re just happy to be at college and at a crowded, noisy dance party. He comes up to me and starts dancing with me. He’d clearly pregamed before coming to the house.

You’re such a good dancer. Are you a music major?”

“No, journalism.” I smile.

He nods and we keep dancing.

The song ends, and we dance for another one.

Then he leans in to kiss me. I pull back.

Sorry, I have a boyfriend at another school.”

You have a boyfriend? You should’ve had that written on your forehead!”

He storms off. I’d enjoyed just dancing…

~~~

Another time.

We used to be good friends, or at least so I thought.  We hung out all the time, talked about our lives and about school. We were attracted to each other, so one day we hooked up.

After that, things change. He only texts me at midnight, asking if I want to walk all the way to his frat and “chill.” He never asks me how I’m doing anymore. We stop talking after a while.

Months later, he messages me on Facebook.  “So, honest question. Did I start to annoy you after we hooked up?”

I say, “No, it’s not that. I just got the impression that you were more interested in me for just sex rather than actual conversation or friendship.”

“Alright, fair enough.”

“I mean, is that true?”

“To an extent, yeah.”

~~~

I should consider myself lucky. If the estimates of unreported sexual assault are accurate, the fact that I’ve never been raped puts me in the minority. But, like most women, I’ve been catcalled, groped, followed down the street, pressured for sex, offered unidentified drinks, called a bitch for not acquiescing.

That’s why I don’t go to parties. That’s why I don’t participate in hookup culture. And no, to any radical feminists reading this, it’s not because I think it’s a woman’s responsibility to prevent herself from being raped. It’s because hookup culture makes me want to throw up, cry, hurt myself.

I choose to walk away from it all. You can choose that, too, if that’s what you want to do. Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise.

~~~

So I didn’t stay at the film screening tonight. I probably should’ve, because it was mandatory and all. Because my committee was planning to meet afterwards and I don’t want to have to explain why I left. Because, on some level, it was interesting to me. Because I wanted to introduce myself to the filmmaker and ask her for advice about researching this topic.

But in the end, I didn’t stay. I walked away. Because I felt so uncomfortable, because I just wanted to go home so much.

So I stood up, swung my bookbag over my shoulder, and walked right out.

I walked home through the warm night and I felt so free. I wasn’t happy, by any means, but I felt like I’d made the right decision. I listened to my iPod and started to breathe easier.

~~~

I don’t mean to imply that it’s always possible–or even desirable–to just walk away from anything that makes you uncomfortable. Sometimes you need to examine what’s happening and confront your fears.

But I’ve examined this through and through. I can’t change the things that have happened to me, and there’s just no way to make myself believe that those things are okay and that anyone should ever have to go through them. And I don’t see the need to keep reminding myself of them.

Some people might read this and think, “Gee, that’s stupid. What’ll she do, avoid every painful thing in life?”

Obviously, no. Some people think that just because some pain is unavoidable, we should just accept every painful thing in our lives and let it in. Perhaps one can build up an immunity that way.

But I disagree. The fact that there are so many unavoidable painful things in life only proves to me that we should avoid the ones we can. After all, even a psychologically healthy person goes through so much–death of loved ones, illness, financial difficulty, heartbreak–and psychologically unhealthy people have it even worse. Shouldn’t we find a little corner of life that’s happy and fight to defend it?

I think so. That’s why I opted out of hookup culture, and that’s why I opted out of tonight’s film screening. I went home to my beautiful apartment. After I finish writing this, I’m going to make a cup of tea and read my psychology textbook and plan my research project and talk to my friends online and maybe call my mom.

Because, in the end, those are the things that make me want to keep living for as long as I possibly can.

Mental Illness Is Not a Punchline

Damn, I’m certainly on a crusade against humor these days.

That was sarcasm, by the way. I love humor. I just think it should be deployed carefully.

