Background Noise: Hate to love it: a self evaluation of pop culture taste
I heard “Cake,” by Flo Rida featuring 99 Percent for the first time at a pregame last weekend (am I behind the times?) and discovered yet another reason to hate myself. There are many reasons to hate oneself at a pregame. Simply attending the pregame—calling it a pregame—is enough. As an adult, I can accurately—and legally—attest to the problems alcohol introduces (bloating, crying—I have a lucky boyfriend)! According to Lars, a Danish WordPress commenter, “alcohol is one of the oldest companions of man—and the grandest.” Lars says his pregames begin at 2 p.m. He is a show-off.
The real reason “Cake” struck such a chord of self-loathing in me was because I liked it. A friend introduced the selection with a smile because she knew I would like it too.
“You have to give it a chance,” she said.
We listened as chipmunk voices repeated the word “cake.” By the chorus, I had already begun to dance—I was at a pregame after all.
“I hate how much I like it,” I said.
Now, I’m an intelligent person; I use words like “intertextuality” somewhat correctly. But this scene is all too common. I’m often shocked by my boneheaded pop culture interests. I like crappy songs. I like trashy TV I’ve managed to binge watch—and enjoy—“Dance Moms,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “Project Runway,” “The Jersey Shore” and “The Biggest Loser.” I also like Ke$ha and Sean Paul.
Why do I respond to this crap? Why do I enjoy watching a pregnant Snookie at the shore house? Why do my endorphins go to 11 when I hear “TiK ToK?”
For answers, I turned first to Google, which then sent me to Quora (ugh). Of course, the site managed to offend me instantly, asking “Why do intelligent women watch mind-bogglingly bad TV shows?” The first anonymous commenter cleared the air, claiming, “Intelligence or logic is never given much worth in the lives of women, for them these are not necessary attributes required to lead a happy life.”
I was incredibly grateful Anonymous was able to shed light on my female tendencies, like a secret fairy godmother. Unfortunately, I remained unconvinced. I had known my very intelligent—and very male—father to dabble in both “The Bachelor” and “Dance Moms”—sometimes voluntarily. These supposed “guilty pleasures” could not be pegged only on irrational women. (Periods make us crazy!)
After doing more serious research, I found that most studies cited schaudenfreude, escapism or vicarious embarrassment. We love to watch people spend money! We love to watch people suffer! Wired argued reality TV turned viewers into “virtual anthropologists,” conducting “long, observational ‘ethnographic’ interviews.” Researchers at the University of Bonn claimed reality TV induced empathy, like novels. The “automatic simulation and understanding of the characters’ social suffering” may also be why scripted “reality shows,” such as “The Office,” are so appealing.
About my horrible music taste, the jury was undecided. isitnormal.com (yes, it exists) asked “What happened to music and why is it acceptable to fail so badly at it?” Alternative Press attempted to link musical interest with “intelligence” graphically. Beethoven, Radiohead and the Beatles aligned with higher intelligence; Lil Wayne, Nickelback and Justin Timberlake with lower intelligence. Personally, I like “Lollipop” and “Creep” just the same.
Mic cited a theory I enjoyed called “mere exposure effect,” the notion that hearing something enough will make you like it. The emotional centers in our brains are somehow more active when we hear songs we’ve heard before, even if they don’t suit our musical taste. That’s why songs grow on us. The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” is a prime example of this phenomenon. Hate, to tolerance, to love. The mere exposure effect also works for relationships. So yes, you are settling.
The consensus? Basically, I’m wonderfully inquisitive and—unlike “The Bachelor’s” Corinne—emotionally intelligent. What can I say? I’m attracted to the pedagogic nature of “the real world.” According to “The Daily Mail,” I might also be narcissistic. All jokes aside, these articles were most likely written by those who, like me, fear their bad taste. Articles justify beliefs. So do studies—especially ones with graphs and three authors. Now that I know my bad taste isn’t severely damaging my brain cells, I am content with my decisions. Enough with this fan elitism. Rock on with your trashy selves, after all, “it’s only human natural” (Kevin, “The Office”). Just mix in a documentary once in a while.
Background Noise: Recognizing your inner know-it-all
An unrelated PSA: to whom it may concern, the toilets in Buck have a flush button for a reason. I may not know everything, but I know the unflushed toilet is a fitness epidemic that must be stopped.
