Our school, BHSEC, is an amazing place, but the harsh reality is that we’re not immune to the concerns of fourth wave feminism. It’s true that, as far as equity goes, the school’s pretty outstanding: women are heard, men respect us 90% of the time, and there’s very little stigma of free expressions of sexuality. We’re very lucky to be here and we’re pretty commendable for maintaining this atmosphere. It would be easy to say, “BHSEC is the exception to the sexist norms of society” and spend all our time crusading against the rest of the world but, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The problems that feminism has to fight do not belong just to men, society, and the rest of the world. There is a body image epidemic or at the very least a sickness at BHSEC, though by its nature we can’t know the details or scope of it.
It makes sense, really. The emblematic BHSEC student is hardworking and self-motivated and pays close attention to societal assumptions. Furthermore, there’s something of a contagious aspect: as disorders become more and more common, the expectation for how skinny we think we should look gets higher and higher. After all, BHSEC has many very thin girls, and it can be difficult to resist internalizing the pressure to “measure up,” as it were. I’ve struggled with disordered eating myself, and it’s really difficult at a place like BHSEC. At such a body-positive, activism-minded school there’s a sort of paradoxical stigma to falling victim to constructed standards of what pretty should look like when there’s so much pressure to project self love.
When I was practicing some pretty unhealthy habits—restricting my eating and purging—I was terrified of what people might assume. I’d think, “I hope to God no one knows. What would people say?” There were questions I had once asked, before experiencing these habits firsthand: “Why would someone do that to herself just to be pretty?” “Why can’t those people have the strength to not give a fuck what other people think?” and so forth. I’m recovering, but I still wince at the almost evangelical expectations of how we’re supposed to see ourselves. However introspective we are, however critically we examine the media, we can’t be impervious and we shouldn’t blame the victims. BHSEC is a school full of beautiful girls and people looking for ways to channel their stress: some people are going to internalize unrealistic standards. It may seem like it’s an unsolvable problem: nobody is actively putting pressure on girls to be skinnier, so what are we supposed to do about it?
For one thing, we can make an effort to understand and to de-stigmatize the behavior. I am by no means suggesting that we should start to think that eating disorders are okay, but disdaining it is adding insult to injury. Since a large part of the disorder is situated in social pressure, judging people for it is unproductive and potentially hurtful. It may be hard to identify with if you’re a size 0 and can eat two Adinah’s sandwiches in one sitting, but the pressure at such a beautiful-girl-heavy school like BHSEC is real. Even if we can’t make the problem go away, we can at least try to make it less painful by being supportive and sympathetic. This does not mean forcing Oreos on anyone; that only makes things worse. Just listen and commiserate.
The other thing we can do is remember that there’s a lot of work to be done within BHSEC. We don’t have to perfect ourselves before we can look outwards but we should bear in mind that BHSEC is a work in progress. Math classes are still largely dominated by male voices, there are still biases about sexual expression in both directions, and, still, girls feel that they need to meet ridiculous standards to be beautiful. BHSEC is a wonderful place with such a supportive, forward-thinking culture, but, even though we’ll never be perfect, we need to remember to try.
This post was written by an upperclassman at our school, who wishes to remain anonymous.