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Pursuing an image vs. developing an identity

When I think back to myself as a first-year, taking my first steps on campus, I think of her as a completely different girl and yet the exact same one. She was enthralled with Duke, so set on trying to figure out the culture and how to fit herself into it that she didn’t even pause to ponder whether or not all of its standards and social expectations were something she actually wanted to conform to in the first place. That first semester I remember taking in what I saw immediately around me—the work hard, play harder personas being projected—and thinking that was college, that was Duke, and figuring out how to work within this one-dimensional environment would either make or break me.

So I adopted an up-for-anything state of mind and ventured into a world far different from the one I’d been a part of in high school. I clung onto the first things that made their way toward me, even those that weren’t necessarily good for me. All the while, that little voice inside my head sent me messages like “I don’t know if I feel comfortable with this,” which I opted to block out. I thought it was nothing more than my natural high school disposition, a follow-every-rule-to-a-T and be-the-All-American-girl-everyone-expects-you-to-be default setting, trying to hold me back from stepping outside my comfort zone or doing anything remotely controversial.

In some ways, this take was correct. I needed to overcome the anxiety I felt over how I was being perceived by every single person around me and whether I’d earn their approval. But that internal voice was there for another reason, too. It was speaking for an identity deeper within me, counseling that “you become the things you surround yourself with, and you need to be careful.” While this was a good point, it was overpowered by a stronger fear inside my gut, dictating that “if you don’t go out a certain number of times, if you don’t drink more, if you don’t hook up with more guys—you will be left behind.” And this fear was more constant, posing questions on the daily. How would I prove to the girls in my hallways that I was worthy of their friendship? How could I ensure I would have a worthwhile story to tell at Sunday morning Marketplace brunch? So I continued trying, and failing, to jam myself into this mold, leaving some pretty intense bruising on the parts of me that would not budge.

It was these frustrating, disruptive, beautiful parts that led me to realize, with time, that this standard I thought I was meant to strive for, and the dominant narrative in which it was contextualized, was not the full truth. It was just one way of being, in one facet of the University culture. And then it hit me: there is more than one Duke. Consequently, there is more than one standard of acceptance. I just had to be willing to look a little harder, be a little more patient and trust that voice a little more.

That voice was telling me that I needed to develop an identity, not pursue an image. An image is something one must constantly strive for, a process that transforms us from human beings into “human doings.” We fall into patterns of I will be happy when I _________ (get into med school, reach this weight, catch so-and-so’s attention), which tries to create proof that we are winning… whatever it is we are supposed to be winning. Our daily checklist can force even grabbing lunch with friends to feel like something to scratch off the list. We create a system by which we are trying to create a sense of self out of grade point average, Instagram likes and other forms of academic and social capital. In contrast, an identity is something we take on when we recognize that we are enough as we are now. It is something we are simply by being and living in the moment—no proof or validation necessary because it doesn’t have to measure up to standards defined by anybody other than ourselves. The biggest difference is that an identity is permanent, while an image can only be achieved in brief moments. We reach it and embody it, but then the moment shifts or the image alters and we fall back into hot pursuit. It’s exhausting, like running on a treadmill that only goes faster. I was on this treadmill at a dead sprint until I asked myself: “Why does it matter how fast I can run if I’m not actually making ground?"

In my situation, this metaphor applied on both an abstract and an objective level. I was obsessing over my weight, using any spare time I could find to hit the gym. I needed to look a certain way to feel in control because so much of how I defined myself was based on how well I fit into the image for which I was striving. Failing to fit this image actually felt like a loss of self. If only I’d known that I feared this lack of “control” because I’d convinced myself that breaking from this pursuit would mean certain chaos, when in fact it meant freedom. Freedom to ask myself more important questions than “why did I eat that extra helping?" but rather “what makes me, me?” It was this shift from pursuing an image to developing an identity that allowed me to switch my internal dialogue from “who am I supposed to be?” to “who do I want to be?”

This isn’t meant to be some self-aggrandizing speech about how I “figured it all out”—that in itself would be reinforcing the concept of a perfect image I wish to negate. There will always be parts of me that want to press the speed button up a bit on the treadmill and willingly chase that image. These are the same parts of me that want to measure up to the girls in bodycon dresses walking around Shooters or the figures on the magazine covers in the grocery store checkout. But I’ve come to understand that we have somewhat of a choice in choosing the criteria by which we determine our own self worth, so why not push towards something that’s more inclined to make us feel good about ourselves?

Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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