Wandering around the breathtaking campus full of gaping green lawns and towering white columns, I was proud to know I would call UVA my home for the next four years. Yet, I felt mixed emotions. First, there was a combination of excitement and pride stirring inside me. After all, I threw myself into AP classes, played varsity tennis and cross-country and held offices in a handful of student clubs just to land a spot here.
At the same time, as I looked around at the tan, glowing faces of girls in pearls and dresses, their white teeth smiling cleanly and wrists jingling with gold charm bracelets, I couldn’t help but feel like an intruder. I remember how at our first football game, I wore funky blouse and a plaid skirt reminiscent of Cher’s trademark look in Clueless. I thought I rocked it, but when walking out the door, one of my brand new roommates said, “Is that really what you’re wearing?” So much for expressing myself.
I beat myself up more and more as time weeks passed, and my sense of inadequacy grew to touch pretty much every aspect of my life. In classes, I ducked my head and told myself I would never be as smart as my colleagues. Many went to private schools, and some just seemed naturally gifted. I began to think it was a miracle that I got an acceptance letter in the first place.
I shut down and told myself, “You’re not as good as everyone else.” Whether I was concerned about grades, popularity, socioeconomic status, reputation, romance or even choosing a major, I let my feelings suffocate the optimism I had built up my entire life. Since I felt I couldn’t control my surroundings or smoothly assimilate to my community, I resolved to take charge of one thing I could dictate: my body image.
In my 18 years of life on earth, I had never felt badly about the way I looked. I was a star athlete who played on varsity teams throughout high school. I never dieted. I saw my physical flaws as unique characteristics. Still, practically overnight, that all changed.
When I got stressed about a test, I would go to the gym and work out for hours, trying to sweat the stress away. Instead, I simply made matter worse because I became so tired I would fall asleep early, miss out on bonding experiences with roommates and of course ruin any time I could have spent studying. In a very short amount of time, I became under weight and was always cold, moody and exhausted.
Late one day in my first semester, I was walking home from a history class and felt my knees shake. A high-pitched noise blocked everything else out and I kneeled down on the sidewalk. Feeling light as a feather, I called my roommate and she helped me realize how badly I needed to seek counseling. UVA’s amazing medical team gave me life-changing therapy sessions and introduced me to nutritionists who showed me how food is fuel for health and happiness. It was during recovery that I realized how dangerous my situation had become.
Now, two years later, I am proud to say I know how to tackle emotions head on. Rather than trying to control something like weight or physical appearance, I confront my emotions and seek help when needed. I am so thankful to have woken up from the deceiving la-la-land where I thought I’d never stack up to my classmates. In reality, nothing and nobody is perfect. Even if the people around are pretty and smart, it doesn’t mean they’re flawless.
Instead of making college a competition, I learned to think of it as group project. I now understand the importance of looking out for others and the toxicity of competition, comparison and self-degradation. Most importantly, I learned that just like everyone else, I am good enough.