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.
[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.

Some Thoughts on Depression

[TMI Warning]

About five months ago, I wrote a post on Facebook (and on this blog) about my experience with depression and how I came to receive treatment for it. I remember feeling very triumphant as I wrote it, because I felt like my difficulties were finally over.

This turned out to not exactly be the case.

In January, perhaps precipitated by some unfortunate personal circumstances, I relapsed and have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to recover ever since. The months since then have been filled with a lot of self-loathing, many random bouts of crying (daily at times), and much speculation on my part as to whether or not I really belong in this world.

This is when I realized that my problems, whatever they may be, don’t simply go away when I’m not depressed. I don’t “invent” the issues that I’m unhappy about. But being healthy makes it easier to ignore the pain in the back of my mind–all the wasted opportunities, lost friends, and scarring memories that have built up over the years like dust on a windowpane. When I’m healthy, I simply don’t think about it, and consequently I’m happier. But the mockery that I’ve made of my life isn’t a figment of my imagination; it’s quite real.


I also started to realize, perhaps even more than I did when I wrote that post, how little the healthy world knows about depression. Mental illness is truly the last taboo; many people refuse to even consider dating someone who has it. Kinda makes me reconsider being so open about my experience…

Even people who would otherwise be supportive just don’t know enough. For instance, if you know your friend is a diabetic, would you offer her a piece of cake? Probably not. But would you casually make fun of your depressed friend? Unfortunately, many people would, even though teasing and jokes are things that many depressives have a lot of trouble with. (This is because depression often causes a cognitive deficit that makes people take everything–a snappy tone of voice, an odd glance, a sarcastic remark–very personally. Here’s a great guide to cognitive distortions.) I am always analyzing and picking apart things that people say to me to try to figure out if they were just teasing or not. I am terrified of the threat of rejection that these casual utterances may carry, so I am always alert, always on my best behavior.


Another thing I’m never sure of is which parts of me are depression and which are simply me. I’m a skeptic, a cynic, and generally not too big a fan of things that most people seem to really like (Exhibit A: this). I don’t fit in with my surroundings in many ways. I’m more complex, polite, caring, respectful, quiet, conscientious, serious, passionate, emotional, and sensitive than most. I’m less assertive, flaky, impulsive, cheerful, “chill,” and casual than most. This makes for a great number of personality differences between myself and most people I know. When I’m not feeling depressed, these differences fade into the back of my mind. But when I am, they come right to the front, putting up a wall between me and the rest of the world, making me feel like I’ll be an outcast for life.


One more realization–Northwestern might be the worst place in the world to be depressed. (Not that there’s really a good place for that, except perhaps the psychiatric ward of a hospital.) It’s isolating, stressful, and miserably cold from October till May. Your peers churn industriously around you like a hive of North Face-clad bumblebees while you vegetate listlessly in your shitty shoebox room and email professors, friends, student group leaders one by one and tell them that you’ve been ill and cannot come to whatever crap you’re supposed to be at that day. You eat Nutella from the jar and wonder why none of your friends care. You wonder why you expect them to care. You sleep, a lot.

Northwestern also happens to have entirely inadequate mental health services, but that’s a topic for another post. My friends and I are working to change that. But for now, this is a really, really unfortunate place to be depressed.


And that’s it, really. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going now, but hopefully it’s somewhere good.

Dillo Day: Not For Me

This just says it all, no?

[TMI Warning]

Today is Dillo Day, a Northwestern tradition that dates to 1972. It’s a music festival that happens each year on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. We get to see several musicians, including some very well-known ones (B.o.B. this year) for free.

Of course, because Northwestern is a college, it is only natural that Dillo Day is more known for being a drunken shitshow than a music festival. The drinking often starts before noon (or even on Friday night) and continues till everyone is semi-conscious in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Actually enjoying the music is nearly impossible, unless you also happen to enjoy being hit on and groped, pushed and stepped on, and presented with some great views of people making out or having sex in public.

And now I’ll make a confession. I find drunkenness, and drunk people, disgusting. It’s not that I merely find drunk people annoying and inconvenient. I find them, and their lifestyle choices, repulsive. I don’t understand why the hell you would want to end your night getting intimate with a toilet bowl, or why you would want to be too far gone to even remember some of the supposed “best” days of your life.

My issue isn’t so much with the alcohol itself, though my relationship with alcohol has always been sort of hard to explain. My parents are social drinkers; they can hold their alcohol well and rarely get drunk. When they do, they’re louder, more social, quicker to laugh. In other words, they’re more fun. I’ve never actually seen them get very drunk, although one summer my dad went to Israel without us to see his friends and apparently had quite a bit to drink one day. It happened to be the same day that our fridge broke down, and my mom, completely clueless in terms of household appliances, called my dad long-distance and hysterically explained the situation, her fears regarding the baby formula going bad, and so on. My dad’s response was, apparently, a hearty “I don’t give a fuck!” and a dial tone.

