I spent the majority of my childhood cultivating a talent that would define me into early adulthood. When I was seven or eight years old, I was a voracious dancer, and completely in love with performing. I flaunted my talent at every opportunity and cultivated my technique with dedication and enthusiasm. I was optimistic enough to design a life around ballet, and soon I joined the ranks of other aspiring ballerinas in a pre-professional high school program. My very admission to the program was a mark of my talent. It said, “I am a dancer.”
I will not romanticize my experience as a dancer or a high school student. The experiences I had in casting calls and daily technique classes were detrimental to my self-esteem. During my second semester in the program, I forced myself to lose twenty pounds even though I was perfectly healthy. I covered mirrors in my room with blankets so I wouldn’t look at myself. I spent extra hours conditioning and loading books onto my feet to make them more flexible. My teachers and fellow classmates expressed concerned for me, but I brushed their comments off because they failed to see that everything I was doing was to become better—to prove that I was valuable.
I know now that my actions were irrational, and the product of mental illness. Eating disorders are stock examples of irrational overcompensation. I wasn’t technically apt to be cast in major productions yet, but some anatomical obstacles to “perfect” technique were out of my immediate control: poor rotation in my hips, hyperextended legs, a bone spur on my left talus, years of bad habits engrained into my musculature. Instant, dramatic change was not an option for my technique, so I invented a variable that I could control: my weight. If I counted calories, worked out, and hid from my reflection, I would become a professional overnight, right?
My experience with an eating disorder is not the focus of this article, but my experience with assigning my self-worth is. For me, disordered eating was the first memorable byproduct of my skewed perception of reality. I truly believe that as a child, twirling around in a ballet studio without a scrap of coveted “technique”, I understood the world and my place in it better than I do now. I placed what I loved at the center of my life rather than what I wanted to be good at, or what I thought would earn me power, money, and respect. I ran to the dance studio each night, excited, and called myself a dancer. I had love and purpose. I had value.
But where am I now, one ankle surgery and many years later? Honestly, very, very confused. I am sitting at my desk and steaming about value because I feel that I have none. The moment I left my high school, I lost a massive chunk of my identity. I lost a lot of it in the form of bone and tissue on the operating table, but I lost even more when I announced “Liberal Studies” as my major instead of “Dance”. The first time happened during my summer research program, and although the words were liberating, they scared me to death. Who was I without dancing?
I never clung to dance as my identity in high school. Actually, I fought it. I was the person going to college a year early, I was the straight-A student, I was the one who would rather be reading a textbook. I wasn’t another “bunhead” – I didn’t want the stigma. Our ballet teachers told us during our daily tendús: “There are a thousand other girls waiting to take your place. You are disposable.” We lined up like cardboard cutouts in the corps de ballet. We needed to look exactly the same, down to the middle parts in our buns. We were ballerinas in an army with a hundred replacements waiting for the next girl to fall. I didn’t like that. I danced because I loved the way movement felt in my body and the way it allowed me to express myself — not because I liked being swan #59.
Academics were what made me different. I loved them, truly, almost to the same degree I used to love dancing. I pulled qualities from the universal shelf, piling them into my identity shopping cart: intelligence, motivation, creativity, success, grace, talent. The list went on. Each test I took and paper I wrote became an extension of that identity. Each A was a validation; each standardized test was an anxiety attack. High praise and high test scores bought me a new identity: “student.” Soon, I began designing a new future centered around earning a degree and a high-paying job. I applied to early college programs and set my new career plan in motion.
I cried when I opened my acceptance letters. I was one of around twenty high school juniors selected to attend the Honors Program at University of Southern California and was accepted to the Honors Program at Clarkson University. There were spots for me. Somebody had read my condensed autobiography on the Common Application and decided that I was worth their time. They saw value somewhere in between my GPA and personal essays. Somehow, when I was laid out on an application, piece by piece, I added up to a worthwhile whole. The schools weren’t accepting swan #59 — they were accepting me, Bridget, and all of my quirks, interests, and dreams. I mattered.
So why do those acceptance letters feel so empty three months into college? Obviously my worth hasn’t decreased since I opened them. I still have all of my accomplishments from high school under my belt, and more. I’m still making straight As. I had an internship at a hospital this summer. I presented research at a conference. I published content for a major medical institution.