Background Noise: The bad beginning: finding sources of optimism for the new year
I read an article recently that depressed me. Of course, I could be referencing any and every article published within the last year, so I will elaborate. It was an Odyssey article.
I assure you I in no way sought out this site nor the articles it contained. I was merely coerced, by a Facebook acquaintance, to a poorly formatted page that told me how twenty is the new thirty. Gosh. A new year is beginning and apparently I’m past my prime.
Perhaps it’s fitting that as I descend into the doldrums of a has-been, the world falls with me. A legitimate doomsday is lurking and Earth, it seems, has given up. CNN’s recent documentary on Obama is titled “The End: Inside the Last Days of the Obama White House.” My dog has picked up the disturbing habit of eating cigarettes off the street (he has also broken into my pill bottles—he is 57 in dog years, and I fear his midlife crisis has heightened). Worst of all, the international community has rung in the new year with a heartbreaking failure, a shameful stab at entertainment: “Sherlock,” season four. “Sherlock”’s team has proved even the greats can fall (though my love for Benedict Cumberbatch burns bright).
The year is off to a thrilling start. Personally, I have developed infections in two ear piercings. Nationally, Donald Trump’s current approval rating wavers between 36% and 43%, lower than any incoming president in recent history (for reference, “Sherlock” season four currently has a 63 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). I’m continually terrified for the future as projected by the media: even grizzly bears have something to fear. I can’t turn on the television or look at Facebook without questioning the intelligence of so many influential adults and/or wanting to toothpick my eyes.
There seems, however, to be a beacon of hope shimmering in the darkness. I am referring to Netflix’s remake of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Though the 2004 film was insufferable, this television rendition is dark and smart and silly—even “Bon Appetit” is covering it (culinary news must be slow). The dark comedy is aimed—theoretically—at kids, but its engagement with what snobs call “metanarrative” attracts older audiences. The series, and its adaptation, prove children’s television can, and should be, both educational and entertaining; silly and dark.
Lemony Snicket was a formative part of my childhood, a sort of peculiar, absent uncle who introduced and defined vital vocabulary words, such as esoteric (“I think it refers to things that aren’t used very much—the things that stay in the refrigerator for a long time”), al fresco (“It means outside, of course”), and adversity (“Count Olaf!”). For those unfamiliar, the series follows three siblings of the Baudelaire family whose parents have died in a fire. Basically, the children spend each book evading their legal guardian, Count Olaf, a villain described simply as a “terrible actor.” The stupidity of the surrounding adults enables Olaf’s repeated cruelty, while the children’s own intelligence facilitates their escape.
Snicket—whose real name is Daniel Handler—created a series that is disturbing and didactic and hilarious. His elaborate descriptions, filled with warnings and spoilers, translate easily into the show’s narration. Of course, the remake is not without flaws—it can be tedious, at times hyperbolic—but it successfully embodies Handler’s unrelenting snark and melancholy humor. The whimsical world does not take itself too seriously, its characters full of marvelous maxims (“Wicked people never have time for reading”).
The show sets mature expectations for its young viewers, rather than dumbing itself down to an assumed level of understanding. The quick-witted trio repeatedly outsmart their apathetic caretakers. They are not only exceptionally talented but caring and observant. They remind us: “the adults won’t take care of anything but we will.”
“The Series of Unfortunate Events” was largely responsible for my love—and appreciation—of literature (“A library is like an island in the vast sea of ignorance”). As a child, the series introduced me to empathy, vocabulary, sarcasm and tragedy. Today, it reminds me how “fierce and formidable” we must be in times of misfortune and uncertainty. I can’t help but link the Baudelaire’s concerns to my own frustration and to the frustrations of those around me—of all ages—who feel powerless as few determine our fate. But perhaps, even if there is “no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle” there can still be hope for a happy ending. To share some Snicket wisdom: “At times the world may seem an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe that there is much more good in it than bad. All you have to do is look hard enough, and what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events may in fact be the first steps of a journey.”
The first episode of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is titled “The Bad Beginning.” But let me be clear. The singing in “La La Land” is bad. 3 Doors Down is bad. “The Bad Beginning” is good. It is very good. It has made me laugh when the world seems dark and think when ignorance abounds.