A few days ago in my Psychology of Personality class, the following happened:

Some people were having their own conversations while the professor was trying to give a lecture. The professor cracked a joke–“Hey guys, I have ADD so I can’t focus if other people are talking, so please stop!” followed by “I don’t really have ADD, but still.”

Now, for the record, I totally get that it sucks for a teacher when people are talking in class. But I also feel that there are other ways to address that situation without making a joke about having a mental illness that you don’t actually have. Especially, you know, if you’re a person who has a PhD in psychology and conducts research on people with actual mental illnesses.

The sad thing is, before he followed his comment up with that disclaimer, I was actually really touched. I thought it was wonderful that a professor of psychology would take a stand against the stigma of mental illness by stating in class that he has one. But then, you know, it turned out to just be a joke.

~~~

Last spring, I took a class on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It was an advanced class, with just around ten students or so, taught by one of the most esteemed professors in the department. We got to the chapter on Borderline Personality Disorder, which, as you may know, is considered one of the most frustrating mental disorders–both for clinicians and for the patient’s friends and family. So naturally, no discussion of it could be complete without my professor’s bombastic explanations about how she tries to avoid treating BPD patients because they’re just SUCH a pain and about how she once had a friend with BPD who was just SO hard to deal with. Everyone gasped and laughed at her descriptions.

Then, of course, the other students had to start raising their hands and talking about their own friends that they’d taken the liberty of diagnosing with BPD, and how  horrific those people were.

This was a time in my life when I was seriously wondering if I had BPD myself, so, yeah, that was pretty unpleasant.

~~~

Last fall, I took a class on psychopathology. It was my second psychology course ever, and my first that related specifically to mental disorders–a topic very close to my heart at the time since I’d been diagnosed with major depression only a month before.

Before the course started, the professor sent out an anonymous survey to the entire class about our experiences with mental illness. On the first day of class, she disclosed the stunning results–more than half of us said we’d been diagnosed with one.

So we got to the chapter on depression and the professor started talking about depressive cognitive distortions, using specific examples. The professor started listing them off in such a way that the whole class started laughing. And laughing, and laughing.

Now, I totally get that it sounds funny. Consider this dialogue:

X: I’m getting a B in calculus. I’m a total failure.

Y: You’re not a failure at all! You have straight As in the rest of your classes.

X: Well, those don’t count. They’re easy anyway.

Y: Yes, and calculus is pretty hard, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t do as well. Besides, a B is a pretty good grade.

X: No, it’s a shitty grade. Everything I do is shitty and I’m always going to be a failure.

That is an example of several cognitive distortions, including overgeneralization, disqualifying the positive, magnification, and labeling. And, when read aloud in a particular tone of voice, I can see how it might sound kind of funny.

But having been through it myself and studied it extensively, I can also hear the pain behind what X is saying. It’s not a punchline. It’s a cry for help from a person trapped inside their malfunctioning mind.

~~~

Here’s the thing. I get it. People with PhDs in psychology have spent years and years reading, writing, and talking about stuff like this. I’m sure that it’s completely normal for two psychologists to crack jokes about mental illness to each other.

Knowing that many people who pursue degrees in psychology are spurred to do so by their own experiences with mental illness (I’m an example of this), I understand the urge to joke about it because I joke about it myself. It helps alleviate the fear and pain of living with mental illness.

That doesn’t mean I’d joke about it to a room full of 100 people who don’t know me well and who may be dealing with their own issues, though.

Case in point–at the time I took the aforementioned psychopathology class, I was still learning how to recognize cognitive distortions in myself, and I was beginning to realize the extent to which they’d ruined all of my previous interactions, friendships, and relationships. To have a room full of 100 people laughing uproariously about something that nearly brought you to suicide just three short months before is, well, no laughing matter.

~~~

I’m not saying there’s no room for humor about mental illness. There definitely is, and humor has been one of several strategies that have helped me process what happened to me. But humor must be used carefully.

