I vividly remember being a first grader and pinching the fat on my thighs, hating the way that they spread out on the plastic chairs in my classroom when I sat. I was seven at the time, and I already knew what pretty looked like. Pretty was thin and tall and long-haired and well dressed. I was distraught that my thighs did not cooperate and allow me to match this description. But I also know now that I was a very skinny child. In pictures, I looked weedy and lanky; at doctor’s checkups, I was always under the average weight. In middle school, I got hips and my mom told me to “watch what I ate.” I still pinched my thighs, now even more than before. How could I have let myself get even fatter?

I have been unhappy with my appearance for most of my life. I did not think this was strange because all my friends complained too. Everywhere around me were pictures of waif-like models who smiled in size 00 jeans and crop tops, and I was ashamed to pull on a size 4. No one I saw around me looked like this, but I knew they existed somewhere. This is not a new story—most girls went through something similar. Boys also have a analogous experience, surrounding the pressure to achieve a masculine archetype rather than a pretty, feminine one. It seems that no one can ever be a good enough manifestation of their social ideal. 

Now, we live in an age of body positive Instagram posts and bold YouTube feminists. Women post pictures to celebrate cellulite and curvaceous bodies. Men have incredibly popular makeup channels and accounts. “Be Yourself” seems to constitute the motto of our generation. We have transitioned from a world that only appreciated white, blond, toothpick thin models to one that is slowly seeing beauty in people of color, queer people, and fat people. This transition is, of course, not perfect, and there are still individuals who spew hate for those who are physically attractive in unconventional ways. Despite this new allowance for a wider definition of beauty, I still see lines being drawn that cut out vast portions of people. 

We as  humans love to make ideals. We love to create a perfect image for which every member of a culture should strive. This used to be a skinny blond model for women; now it is a thick girl with big boobs, hips, thighs, and butt. The skinny hipster man is now replaced by a hyper-masculine weight lifter. These ideal people may be allowed to be a different race or sexuality or even gender identity, but they are still encircled by specific characteristics for which people yearn. 

We are never happy with just one ideal. Tumblr and Pinterest fans of “thinspo” and “fitspo” (standing for thinsporation and fitsporation) gawked over pictures of ribbon thin women for motivation to work out or starve themselves skinny. Now these same fans fawn over Instagram accounts of fitness models with butt-accentuating squat pictures. The women in thinspo pictures would be ashamed of their flat butts now, whereas two years ago they were flawless. 

Ideals do not merely relate to physical beauty—they are everywhere. There is an ideal for academics, one for gamers, one for pretty much any activity or social group in existence. I imagine the ideal Duke student to attend every party, get perfect grades, be involved in many clubs, look immaculate at all times, and still somehow be sane. A group of people seemingly cannot exist without lifting one or other of its members above the rest as a goal to reach towards. I think we can all agree based on rampant eating disorders, overstressed high-achieving students, and systemized racism that ideals are a pervasive problem.

The true danger of ideals is that they allow only one way to be a person. If you are not existing in a certain manner, you are considered subpar. To be worthy, all time and energy must be spent in the pursuit of one’s specific ideal. We are not all going to be thicc, or swole, or any other standard of perfection. Our time shouldn’t be spent trying to be something we didn’t even decide we wanted, but were told by Instagram or a movie or our friends and parents that we need. There is not only one way to exist and be valuable to society and to yourself. Things might be getting better, but hopping from one ideal to another doesn’t make for constructive change: every ideal leaves people beyond the boundaries of what’s praised. 

People don’t derive their worth from how closely they fit to an ideal that was made by random compilations of trends or antiquated networks of social dominance. Maybe if we spent a little less time telling seven year old girls they aren’t good enough because they have body fat and a little more time celebrating individuality, we wouldn’t need to solve the social issues destroying lives right now. 

Camille Wilder is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.