Background Noise: Writing by the water: making time for passions
One of the most difficult parts about job interviews thus far has been explaining what I did this summer. “What did you do this summer?” is a typical interview question. If you’re an underclassman who has never visited Career Planning, I advise you to “do something this summer” so you can talk about it later. I’ve been asked about summer employment many times, not only by HR representatives, but by family, friends and enemies.
“Did you have an internship this summer?” Usually, they are holding a beverage and we are at some sort of function—mixer, birthday, barbeque.
“Sort of,” I say. “No.”
“Huh?” they ask. “What did you do this summer?”
I twist my hair around a finger and remember this is a nervous habit. Then, I explain how I spent nine weeks on a Canadian island with a small group of biologists. I quickly mention the lack of showers, Wi-Fi and toilets. I tell them I was writing a collection of short stories.
“About what?” they ask. “About birds?”
“No,” I say. “About other things.”
Usually, they nod and I wonder if I should have left the toilet part out. People don’t like to talk about toilets—outhouses especially. Rarely do I elaborate on my writing—my failures, my triumphs. Instead, I change the subject or chew or pretend to be late to something else.
I have trouble telling people I like to write. I’ve always equated the public expression of an interest with the embarrassment of potentially sucking at that interest. So for a while, when anyone asked what I wanted to do—tomorrow, next week, in ten years—I would say I didn’t know. After nine weeks of writing stories, though, I couldn’t keep up the feigned apathy. I wanted to write and I had written. I’d spent six days a week working nine to five—sort of—without any other obligation. Occasionally, I counted tree swallows or baked bread. Once, I helped lift whale bones across the beach. But I would always return, dutifully, to my laptop—my lifeline, my unrelenting tyrant.
I didn’t know if I was going to produce anything decent, or even half-decent. I have a hard-drive full of clumsy stories dating back to elementary school, hundreds and hundreds of stories—including correctly formatted screenplays (feature length) that are blatantly all about me. Still, I’d never spent an extended period of time focusing on one thing. On the island, writer’s block was a recurring fear—along with herring gulls and spiders. I changed opinions on sentences and paragraphs daily. Word by word, I picked apart my stories, splitting them into crumbs. I would write and rewrite and erase and regret, and I would send it all to my boyfriend, in hopes of constructive criticism and/or lavish praise.
The only thing I could bank on was time. I couldn’t screw up time, mostly because I didn’t have a Time-Turner nor access to television. At Bowdoin, I was (am) a calculated time-waster, but on the island, I could be prudent and productive. Improvement meant practice, over and over and over. I was more than lucky to have time—so much time—to write. I didn’t want to waste my first big chance.
Of course, I’ve said things like this my whole life, inspiring myself via popular Goodreads quotes—To live is the rarest thing in the world! —but never internalizing nor following through. On the island, I wrote without distraction, story after story—at least for a while, until my boyfriend mailed me a flash drive of Season 3 of “The Office” and “Zootopia” in Spanish (which I watched, twice, even though I don’t speak Spanish). All good things must come to an end, I suppose.
I won’t pretend I returned transformed. I threw up eight times on a lobster boat. I showered with a plastic bucket next to a muskrat’s home. Naturally, I have a greater appreciation for 21st century amenities and clean socks. But I’m grateful I allowed myself to pursue something I love. Fiction writing rarely seems like a practical endeavor, but practical endeavors are rarely fulfilling. I almost spent my summer as an email-marketing intern for an insurance company. Maybe, I would have networked. Probably, I would have plucked my eyes out. I’m not surprised at the role fiction writing has continued to play in my life, but I’m pleased I’ve allowed myself to embrace it.
Soon, we have vacation; later, graduation (for some, summer break). I have four months left at Bowdoin—which seems at once too few and too many. Four months to cram in everything I haven’t done and everything I should have done and everything I want to do. The big island voice is back, screaming, “Don’t waste it!” There is so much to be anxious about. Sometimes, it’s nice to have something all your own. The small thing you love can be a very big thing—take time for it, make space for yourself. It’s easy to push off quixotic ambitions, but I urge you to welcome them.