I’ve written before about the complex relationship between humor and mental illness–here, here, here, here, and here. But this time, the situation is very different because the off-color jokes are coming not from comedians, television writers, novelists, or clueless friends of mine, but from people who know more about psychology than 99% of the population.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t quite worked up the courage to tell a person with a PhD that they’ve offended me.

But I’m working on it.

The College Story

See, I'm not the only one.

I wish I could spin you the story everyone wants to hear.

That story has a whole cast of predictable characters, and many trunks’ worth of familiar props. The friends, the neat dorm rooms, the beer, the photo collages, the inside jokes, the cute frat guys, the walks by the lake, the hot chocolate, the study sessions, the mentoring professors, the sorority mixers, the coffee dates, the giggly all-nighters, the risque one-night-stands and the whispered confessions to friends in class the next day.

Sound familiar? That’s the College Story. You’ve seen it in every glossy brochure, TV show, Seventeen magazine article, and back-to-school commercial.

But that’s not my story. It never will be. Because the kind of person I am doesn’t get to live that story.

Halfway through my college career, it’s time to admit this to myself.

My story? Sure, it has some bright moments in it. Most stories do, and mine hasn’t been that awful. But then there’s all the stuff nobody wants me to talk about–the weather, the loneliness, the way guys at Northwestern treat me (to be precise, like a thing), the rich, preppy students that I’ll never resemble, the hours spent laboring over essays that professors barely even read (and then unceremoniously slap a B on without further explanation), the expectation to be a walking, talking, drinking/fucking/studying machine, the not-so-subtle bragging NU teaches us to perform, the bottles of anti-depressants lined up on my shelf, the many nights I spent considering transferring, asking for a quarter off, dropping out of college, or dropping out of life.

I played with my little sister today. I do that every day when I’m home, but today it was different because I was acutely aware of the fact that I’m leaving again in five days. I hugged her and my heart broke all over again. I hate that I’m not here to see her and my brother grow up. I hate that nobody at Northwestern loves me the way these two do. I hate that my little brother took one of my blankets to sleep with because he misses me while I’m at school. It all feels so wrong to me.

I’ll feel better once I’m actually there, I know that. Despite what it may look like, making the best of things is a skill of mine. Once I’m there, it’ll be easier to make myself forget the loving family I’ve left back in Ohio and to pretend that home isn’t where I’d always rather be. Sometimes I’m even able to get myself to believe that I somehow matter at this huge institution of higher learning and that it, or at the very least, the lives of some of the other people in it, would be noticeably different if I had never existed.

The truth is that I’m paying $200,000 and a lot of my own sanity for a stupid piece of paper saying that I’m qualified to go get a PhD and actually learn something relevant to my life, because all I’ve learned these past two years is how to act smarter, richer, and more well-adjusted than I actually am. Call me an idealist, but I hoped that college would be more than this.

I’m compelled to apologize for this. To apologize for hating college, because it goes against everything our culture dictates that I do. I’m supposed to love it.

Well, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you that I do.

An Indictment of Party Pop

Just when you thought I was finally done writing about alcohol and partying, here I go with yet another post about it!

Before I start talking about party pop, though, I need to clarify what exactly I’m talking about, because apparently some people still don’t get it. Every once in a while someone who doesn’t know me too well says something like “OMG I READ YOUR BLOG AND I GUESS YOU HATE FUN HAHA.” Um no.

So let me explain. I do not hate alcohol. I do not hate parties. I do not hate fun. I do not hate people who drink and party, except when they’re infringing on my personal space. What I hate is something I call “party culture,” which, by my definition, contains the following components:

