She was, in many ways, a typical Duke student. She enjoyed her classes, but she was smart, not brilliant. She went out occasionally, but she was at best, cute, not beautiful. She was a member of a sorority, but not one of the top tier. She was, what you could call, a "student leader;" she attended meetings with "Larry" and "Zoila" and "Nicole," and generally knew what was going on on campus. She had the onion-peels-friend structure: the widest layer of natural acquaintances from classes, freshmen dorm, organizations, an inner layer of good friends from different groups, and a small core of intimate friends.
People thought she was self-assured, articulate and together. "Oh you do so much!" they said. Just like every student on campus. No one would have ever suspected she harvested anything but happiness and a prestigious degree from her Duke experience.
She worked hard on that exterior. It was important. Because what no one suspected was the demons that controlled her life, that had ravaged her self-esteem during her four years at Duke. No one realized how she felt from the moment she rolled out of bed to the early morning hours when she hit off the light. Like a failure. "Effortless perfection," the Women's Initiative called it. Female undergraduates wanted "effortless perfection." It was the new catch phrase. She didn't even want effortless perfection. Just perfection. She'd work for it. She wasn't afraid of work. But she was fixated on the ideal, and sooner or later, it all began to come undone.
She'd never been particularly self-critical or low on self-esteem in high school. Like all Duke students, she had made the grade, led the team, won the award, gotten the scholarship. But college was hard on her. She wasn't used to being asked why she would eat two bagels in one day. Or to the competitive acquisition of a new group of friends. Everyone's gotta have a BFF. Someone to call and tell you where the party's at. But wait. We're an odd numbered group, and she doesn't have one. She wasn't used to people thinking her A-minus wasn't good enough, or that wearing sweatpants in public was something to be scorned. She wasn't used to the constant reiteration that she just wasn't good enough the way she was.
So she started to change. It started out small: the desire to fit in with a certain group, to make a certain grade, to get a certain guy, to be more like a certain person. But she wavered on the edge of self-confidence, and the seemingly minute failures began to stack up, layers of bricks in the wall that slowly was pressing all the oxygen out her lungs. Too fat. Too ugly. Too unpopular. Too weird. Too boring. Too unhappy. Too dumb.
Too scared to tell anyone how out of proportion the little failures had become. The little failures, the demon "almost but not quite:" the cookie eaten at 1 a.m., the A-minus on the midterm, the lack of interest following up the date. Failure boxed her in, trapped her in a roomful of mirrors confronting her with her "almost, but not quite" life. The couple holding hands. The anorexic girl buying fro-yo. The accepted job applicant. The teacher's pet.
It was the claustrophobic sense of failure that sent her to the out-of-the-way bathrooms to try to reject as much of her meal as possible without making noise. Eating marred the quest for effortless perfection. Luckily no one asked her how she got the scars on her hand. Her right front tooth, pressing down on the flesh as she thrust her hand to the back of her throat, day in, day out was the only marker of her failure. Fat people are not "effortlessly perfect." She couldn't let the cookie stay in her stomach.
Sense of failure isolated her from her friends. She felt nervy, anxious. She was a senior without career plans, the only non-banker amongst them. She watched them fly to New York and compare interview notes, and she knew she'd never make it in the corporate world. Another failure. Poor people are not effortlessly perfect. She had loans to pay. "So what are you doing next year?" they smiled and asked. "Well?" Nothing. Because she wasn't good enough.
Her lack of interest was a failure. She'd never been anything if not energetic. But now she felt different. Flaccid. Tired. People called it "senioritis." "Oh yes," she laughed, "I'm ready to graduate." But all she wanted to do was go to her room, lock out the world, lie in bed, sleep and not wake up. She didn't want anyone to see her, walking around in the baggy clothes she wore to hide the roll of stomach fat and the swinging thighs she couldn't forget. The grades she couldn't forget, the classes skipped she couldn't forget, the date functions with her girlfriends she couldn't forget. Entering the world meant walking outside to see "effortless perfection" striding across the grass, stepping on the bus, strutting down the runway. It meant seeing the world through the film of inferiority.
So on the outside she smiled and she ran and she led and she studied and she partied and she played the role of "effortless perfection" to the world. But alone in her room she hid and she ate and she threw up and ignored the phone and skipped her classes and all the meanwhile the cancerous lump in her stomach reached out insidious tentacles, poisoning an increasing number of hours, minutes, seconds. Until she started to worry her façade was going to crack. And she would have to commit the greatest failure yet: admitting there was a problem.
But she couldn't trust anyone.
So it became another worry. She worried about telling someone she had a problem. She worried about not telling someone she had a problem. And when she felt the worse, she worried that her roommate was going to have to walk in one day and see that she wasn't there anymore, that all the little failures had been swallowed up in a bowl of bloody water and a pink Wal-Mart razor.
So she reached out in the only way she could: she wrote an anonymous editorial to The Chronicle the week they ran features on the Women's Initiative report, hoping, praying, that they would publish it. So that, no matter what, she wouldn't have failed to let somebody know what the Women's Initiative report never could: what it could be like to be an undergraduate woman on Duke's campus.
This column was submitted to The Chronicle anonymously.
Editor's Note: The Chronicle holds a strict policy against running columns or letters to the editor submitted and/or intended tobe run anonymously. However, we believe the column above is an extraordinary case, and we run it in this space so that those who may recognize this person may help her, and those who know people like her may help them as well. The issues the author raises affect nearly everyone at Duke, directly or indirectly, and we hope this column provokes thought, discussion and, perhaps most importantly, action.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.