Background Noise: In the push for justice, kindness prevails
In 2000, my elementary school organized a mock vote for the Bush-Gore election. I was five and knew nothing about either candidate—except their names, sort of—so I voted for Bush. George Bush reminded me of rabbits; Al Gore reminded me of the Child Catcher (the supporting antagonist of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”). After Bush’s actual election, I saw how dismayed the adults in my life were, and I felt extremely guilty. I was convinced I’d affected the results in some significant way, as if the consensus had depended on my vote. I cried for a few minutes and then forgot all about it.
I assumed I’d have a better voting experience the second time around. Last week, I went alone to Brunswick Middle School and spent all of two minutes casting my ballot. I streamed the election in my room, by myself. I wasn’t overly concerned, mostly because I’d spent weeks assuring my election-obsessed boyfriend that there was absolutely no reason to worry.
“There’s absolutely no reason to worry,” I’d told him, every freaking day. “He can’t possibly win.”
Obviously, I’m no clairvoyant. I should probably stop predicting anything as to avoid jinxing the results. I’ve never considered myself psychically gifted, I’ve just always assumed that basic human rights were at least sort of important to most people. Of course, my surprise is due in part to my privileged ignorance as a white person. Still, I’m horrified that racism and sexism and Islamophobia and homophobia (I could go on) have been validated—no longer just existing, but thriving. Personally, I feel unqualified to discuss political specifics when I have peers more eloquent, informed and diligent than I am. What I can talk about are emotions, because I have them.
Usually, when I’m having a bad week (or two), I sit down in a big chair and open my planner. I love my planner—it’s small and orange and I rarely use it. Often, I’ll find it under a pile of clothes and scribble vague commands inside like “read” or “READ.” Then, I’ll ignore it for three weeks. When I start feeling stressed, I just look at my planner and remember I have the power to put my life back in order.
After the election, I tried to get organized. I was floundering, and I wanted to take back control. I’m an anxious person. I find peace in schedules, in crossing off assignments with red pens. On Saturday, I went to a coffee shop to reflect and revitalize. I ordered coffee. I sat in a big chair with my little planner and watched my boyfriend drink a caramel macchiato. (This is a true story.) Then I tried to make sense of my feelings. I was sad and angry and scared and disappointed and hopeful and ashamed and confused. I wished I was wearing a mood ring.
I hadn’t done anything all week—except eat and sulk—but I was exhausted. I couldn’t focus on anything. I saw a dog who looked like he was smiling—the curled lips, wide eyes—and even though I knew he wasn’t actually smiling, I started to cry. All week, tears seemed to be my automatic response to anything. I would cry without reason—in the library, while sending polite emails to potential employers and professors and grandparents and a friend of a friend who I’d publically stalked on LinkedIn.
To move forward, I’ve looked to the past—instructions from virtually every humanities class. This week last year, I was writing Pet Reviews about my cockatiel, Peter Pan, for money. This week 16 years ago, I was living in general oblivion, particularly regarding politics. I was incredibly lucky to have grown up in a community full of supportive, accepting adults. I did not have to fear for my own safety, nor defend my value as a human being. I did not watch a presidential candidate bully others without reason. I keep thinking about the five-year-olds today who have watched this election through five-year-old eyes—who have understood it through five-year-old brains and felt it through five-year-old hearts. I hate to be gloomy, but this part just kills me.
I do have hope in kindness. Kindness is one thing over which we have total control—treating those around us as allies of the Earth (even if that sounds like the lamest superhero team imaginable). I hope for kindness for each other, and importantly for those who are young and impressionable.
At an interview last month, a man with a cat-sized beard asked me how I want to be remembered when I die. “Sure,” I thought, “I think about this all of the time!” I wanted to explain to him the cases I had prepared for, but instead I just sat there. I couldn’t remember any quotes from famous people, and I’m not good at improvising on the spot (see my previous article).
“I’d like to be remembered for being kind,” I said, eventually. “When it counts and when it’s difficult.”
Then we just stared at each other. I didn’t get the job. Unfortunately, kindness cannot compensate for my lack of quantitative skills. Still, I think it’s more important than anything. Every person deserves empathy and acceptance. I’ve been inspired by the efforts of my peers to spread love and security in the past few days, and I hope we can sustain the push for justice as a community. Please continue to love one another. Please continue to stand up for one another. Please continue to donate to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s name—out of the kindness of your hearts.