  • the belief, prevalent among people of all ages, that partying is the one and only acceptable way for young people to spend their free time and socialize
  • the glorification and normalization of binge drinking (formally defined as drinking five or more drinks in a row, but I also use it generally to refer to drinking in a way that jeopardizes one’s health and safety)
  • the use of alcohol as a means to coerce women and excuse sexual assault
  • the idea that people who choose not to party are deficient in some way
  • pressuring people to drink and party (This is truly unique in college. I was never pressured to join clubs, go to football games, explore Chicago, attend dorm events, or do any other social activity quite like I was pressured to party.)
  • the belief that alcohol is something people “need” in order to relax, talk to people, hook up, have fun, etc.
So there’s party culture for you. As for party pop, I read a piece about it in this summer’s issue of Bitch magazine. The piece was actually a really interesting analysis of the changes that this sort of music has gone through; whereas drunk girls in pop culture used to exist basically as a spectacle for men’s benefit, more recently they seem to be partying for themselves (the article mentions Ke$ha and Katy Perry as examples). Anyway, you’d really have to read the whole article to see all of the points it makes, but that’s the gist of it, and the author sees this as a positive development–female empowerment and blahblah.
However, where the article falls short is that it still seems to present party pop as a symbol of rebellion:
Today’s party-girl pop continues down the avenue of non-explicitly politicized, pleasure-focused rebellion against gender norms carved out by flappers and disco divas.
And:
[Party-girl pop] is valuable in its large-scale reflection of changing the meaning of pleasure and autonomy among young women, both to create a culture for girls themselves and to give older people a peek into these changing mores.
Here’s the thing, though. Whereas the music from which party pop presumably draws inspiration, such as the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” was actually made a time when partying was considered a subversive thing for people (especially women) to do, we’ve come quite a ways since then. Party culture has become normative. It’s not partying, rather than partying, that now draws judgment and scorn. Trust me, I’d know.

The truth is, even my socially conservative parents and their white middle-class friends think that partying is just what the kids do these days. For some reason, though, the party lifestyle continues to hold this impenetrable veneer of revolutionary coolness.

When I listen to music that glorifies party culture and hear people ranting about how rebellious and groundbreaking and cool it is, I imagine someone making music about how awesome it is not to live on a farm or to be able to live past age 50. Like, okay, cool, but I thought we were over that by now.

Maybe what we should be talking about instead is the fact that party pop contributes to a culture in which alcohol is viewed as the one and only means to having a worthwhile and enjoyable life, and partying is seen as something “everyone” does. And I’m not even making random unbased claims here: studies have shown that college students overestimate how much their peers drink, and that the more they think others drink, the more they drink themselves. That’s why, when I went through training to be an RA at Northwestern, we were told to provide our residents with the results of surveys done at NU that showed how much students actually drink. Because when you think that everybody is just constantly going out and knocking back six vodkas in a night, you’re more likely to try to do that, too.

Furthermore, I disagree with the Bitch article’s assertion that party pop is helping to redefine gender roles for women. The line of argument here is that because these women party for their own pleasure, they are paving the way for our culture to accept women as autonomous and equal to men. I don’t think it really works that way, though. I think that now, rather than having one function–pleasing men–women have two functions–pleasing men and getting shitfaced. I don’t see how this helps society recognize the right of women to hold positions of power, contribute to scientific research, control their own reproductive health, or generally do much of anything that doesn’t involve getting intimate with a toilet bowl at the end of the night. (As for the shitshow that consists of male-created party pop, I’m not even going to get into that now.)

The very artists that the author of the article considers pioneers in this regard have other songs (which the author conveniently ignored) that completely contradict the supposedly revolutionary message. For instance, here are some lyrics from a recent song by Katy Perry:

Kiss me, ki-ki-kiss me
Infect me with your love and
Fill me with your poison
Take me, ta-ta-take me
Wanna be a victim
Ready for abduction
That’s empowering, alright. As for Ke$ha:
I don’t care what people say
The rush is worth the price I pay
I get so high when you’re with me
But crash and crave you when you are away
Pardon my skepticism, but I really fail to see how this music is promoting women’s autonomy. What I do see, though, is that it promotes the dangerous party culture that has infected basically every college campus–and JUST A REMINDER, by “party culture” I mean the stuff listed with bullet points above. I’m not saying this music is inherently “bad” or that we shouldn’t listen to it (that would not only be a specious argument, but it would also be a hypocritical one since I listen to a lot of this stuff myself). I do think, though, that we should make a big-ass pause before we start painting it with Beastie Boys-esque shades of rebelliousness.
Pop music, and pop culture in general, is the pulse of our society and its values. I think that if we listen closely to it, we can discern the pressures and expectations that people face from the world around them. And right now, pop music is saying that partying is the epitome of what young people should do with their lives. I think that’s an unfortunately narrow-minded view.
So if you’re too school for cool,
And you’re treated like a fool,
You can choose to let it go
We can always, we can always
Party on our own
–P!nk, “Raise Your Glass”