I still have pictures of me in tutus and pointe shoes, leaping through city streets and waltzing across marley floors. I can do a split. I like to think I carry myself like a dancer—that there’s some fundamental grace in the way that I move. Dancing isn’t my dream anymore, but an academic career is, and I’m moving towards that dream. So why do I feel like a failure?
The moment you allow your environment to define your worth, you are losing. Anything, in the greater context of the world, is worthless. The universe values nothing—it just is—and ballet was right when it taught me that everyone is replaceable in the professional world. College applications taught me that too, or at least I thought they did until they sailed acceptance letters into my mailbox. But that whole acceptance process is so trivial, isn’t it? My blood pressure rises every time someone reminds me of the admissions officers crowded around a table, picking out which Caucasian female fits best into their diversity equation. I was elated to finally have an affirmation to peg my value on. I imagined a thought bubble hovering above someone’s head in the admissions office as they read over my application as if they were God, exclaiming, “She’s amazing! I bet she doesn’t even know how amazing she is! I want her in our freshman class!”
I thought that every struggle and every doubt I ever had would add up to this great personal victory when the world finally saw what I had seen in myself the whole time. But what did I actually see in myself if I looked to others for validation? Room for improvement. Bad hips. Too much body fat. I saw test scores that didn’t reflect my true performance. The thirty multiple choice questions I guessed on. The vomit I choked back before I arrived to the testing site.
Every time I think of my failure to value myself, I think of this wrung out, cliché relationship advice: “You can’t love someone else unless you love yourself first.” I hate it, honestly, because the people who usually say it are distant blondes who wear a lot of rings and plaster inspirational quotes over cropped National Geographic photos before pinning them to their “Inspiration” board on Pinterest and accidentally wind up in the same room as you when you receive some devastating news and they begin blurting Nicolas Sparks bullshit to compensate for their discomfort. Or maybe that’s just how I imagine those people to be, because come to think of it, I’ve never had that experience in my life.
I have seen that quote online numerous times, and it always gets to me because it makes me think, “Do I love myself? Do I? I think I do. I love other people… Do I really love them though? Will I ever love? Will I ever feel? Oh my g—”. It’s bad. When I dip into my well of self-love and self-respect, I come up dry. I practice little to none of either of those things because I’ve built a life around pushing myself to be better. But at the same time, I feel like I love so much. I love my friends beyond words and respect them even more. I know that they love me too. I remember maybe two minutes after opening my acceptance package to USC, one of my best friends called me and cried with me. There was a moment of synergy as he told me how proud of me he was, and I agreed with every word.
Maybe it is in these pockets of mutual value that we can truly love others. But that sentence just sounded like a Pinterest quote and I’m not here to talk about true love like some #deep sap so I’m just going to leave that there. Love does run alongside value, though. Love became the pillar of humanity the second mammals evolved to take care of their young. We need love—we can’t not love—and we need value too. If we don’t value something in our lives, then what keeps us going? Maybe we value Nutella, or the way the air hangs in late summer afternoons that sings of Fall. Whatever it is, it keeps us going. I don’t believe that you have to love yourself to love other people or things; I think you love in whatever way you can and hope that one day, that love transfers over.
There are pitfalls to this way of life, though. All you really have 100 percent of the time is yourself. Friends come and go, you move across the country, people die, careers die, laptops die, winter sets in, the grocery store runs out of Nutella, and suddenly you’re stuck with nothing but your own self-loathing to keep you company. You have despair. Is that really a way to live?
After my dancing career ended, I convinced myself that I loved medicine. I do love medicine; I think it’s fascinating and I hope to continue interacting with it (on the provider end) throughout my career. However, my “decision” to love medicine and go to medical school was rash and reactive. It was simply a way to give myself direction and a new reason to wake up each day and work hard. It was an outlet for value—for my own potential value—because if I earned a medical degree, nobody could say I was worthless. Well… except maybe myself.
Freshman chemistry and biology slapped me out of my misdirected career path and reminded me that I prefer the humanities. I think I knew all along that medicine wasn’t for me, but it was hard to let go of. The second I let go of medicine, I had nothing. I heard the echoes of countless people asking, “What are you going to do with that Liberal Arts degree? Work at McDonald’s?” Worst of all, I heard myself. I’m doing things the smart way--I’m going to major in Liberal Studies but do pre-med at the same time… He got a degree in History? How is he going to find a job?… Don’t worry, I have the next ten years of my life mapped out... The words were crippling, and it didn’t help that I have to hear them daily at a STEM school.