Background Noise: Thank you for the rejection: life as a washed-up theater kid
There are those who perform, and there are those who perform well and there are even those who used to perform—well or not—but have since retired, tossed their character shoes into the trash and bid the stage goodbye. I dub this final group Theater Kids, pre-tweens with overbites and too much confidence, who promenade in leotards whilst repeating 16 bars of “Castle on a Cloud” until the notes are almost in key. You saw them at your elementary school, and you probably avoided them.
To my and my parents’ dismay, I am no doubt a washed-up Theater Kid. I pride myself on having encompassed virtually every quality of a Theater Kid—dental struggles included. From a young age, I immersed myself in musical theater, hoping one day I would make it to the Broadway stage (I assumed there was only one). My parents indulged my hobby, my athletic father weeping internally as his young, round daughter chose tap dancing over hockey. I took voice lessons with an opera singer, from whom I stole weekly supplies of mint gummies. I used any excuse to dress up as Annie and talk about “Annie” and sing songs from “Annie.” My brief career in community theater was fervent and intensive, ultimately providing me with an alarmingly neurotic Common App essay.
If you have ever encountered a Theater Kid, you may have noted the courage with which he or she speaks, the jarring aplomb present even while wearing a petticoat. There is a certain self-assurance that accompanies the triple threat of voice, dance and acting lessons. You may be a washed up Theater Kid if you have done, or have attempted to do, the following:
Perfected a Triple Time Step while singing “Be Our Guest” in a sugar cube costume (preferably a full-body spandex suit under a white sparkling box).
Memorized the soundtrack to “Chicago” but never saw the show because the murder and the hanging scene and general excess of lingerie were all PG-13.
Spent a third of your life in a minivan carpool, eating chicken nuggets and trying to belt “No One Mourns the Wicked” louder than the boy next to you.
Worn copious quantities of eyeliner, blush, hairspray, eye shadow, foundation, mascara and lipstick all before the age of 10—and cried during its application.
Quit by age 12 due to external circumstances (a.k.a torment and/or lack of talent).
Theater Kids differ from their successful adult counterparts in both talent and commitment. Theater Kids may experience false hope around the age of eight, when they are cast simply because they will smile on stage while their peers will not. Yet, the fantasy does not last forever. In fifth grade, while cleaning my desk and quietly chanting “The Hills Are Alive,” I was approached by a small classmate who suggested I stop singing.
“You’re really bad,” he said. He had a very little head and I always felt like he should have been born a turtle.
“I was joking,” I said. “That wasn’t my real voice.”
“Yes it was,” he said. “You’re a bad singer.”
Then he walked away. That was that. In middle school, I joined soccer and tried not to launch into involuntary jazz squares. My acquiescence to peer pressure was disappointing yet total.Statistically—I assume—the world is full of washed up Theater Kids—it has to be. There are always far too many children in the ensemble, piled into crowd scenes with the general instruction to “improvise.” I once participated in a version of “Peter Pan” that featured over thirty Lost Boys. Directors are often polite enough to cast these young ensemble members with actual names, so each feels her part is important (common examples include “City Youth” or “BLANK’S Daughter”). There are rarely any lines accompanying these roles, rather the intention is to add dimension to the world—like brush strokes shading a portrait’s nose. I am lucky to have played a range of designated inanimate objects (primarily utensils), a host of animals (favorites include a football pad-wearing lion and an elephant on trial for murder), as well as the complex role of The Color Blue.
I often wonder where my fellow washed up Theater Kids have gone, who they have grown up to be. I have also often wondered: what now? What use is this stellar annunciation, these memories of watching colonial townswomen swear and smoke cigarettes? Why did I take 11 years of dance lessons? The answers are still unclear.
Maybe I’m caught up with what’s left behind, the memories of formative moments. Maybe I’m regretting insecurities. Probably, it’s not that corny. I think everything ties back to rejection. I’ve learned, through theater, to fail over and over. I’ve learned to laugh at myself, and at others. How can I possibly take myself seriously when I’ve played the role of a sugar cube? As a senior, rejection is everywhere. The bubble of Bowdoin has stretched and grown tense, but I’ve learned how to handle it. Humor is crucial to my sanity.