The Art of Looking Good

When I’m applying for jobs or scholarships, I’m often reminded to twist the wording on my resumes, cover letters, and applications (not even to mention interviews) to make myself and my experiences look better than they actually are.

I’ve never really stopped to think about how this makes me feel, but I’ll do so now.

Lying is unethical, in my opinion. So is intentionally misrepresenting the truth, which is what you do when you “word things differently,” as they say. I’ve just realized how shameful it is in my mind that being employable and successful in our society is based on our ability to paint ourselves in brighter hues than we really deserve to be painted in.

This summer, I’ll be volunteering at a summer camp for kids in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, where I’ll probably be doing stuff like arts and crafts with them. The idea of the camp is to promote health and mental wellness, though I don’t see how that’s really what I’m doing. I’ll basically be playing games with some kids from the city. But how will it go on my resume? “Volunteered at a day camp for underprivileged children of recent immigrants in north Manhattan, teaching them about health and mental wellness.”

Yeah, something like that.

And I’ll probably mention something about how I turned down a job that would’ve paid me $2,600 for this opportunity.

And here’s the kicker—nobody’s going to ask me what I actually did with these kids. Nobody’s going to go check five or ten years down the line to see if any of my interventions actually did any good in preventing them from developing illnesses like diabetes and depression. Nobody’s going to ask these kids if they enjoyed their time with me. Chances are, nobody’s even going to ask for a recommendation from my supervisor.

But I still get to put this crap on my resume like it’s such an amazing thing that I did. Me, privileged white girl from Ohio, helping these poor little immigrant children learn how to stay healthy, all for no pay. Commuting an hour there and back each day from Queens! In the summer heat! Oh, and working for my parents for a whole month after that to pay them back for sending me there.

This is what I call the art of looking good. It’s how we get into schools like Northwestern and get the sort of jobs that we’ll all be getting afterwards. Playing this game makes me sick. The thought that I, a person who loves to write and understands the power of words, am twisting them around so casually to get ahead in life, disgusts me.

I’m not naive enough to opt out of this game, because I do want to be successful in life, and clearly that’s what it takes these days. But I play this game halfheartedly, and I protest against it and buckle under its weight every agonizing step of the way.

I wish I could’ve written on my college application that, you know what, the prestigious internship I did in Israel the summer before senior year of high school was awful. I learned nothing except that I hate doing scientific research and I hate religion. I also learned that the sacrifices I made to be able to go there were all for nothing. I didn’t make any friends there. I did learn a bit about my native country, but not much, and nothing I couldn’t have learned by touring the country with my dad, which would’ve been significantly more fun.

But that’s not at all what I wrote on my college application, or else I very well might not be sitting in this Northwestern dorm right now.

Nobody wants to hear about my failures, no matter how much they taught me. Like when they ask you about your weaknesses in a job interview, they don’t really want to know that sometimes the amount of work you have makes you cry, or that sometimes you check Facebook at work, or that several times you accidentally made a comment to a coworker that might be interpreted as racist. They want to know that you have some minuscule barely-significant flaw, but don’t worry, you’re working on it!

Likewise, if I end this summer feeling like I accomplished nothing with these kids, nobody wants to know that, so that’s not what’ll go on my resume. My resume will say that I taught. I helped. I volunteered. Never, ever will it say that I failed. Even if I do.