I would like to preface these next few statements by saying that Clarkson University is not a bad school. In fact, it is a fantastic school. I have met wonderful people here, and worked with wonderful professors. However, it is a STEM school that largely prides itself on job placement and cutting edge research. It is a school at which people dress in fake McDonald’s uniforms for Halloween and say they’re alumni of a Liberal Arts School. I have been the butt of many jokes about Liberal Arts Majors, and have looked over massive career fairs where companies are hiring everyone but me. The world wants engineers; I get it.
But where does my value lie then, at this STEM school with a 70:30 ratio of males to females in the freshman class? I’m a female! I’m a rare commodity in this sea of men. I’m super valuable, right? Yes, of course. But remember when I mentioned that things aren’t valuable unless someone assigns them value? Nobody receives the benefit value of being a female if they aren’t offering sex to the other 70 percent. That’s fine, I don’t need that benefit. That just makes me like everyone else, and they’re all valuable too. Wait, right, I don’t really like sports or burgers or Family Guy (excuse the mass, sexist generalization, but even if it is a generalization, it’s partially true and I’m not receiving any benefits in that realm).
So I have myself. I have myself, and my friends from high school, and my family, and my cats, and anime, and Kpop, and… Oh? I’m “weaboo trash” for liking anime and Kpop? Although most of the times people make this comment they’re joking, their comments and perceptions still carry weight. My personal interests are incredibly taboo, and I understand that. I used to think people who liked those things were weird and annoying too. But funnily enough, I happen to connect with and enjoy both anime and Kpop greatly now. A few animes have gotten me through some tough times, and some incredibly close friendships have sprung out of animes too. Because of this, I value my interests highly, and I value my friends who share those interests highly. When my interests are trivialized as “trash” because society depicts them as perverted, strange, and unhealthy, it hurts. The comments devalue me, my interests, and my friends.
I do not want to attack people for their offhand comments about anime or Kpop because that’s a completely different essay, but I do want to point out the harm in stigmatizing things people value. There is stigma everywhere in our society, and it surrounds numerous “cultures” that make people uncomfortable or unite them against a common enemy. Take bronies, for example: adult, male fans of My Little Pony. These men are often typed as perverted, creepy, or mentally ill, but they aren’t. Maybe a few are, simply because there are always a few people who fit every stereotype, but most of them just enjoy the show. The show talks about friendship, courage, and strength. How would it feel to have something you deeply connect with stigmatized because it’s “feminine,” and then be typed as a pervert or a creep? If you said “terrible,” then you’re right. (While I’m on the topic of bronies, I highly recommend checking out the documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony if you’d like to learn more about brony culture and the stigma surrounding it.)
Even though cultures surrounding anime and My Little Pony receive tons of backlash, people still carry on and proudly wear their merchandise. But what gets them through the hatred? Value. The value of the worlds and characters that they love, and the values those characters instill in their viewers. Taboo interests are difficult to come to terms with, and they can make it even more difficult to accept yourself. Especially when society blatantly shames your culture and interests, it’s hard to stare stigma in the eye and love yourself anyways. If bronies and so called “weaboos” looked to society to define their true worth, they would be worth less than nothing. They would hate themselves. And speaking from personal experience, sometimes I do.
Ballet made me hate myself. Choosing a Liberal Arts education felt like a failure. Daily comments wear and tear and pick away at my self-esteem. It’s true. I am not a dancer, but I am a student, and I am not an engineer, but I am a weaboo. These labels contribute nothing to value but the disappearance of it. Nothing is intrinsically valuable, so why would you place value on something you don’t feel deserves it? If your technique isn’t perfect, your career path isn’t defined, and your interests are taboo, then why shouldn’t you just cast everything aside and call it a day? Because the only thing telling you that you aren’t worth valuing is society itself.
Place value on your stupid mannerisms, Nutella, August afternoons, art, cartoons, science, math, literature, cats, dinosaurs, memes, whatever you want. What is that other super cliché saying? “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or something? Yeah, it kills me, but with value it’s kind of true, and it’s kind of important to remember. At the end of the day, you have yourself, and it is up to you to place value on what is important to you. If you love twirling in front of a mirror to classical music, do it. Value it. It is a part of you. Don’t lose something you love in a downspiral of self-loathing, because once that thing is gone, it is hard to get it back. And no matter what you do, watch out for pitfalls.