Theater Kids lurk everywhere. Most likely, “Hamilton” has brought them out of hiding. If any are reading: let’s start a massage train, suck lozenges and watch “Broadway’s Lost Treasures”—a 2003 ode to forgotten musicals—narrated by Angela Lansbury. I’m also always up for Zip Zap Zop. Because we all have time for that.
Background Noise: True crime: cruel but educational
My favorite iPhone app is Podcasts. I had no idea it existed until a few months ago, mostly because I throw all the useless default apps (Stocks, Tips, etc.) into a folder on a screen I never swipe to. However, now that I am 21 and quasi-mature (I mean, I used the word quasi!), I’ve become more sensible, more learned. You know, the Podcasts type.
A quick background: I’ve always had a hard time falling asleep. I’ve tested and rejected numerous sleep-inducing solutions with little success. Then, a few months ago, I opened Podcasts by accident and found my fix.
The problem is I don’t like just any podcast. I like a story. Thus, I quickly found my way to true crime. In case you’re unfamiliar, true crime is a nonfiction literary and film (and podcast!) genre in which authors examine actual cases. It sounds geekier than it is—sort of.
I go back and forth debating whether my interest in murder investigations is psychotic or uber-empathetic. I fall asleep to horror stories and play them at the gym. I admit, my curiosity has morphed to fascination through a simple progression: first the podcasts, then the podcasts about the podcasts (yes, these exist), then the Netflix documentaries and the CBS mini-series—you see what I mean.
It’s a good time to be a true crime addict, because everyone with cash and a camera seems intent on following homicide court cases. Over the past few years, true crime has saturated the media via Netflix (“Making a Murderer,” “Amanda Knox”), HBO (“The Jinx”) and, of course, podcasts (“Serial” etc.). There’s also been a rise in realistic crime fiction. For example, HBO’s “The Night Of.” I could also mention the fascination with crime novels such as “Gone Girl,” “The Girl on the Train,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or “The Woman in Cabin 10” (crazy girls!), but I’d rather wear a bionator again (think: retainer but less glamorous).
There is no lack of media frenzy. The internet seethes with opinionated viewers, equally uninformed and passionate. “Amanda Knox” is “your next TV obsession,” “Making a Murderer” “arrived at the perfect time.” The blend of entertainment and crime has become so complex and problematic—but I still want to listen.
It turns out a lot of professionals have studied the emerging fixation on true crime. First, there’s the whole Freudian interpretation of “schadenfreude,” the pleasure derived from other people’s suffering. I don’t particularly love this one. Then there’s Dr. Howard Forman’s explanation that the trend is “rooted in empathy.” Forman, a psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center, links his reasoning to the overwhelming popularity of true crime amongst young women, and data seems to agree with him. For example, the popular true crime podcast “Sword and Scale” has a 70 percent female audience. The lure of popular true crime only intensifies with women suspects—as seen in the case of Amanda Knox—a young woman convicted of murdering her roommate. The shock of the female killer who may or may not have been the “mastermind behind group sex orgies” grabbed attention. Journalist Nick Pisa admits to covering Knox far more than others accused because “there was no interest” in the male suspects.
Associate Professor of Criminology Scott Bonn of Drew University claims that “serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks or natural disasters.” He adds that true crime “allows us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real.”
So we like rubbernecking, indulging in guilty pleasures at the expense of other people. Real people—because that’s what’s easy to forget. The “characters” seen and heard from are not characters at all. The cases we puzzle over are not invented. We have dramatized crime into a performance—a strange blend of fiction and reality.
Of course, media coverage is not always detrimental. Many of the documentaries have worked to free suspects who were subjected to mistreatment and wrongful convictions. Adnan Syed was granted a new trial after podcasts reviewed crucial findings in his case. The directors of “Amanda Knox” claim the film aims to “understand from a human point of view what it would feel like … to be caught up in these events and circumstances.” Still, I have the privilege of listening to someone else’s tragedy for entertainment, which is pretty horrifying. I am aware of the monster I’m feeding. In some ways, true crime is cruel—in others, it’s educational. It’s also terrifying, because there is always the fear that it could happen to you.
