Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The freshman fifteen and the art of imagining other people

Photo by Jennie Faber

The girl who wrote the freshman-fifteen “contract” penned it on colored paper in swirly writing. The rest of us sat around the dorm room and gave suggestions. Mainly our goal was to limit intake of the tempting cafeteria treats: two desserts per week at maximum seemed reasonable. We discussed whether a bowl of sugary cereal at night was permissible, and whether the morning muffins should be considered cupcakes. We made silly exceptions for having just finished a paper or being on your period. We composed the whole thing in awkwardly pretentious language, and called the freshman fifteen something like the “score less five of our inaugural year.”

I was giggling. We were in our second week of college, and I was already beginning to feel that I had friends. The freshman fifteen was of no major concern to me—I viewed myself as thin enough and had somehow made it through high school without much insecurity regarding my body. The whole affair, for me, was a light-hearted attempt to forge sisterhood with those girls on my hall.

It was only later, much later, that I looked back in regret, realizing how some of those present struggled with disordered eating habits or body image issues. They must have felt so self-conscious. How silly and insensitive it was to joke about something that weighs so heavily on many.


I try to be more aware, now. When I speak, I consider the possible life stories of those in the room.

On mother’s day, for example, there may be someone present who is estranged from her mother, or someone who just lost hers, or someone who has been trying for years to have a child, or someone who was too young when she became a mother.

In any party or church lobby gab session, there may be someone in the circle who is an alcoholic, or someone whose brother committed suicide, or someone who does poorly in school, or someone whose child/uncle/best friend is gay, or someone who can’t afford the vacations everyone else is bragging about.

Being aware and sensitive doesn’t mean being unwilling to engage controversial topics directly and honestly. I am happy to take the time to sit down and talk about my experiences or my political or religious views. I am happy to lay it all out and be challenged.

But I try not to make assumptions. I avoid off-handed comments that could hurt someone. I don’t make a “your mom” joke when there might be someone without a mother. I don’t complain about gaining weight when there might be someone around with an eating disorder or a thyroid condition. I skip the snarky comments about the military when there might be someone around whose child is in a combat zone.

I fail half the time, of course, and put my foot in my mouth.

After all, there is no end to the lists we might make, the possible life experiences held compositely by our circle of acquaintances. I can’t walk around on tiptoes all the time, second-guessing my every remark.

But I can carry language delicately, knowing it is both an artist’s tool and a sometimes weapon. I can speak plainly and with authenticity. I can avoid sarcasm and flippancy. And I can continue listening to people’s stories, because as I listen, the stories slowly lodge in my heart, and I begin to imagine what it would be like to be someone besides myself. I grow in awareness and empathy and love.

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