And that was the worst of it. I’ve never seen my parents stagger, throw up, or hand their car keys over. I’ve never seen them down multiple shots in a row. (In fact, the only time they drink vodka is at dinner parties with friends, when every shot taken comes with a toast of some sort of emotional significance. Meaningless drinking this is not.)

Consequently, my own experience with drinking has been quite different from that of most people my age. I enjoy wine, mixed drinks, flavored vodka, and champagne. I like to drink wine with my parents over dinner and I can’t imagine New Year’s Eve without champagne. I like to be a bit tipsy, enough to make things a bit cheerier, and myself a bit more bubbly. But I have never been drunk, and I don’t plan on it. (In fact, I was furious a few weeks ago when a friend of mine suggested, laughing, that my friends will “make” me get drunk on my 21st birthday. Excuse me? Nobody can “make” me put anything in my body that I don’t want to put there. Any friend who tries to force anything on my body, be it sex or drugs or alcohol or a piercing or what have you, is no friend of mine after that.)

Last night, thinking about the shitshow that today would inevitably be, I found myself wishing that I were normal, that I could have fun in the way that everyone else can. I wished I wanted to do what they do. But I’ve never been that person. I’ve always been serious and I’ve always preferred to be completely in control of myself at all times. My disdain for drinking to excess is as natural a part of me as my preference for Pepsi over Coke, or the fact that I like to sleep on my stomach and not on my back. How do you change these things?

There are no words to describe such a feeling of isolation, which is one of many reasons I don’t talk about it often. I never fails to shock me how easily I’ve accepted everything else “abnormal” about me–my diagnosis of depression, my bisexuality, my foreignness–but I cannot accept this.

And most of all, I just want to understand. I complain about these things and my friends tell me with a shrug, “That’s just how people are.” But why? Why take an opportunity like an all-day free music festival and turn it into a drunken mess you’ll barely remember afterwards? I even understand drinking and partying when you’re bored, but why on a day like this one? Why is this desire as natural for them as my aversion to it is for me? I want to understand this in a sociological and psychological sense. But I don’t.

I sound like a boring, prissy goody-goody with a stick up my ass. I know I do. But the funny thing is, I’m really not. When I’m in a genuinely good mood, which, thanks in part to my shitty environment, is not often, I’m always laughing and making jokes. I love dancing and trying to sing, exploring Chicago with friends, and frequently acting like an idiot. I’m known to occasionally skip class and go tanning on the beach, and to write my papers the night before they’re due because I was too busy hanging out with friends before. I love fun. But I hate partying. The two aren’t one and the same, you know.

So there you have it. Dillo Day is a disgusting boozefest, and it’s not for me. I guess that makes me an outsider as long as I’m at college (and possibly for quite a while longer). I don’t understand why, as a culture, we are fixated on the idea that people should be moronic and depraved until they turn 30.  I want to know why our society believes that being an idiot in your 20s is some sort of prerequisite to having a happy, successful, and meaningful life–and why everyone thinks I’ll “regret it” if I don’t follow this path. I want to know why college students are required as if by law to drink and party and smoke pot and have a lot of casual sex (another thing I really don’t enjoy), or else they’re boring and “lame.”

I’m fucking tired of being judged. It makes me really angry. Stop.

The Value of Disagreement

A photo from an Obama-McCain debate in 2008. Just to add some requisite humor to this otherwise serious post.

I am a liberal and I go to a liberal school. Sometimes this makes me feel happy and comfortable, because I have so much in common with others here in terms of politics. I can complain publicly about Americans’ lack of belief in climate change, or about something Glenn Beck said. I can ask my friends if they’ve seen the latest episode of the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I can rant excitedly about some famous person coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. And I can do all this without worrying that I’m going to offend someone, or that someone is going to argue with me.

But two recent incidents made me ask myself if this is really such a good thing.

One was a conversation I had with a friend about a mutual friend of ours. We’re all really close and hang out a lot, but when I suggested to one that he go have a conversation with the other, he said that they don’t really have anything serious to talk about. I asked why, and he said that they always just agree on everything and there’s little to discuss.

The other was the killing of Osama Bin Laden. When this happened, my Facebook feed suddenly exploded with such a variety of opinions that I didn’t even know existed at Northwestern. Some people were screaming “USA! USA!” Others were really happy that Bin Laden was dead, but didn’t want to celebrate so gleefully. Others were ambivalent, wondering why this really mattered, or whether or not he should’ve been shot dead. Others still were furious that he’d been killed on the spot, arguing that he should’ve been tried by the American judicial system instead. Some were religious Jews or Christians, happy to have gained this victory against radical Islam. (Unfortunately, I don’t know many Muslims, but I would’ve loved to hear their perspectives.) Some were atheists or agnostics, wishing that we didn’t have these religious wars to begin with. And so on and so forth.