It’s a lot to think about. Maybe if you can’t fall asleep, try a podcast and decide for yourself.
Background Noise: Breaking up with the treadmill, making dates with weights
Here is a fact: there are some environments in which I feel less comfortable than others, on and beyond campus. Some of this discomfort is based in reality, while some, I admit, is due to my underlying insecurities and/or narcissism. Over the past three years, I have accumulated a catalog of places I take extra care to avoid—for example, Baxter House. Until last year, the weight room of Buck Fitness Center topped my list, forbidden for countless reasons, most of which related to my gender and athletic ability.
By the time I was a first year at Bowdoin, I had fostered a lengthy and destructive relationship with the treadmill (it’s complicated). Four years of cross country and food-based anxiety had inspired an unhealthy devotion to cardio. College meant trying something new. At the time, something new meant wearing eyeliner and having guy friends and also—if I summoned the audacity—picking up a dumbbell.
I tried on multiple occasions to visit the basement of Buck. Once or twice, I made it halfway down the stairs before freezing and turning around (there is a particular step where you can survey the space and retreat to the elliptical before anyone at the squat rack sees you). Dismayed, I spent the next two years familiarizing myself with the main floor: rekindling my cardio flame, sprawling on the blue mats and the foam rollers when I didn’t know what else to do. I was afraid of weight lifting and how it would shape my body, but I was also afraid of walking into the room.
I gave lifting a second chance the summer after my sophomore year. That spring a Crossfit box had opened up in my town. I knew enough about Crossfit to laugh at it every time I drove by, but I was also secretly interested. My dad decided to sign up because he was athletic and because he felt like it. I also signed up because I felt like it, though I assured everyone outside of my family that I had joined against my will. I spent the summer learning how to throw weights over my head without breaking my shoulders. I also met a variety of kind, strong women who could clean more than their bodyweight (I was just using the bar).
At Bowdoin, my anxiety with Buck sometimes feels silly. Female athletes are abundant, brilliant and respected—yet for someone who is not an athlete, the weight room can feel off-limits. These insecurities may seem like petty “me” problems—and of course to an extent they are—but gender does play a role in the gym. According to psychologists from Amherst College and Swarthmore College, weight lifting is a “form of exercise that is specifically beneficial for women but often avoided by them.” Even today, the perceived “masculine body ideals prescribe strength, while feminine body ideals prescribe thinness. These divergent gendered body ideals demand divergent exercise regimens…Weight lifting seems to be highly gendered.”
As an adolescent, I saw weight rooms packed with men. I saw rows of women reading magazines on the elliptical. Of course there were and are exceptions, but the overwhelming implications from my surroundings and the media seemed to scream “you don’t belong in the weight room!”
Growing up, I developed warped notions of what it meant to be fit. My high school cross country team spent a total of one hour in the weight room over a span of four years. We worked with a nutritionist who told us 1,200 calories a day could sustain us. We didn’t know the benefits of strength training, how lifting weights improved not only metabolism and bone mass but also mental health. Studies show that only seven percent of women use free weights as part of their exercise routine. Studies also show that fears of “bulking up” through weightlifting are “largely unfounded.” But even if they weren’t, why should women fear strength?
It is impossible to know what is healthy and realistic when fitness trends change arbitrarily. I am not certified to give anyone advice about anything, but neither are most people on the Internet. According to Gwyneth Paltrow’s trainer, women should never lift more than three pounds. By this logic, a woman should avoid lifting her own child for fear of bulking up.
I don’t know what is right or wrong when it comes to exercise, but I do know that it should be enjoyable. I also know that discomfort should not prevent me, or anyone, from trying something new. We spend time and energy at war with our bodies when they simply need us to love them. In the basement, I feign confidence; I play my music loudly and remind myself to be kind to my body, to be patient and satisfied. These are small things, but sometimes small things are important.
If you are even considering branching out at the gym, I suggest you do it. I have learned that people are much more focused on themselves than anyone else. Maybe you will drop a weight on your foot or stare at a machine for 15 minutes before you understand how to use it. Maybe your phone will fall off the elliptical and your neighbors will watch as you maneuver your way back to it. This is all fine. Make mistakes, loud mistakes. I guarantee the person next to you will be more concerned with her cameltoe or how much his back is sweating.