Watch the roads around campus for any length of time and you’ll see them.
Usually there’s just the one; other times it’s a pair and sometimes even a whole pack of runners, pounding the pavements. Visit the College of William and Mary Student Recreation Center, and you’ll see more, arranged in neat rows with the same intense expressions: half-open mouths and glistening foreheads.
One of the things that struck me upon coming to the College is how seriously many students take their physical fitness. On the one hand, this is not a bad thing, as the combination of three all-you-care-to-eat meals a day and many sedentary hours spent studying can certainly take its toll on one’s waistline. Equally, a lot of students play sports, which require serious time and effort on the road and in the gym in order to stay competitive. However, I can’t help thinking that a lot of this exertion is motivated by a shared sense of insecurity about our bodies as much as it is by a rational desire to be fitter and healthier.
Take this for example: I recently overheard someone talking about how he had seen a friend out jogging. His immediate reaction to this was to say that it made him feel bad about himself. Even though this may have been said in jest, it still gets to the heart of what is dangerous about this collective desire for physical betterment. Rather than being happy that his friend was out getting fit, the student felt that what he saw reflected poorly on him and made him feel inadequate.
Seeing so many perfectly proportioned athletes strutting about campus can be similarly intimidating, forcing us to look critically at our own bodies and what we put on our plates at lunch — even though we may never be able to look like them, nor would it be healthy for us to try.
I, too, am guilty. I run and use the gym as much for my physical appearence as to improve my soccer skill and maintain a healthy level of fitness. When I was out jogging recently I was particularly annoyed by a shirtless student who overtook me with such galling ease. In fact I was so disconcerted by the echoing sound of my own footfalls that, at one point, I sped up to a manic pace thinking that there was another runner behind me and that I’d be damned before I let someone else get past. This was when my running stopped being about physical fitness or even appearance, and became about ego and my unwillingness to accept that there are people on this campus who can run faster than I can. This is an example of when fitness becomes unhealthy.
This is not to say that being motivated by those around you to get slimmer is a bad thing. Human beings by their very nature are driven to compete whether it be your classmate’s grade point average or his score on “Call of Duty.” The most important thing to keep in perspective is that friendly competition should drive you to perform better, not to feel inferior. College is a time for many students to reach a level of fitness that they may never again attain, so we shouldn’t let that pass us by.
However, next time you get on the treadmill or pick up a dumbbell it is worth remembering why you’re doing it. Is it because your environment has created an unrealistic standard of bodily perfection? I encourage all students, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, to “leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.” However, it is important to keep in mind that while college is great place for self-improvement, it should also be a place where you can feel comfortable in your own skin and be free of superficial scrutiny.
E-mail Tim MacFarlan at firstname.lastname@example.org.