This is the first piece in Eleanor Michotte’s new column, “Crit from the Brit.” Eleanor will be sharing some astute observations from someone raised across the pond, chiming in to tell us when Yale is doing tea, sex, or empire wrong (and also sometimes other things too). Enjoy!
The English are incapable of exercise. It’s true: They proved it on “Mythbusters.” Ninety-four percent of our population suffers from a congenital weakness of the spine, which makes vigorous activity both painful and unpleasant. This is why we only excel at sports that can be performed sitting down — think cycling and riding — or are very, very slow, like cricket. We once played an 11-day match against South Africa. And we didn’t even win.
As a result, England has developed a laissez-faire attitude to all things bodily. We’re a nation of slightly soft tummies, of things that jiggle a little when we walk down the stairs. And hey, that’s all right by us. We coined the phrase “muffin tops” (back in your box, Jenna Maroney), and we’ll definitely enjoy that extra slice of toast, comfortable in the knowledge that absolutely everything tastes better than skinny feels.
I was told that you do things differently over here. You go in for juice cleanses and interval training and that sort of thing. But freshman year was largely the same as things are back home. Yes, I suddenly encountered people who work out. I even had the occasional sighting of that rare breed, the 6 a.m. runner. Still, most Yalies seemed sane. It was a year of Insomnia and FroCo food, of laughing about the freshman 15 at the week’s third Yorkside pit stop.
Here’s what was not the same: the freshman 15. Not the weight gain, the expression. Why does no one ever talk about this? Isn’t it weird that that term was invented, the weight gain quantified, brought up over dessert? Isn’t it a little concerning last year’s Spring Fling tanks broadcast a neon warning against the shame of putting on some weight?
This pathological need to keep up appearances was what was new to me. It’s something that I think is bred into upper-middle-class America, where chronic laziness is bred into my culture. Let me tell you, the rest of the world does not teach kids from the age of 14 to go to the gym as often as they brush their teeth. We have plenty of quirks about bodies, sure, but show me a university campus anywhere else in this hemisphere that is so neurotic about fitness that it has built a gym literally unrivaled in size.
But you know what? I’ve started to come around. Until last winter, I actually thought spinning classes were something involving wool. I was confused as to why they were held in Payne Whitney. Now I’m in one. And that’s great — I’ll probably live 20 years longer and mother children with an extra 30 IQ points.
What’s not so great is that, at the same time, I’ve seen this campus’s attitude towards bodies ravage those around me. I can’t tell you how many girls I know who lived a little freshman year, then came back to Yale in August approximately the width of my left toe. Boys too, but it’s girls whose metabolisms have started grinding to a halt, so they’re the ones I’ve seen taking drastic measures. Where last year they ate desserts, this year they pick at salads. Where last year they glammed up and went out, this year they get dressed, comment on how fat they look, change twice and run 7 miles the next morning.
And what’s really not so great about this is that it’s started to get to me. I never used to worry about how my jeans looked. I never used to know how many calories make up a pound, nor how many cookies will add one to my ass. And I don’t like it.
This year, it’s become ever-clearer to me that for gym-going America, being around Yalies is like drinking on antibiotics. We collectively venerate each other’s bodies whilst hating our own. We gratuitously judge peers’ behinds when describing crushes or hook ups; ours, we shamelessly exploit to elicit begrudging affirmation.
We ask so much of ourselves here: We demand perfection from every part of our lives. Which is one thing when you’re fighting to do well in a class — it’s quite another when you’re fighting with your own flesh, trying to pare it down to a tacitly institutionalized ideal. The problem is that both stem from the same source. Yalies got to where they are because we’re fiercely competitive people. Our bodies tell the story of that culture, and, American or not, it’s a culture we’re all complicit in building.
I hear the royal wedding didn’t get much airtime here. Here’s something to chew on: When Kate Middleton married Prince William, she, like half the sophomore class, suddenly lost a lot of weight. No one recognized her; everyone was talking about it. As those now-spindly little legs clicked over yet another two-page spread, people would sigh, “She looks so American now.” They might as well have said, “She looks so Yale now.”