Immediately, tons of arguments and debates started up. I got into quite a few myself. As a result, I changed certain parts of my opinion, began to understand other parts more clearly, and generally started articulating my views a bit better. And, also, I learned a lot about many of my friends.

After that, I started to realize how much we’re missing here in terms of political dialogue. I used to be very conservative, but back then I lived in Ohio and everyone around me pretty much agreed. Now that I’m much more liberal, I’m once again surrounded by people who share my views on almost everything. Except for those times when my friends and I start getting bitchy and arguing minutiae, I rarely get to have a good political debate.

What to do about this? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how to get more conservative or libertarian students to attend Northwestern. Like it or not, this is a liberal campus.

One related issue, however, is a bit easier to solve, and that is the tendency of people to want to shut down those who disagree. (I addressed this briefly in the previous post.) The internet makes it much easier to do this because you can literally avoid “conservative” or “liberal” websites, but I see this in play even out in the real world. When I lived in Ohio, despite being conservative, I had the uncomfortable feeling that conservatives always wanted to shut liberals up. Luckily, I didn’t have to feel guilty for long, because when I came to Northwestern I found that liberals do the exact same thing. The way we respond to alternative viewpoints is often anything but respectful and curious–it’s snarky and dismissive.

For instance, when discussing people who oppose the right to abortion, liberals like to refer to them as “anti-choice” rather than “pro-life,” which is what they call themselves. This is, in my opinion, ridiculously disrespectful. Pro-lifers place the sanctity of life above the freedom of choice, but that doesn’t mean they oppose choice. It just means they value life (and they define life as beginning at conception) more than they value choice. I disagree with this position entirely, but I respect it and can see why some people would think that way.

Similarly, conservatives will purposefully refer to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama” (to highlight his “Muslim” middle name) or as the “Obamination” or as any number of other highly disrespectful monikers. Why? Why talk like this about the President of the United States just because he is a liberal?

This needs to stop. From both sides. Silencing the opinions of others benefits nobody. If they’re wrong, they’re wrong. If they’re right, then you should know the truth. If they’re partially right and partially wrong, you should take this opportunity to fine-tune your own views.

In fact, in order to put my money where my mouth is, from now on I’m going to seek out intelligent conservative blogs and read them. If nothing else, it’ll help me learn how to defend my own views better. Unfortunately, I don’t hear many conservative opinions here on campus, so I’m going to look for them elsewhere.

Learning How to be Happy

I’m going to go out on a limb and criticize something even more popular than the things I usually criticize–my school’s Happiness Club.

The Happiness Club is a prominent student organization at Northwestern that aims to increase happiness by planning all sorts of activities for the campus, such as kite-flying, free hot chocolate, water balloon fights, “silent” dance parties, and so on. In other words, all fun and exciting activities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that it’s not “happiness” that these activities are promoting; it’s momentary joy. Momentary joy is an important component of a happy life, but it’s not even close to all you need.

Let me explain. Most Northwestern students have been fed on a steady diet of stress, sleep deprivation, and SAT prep classes since before we hit puberty. The kinds of effects that such a diet inevitably has–for instance, perfectionism, fatigue, anxiety, and depression–are things that no amount of kite-flying will cure.

To put it bluntly, most people I know here (myself included) are simply not capable of living our lives in a way that’s conducive to long-term happiness and well-being. We suck at prioritizing–academics and extracurriculars come before friends and family, every time. We demand perfect grades from ourselves. We apply to only the most prestigious internships and burst into tears when we inevitably fail to get those positions. We fill our schedules to the point that we have to schedule in shower time. We don’t pause to relax, think, or meditate.

In other words, the skills that we lack–balance, mindfulness, perspective, and a healthy amount of compassion for ourselves–are exactly the things that are not being taught to us here. These are the skills that lay the foundation for a happy and meaningful life.

Of course, there are resources. CAPS (our psychological service) offers workshops, and RAs are encouraged to emphasize the need for balance and stress relief to their residents. But the people we look to and trust the  most–our peers–are often more of a negative influence than a positive one. (For instance, how do you think I feel about my own study  habits when my friend tells me she stayed up till 4 AM studying, slept for two hours, and got up at 6 to keep going?)

That’s where a group like the Happiness Club should, theoretically, come in. In addition to the undoubtedly fun activities that they already plan, why don’t they offer workshops on stress relief, meditation, or yoga? Why don’t they bring in speakers who talk about how one can be both productive and happy in college? Why don’t they encourage greater awareness of things like perfectionism, anxiety, and depression?

We need to start up a campus dialogue about these things, because there isn’t one right now. Occasionally, late at night, one of us will admit to a friend that we’re just not living the right way. But this conversation needs to happen on a larger scale. There is too much misery here. I don’t doubt that many Northwestern students are happy in some sense of the word, but they’re not as happy as they could be, because while all the adults in our lives have taught us how to live a successful life, nobody’s taught us how to live a happy one. Maybe it’s time to teach ourselves.