“On Saying the Hardest Thing” by Jenesha Penn

We are taught from the time we find them, to use our “inside” voices. Then, once we find our words and begin to effectively articulate our thoughts and emotions, they are confined to tiny boxes of socially-acceptable levels of volume and context. We then learn about “appropriate sharing,” where we must think before we speak to avoid offending others. As a woman in student affairs, I have spent the duration of my graduate and professional career walking a fine line between finding, feeling confidence in, and expressing my voice. Torn between expectation and obligation, I often find myself dampening truth, if not being outright silent—about things that matter. In the words of a man who has brought to light the hardest truths after surviving the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel avowed: “Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is [her] duty.”

During graduate school, while working as a GA in residence life, my story really begins.  I quickly went from a young and vibrant undergraduate student to a 200 pound person graduating and embarking on a job search. Two years later, I found myself to be this unfamiliar, 250 pound, obese new professional who worked 16 hours a day without a second thought…but one who was miserable. Two years ago, in September 2009, I left my position and institution and started on a path to lose 100+ pounds. Thankfully, I ended up losing 108 pounds in about a year and a half. However, since my transition back into student affairs in January, I have already re-gained 20+ of those pounds—in a matter of a few months. While I realize my struggles will always be my own and are innate, I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a broader issue that has vast implications for our field.

Because I am an overt empathizer on both the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) and Gallup’s StrengthsQuest, I have found my voice by bringing to the surface the stories of women in our field. Most recently, for instance, for a qualitative research project, I intentionally sought out five women who each lost well-over fifty pounds—one of whom lost over 100 and another 130—to speak with me about their weight loss and how it shaped their career trajectories. What originally spurred the idea for the study was my own journey and recognition that weight is very often the physical manifestation of a lack of balance—a visible discord with one’s self.

General themes gleaned from their stories are confounding: student affairs and education as a whole (specifically, K-12) as a toxic food fest; women sabotaging one another; limited access and mobility for those struggling with their weight; and concerns for the health and well-being of friends and colleagues going un-vocalized. These themes have sat with me since February and March, when the interviews were conducted. Uncomfortable with what their reflections illustrate, as a human being and advocate for our profession, I cannot not acknowledge their observations and experiences. As one participant so eloquently expressed to me during her interview:  

As a field, we are awful to ourselves.  We create unrealistic expectations centered upon how much we work, what we are doing, and how much we get done each day.  We give ourselves false expectations of the number of hours we should be at our desks, the number of hours we put in a day, what we are doing with our students, what others should be doing…and so on.  It’s absurd.  At my lowest weight, I was most balanced.  I was leaving at 5pm and going to the gym, eating better, and sleeping better.  I was happier overall.  Of course, this then led to other people speculating about whether or not I was committed enough to my job or professional organizations as I was before, when I felt like I was getting just as much done.  That’s when I looked beyond the field, in event planning and conference planning.  I stayed because I love the students and would miss them.  I also realize the need for a group of people to sustain the field, to help change this culture—or we never will.

While it is obvious these themes are somewhat entrenched on a societal level, it is concerning to ponder how we can “walk the talk” as educators and developers if we can’t even speak the truth to those we work among, supervise, care about, study with, worry over, and who are serving as role models for our students. I think it’s important that we acknowledge the ways in which we can help shape the future of our field. To be honest, I am struggling even as I write this, as people have advised me not to. No one likes to talk about things that make them uncomfortable—but inclusivity and awareness cannot arise without some level of discomfort at the onset. What alarmed me the most about the sentiments expressed by my interviewees concerned their experiences within the profession after losing weight:

People treat me differently in professional organizations than they did 100 lbs ago…I receive much more respect from men in our field than I did 100 lbs ago.  I’m taken more seriously in meetings.  I am asked to take on more leadership roles.  While I really really want to say some of it is my confidence, there is a nagging voice that says it’s something different: “You haven’t changed that much personally.”

Additionally, the stories of the lack of support, criticism, and competition among women was pervasive. One woman talked about a former (female) supervisor who shared her opinion of the woman’s weight loss as an eating disorder with individuals across campus, without addressing concerns with her directly. Another spoke about group meals, where she was openly berated for eating healthily while the other women chose not to. Another participant was taken aback by the negativity of the women around her as she worked toward her 130 pound transformation:

I guess my eyes are more open to seeing people who try to sabotage me…I just never took it that way before.  All the negative comments of those on the outside and those cliquey staff members…throwing out menopause and kids for reasons I will gain my weight back.  …sadly, I’m much more able to see the negativity around me—it’s much clearer.  So, while I am better able to see negativity around me than I was able to see during the [weight loss] process, I’m really glad I was slightly blind to it. I have enough doubts and worries for myself, I don’t really need others to project that onto me. 

As the Women In Student Affairs Knowledge Community Representative for the IV-E region, I feel obligated to ask: Why are we silencing one another? How can we foster an environment that creates space for student and professional development, a place where individuals are heard, valued, and transformed—if we can’t say the hardest things? I truly believe in the notion that we have to surround ourselves with people who will lift us higher. Lifting one another higher, however, is heavy work, encompassing–but not limited to–providing challenge and support when you may feel least inclined or equipped to extend it. At a minimum, next time you ask: “How are you doing?” you should also put the iPad down, close the email—and listen and look for the response so you can respond accordingly, with needs-based attention and care. One of the most intriguing facts about the study is that three out of five of the women re-gained all, or the majority of, the weight they had lost. These three women also happen to be in student affairs in some capacity, while the two who maintained have since moved on. Therefore, on a practical level—I challenge you to think about what you’re doing to actively embrace holistic wellness on your campuses and in your department/division/college/professional organization(s).  Employee fitness programs, where time can be taken out of the work day with pre-approval from supervisors, encouraging a “no-junk” policy during training and meetings, ceasing the food-based programs and celebrations, rejuvenating the 5K walk/runs and/or yoga session during national and regional conferences, creating a healthy living campaign for staff, not creating unrealistic expectations for staff members (e.g., tied to email 24 hours a day), and—finally—and arguably most importantly, be a better role model for those around you, under you, and above you. If you say you’re taking time off, don’t come into the office. Stop responding to emails at a certain hour. Make these limits known to your staff so they, too, can feel comfortable defining their own personal and professional boundaries.

While these seem like basic concepts, in a world where we are forced to do “more with less,” we’re forgetting to be excellent with the basics…and part of that is comprised of taking care of ourselves. This feeds into attrition concerns within various functional areas (e.g., residence life, student activities), and in our profession as a whole.  It also has a great impact on health care costs for institutions: well/healthy employees are happy, more productive employees. Above all else, let’s make it okay, in our most valued spaces, to commit to being our best selves. And when you see those who may be struggling with this, stop being afraid to start a dialogue—however difficult that might be—about what that means to them. You never know whose life you might be changing—or saving—when you do.





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13 responses to ““On Saying the Hardest Thing” by Jenesha Penn

  1. Thanks for sharing your voice, JP! What a powerful post. Julie and I often discuss this concept about wellness at conferences. How are we (other than the traditional “fun run”) promoting healthy choices when we are away from our home campuses? Dessert is served at every meal, presenters (at student conferences) often give out candy/sweets and the conference meals are often starchy and devoid of fruit and lo-cal options. Thanks for continuing this important discussion! –AMK–

  2. Cathy Pales


    Thank you for displaying courage in sharing your story – I too have struggled with weight issues for most of my life. Whenever there is a disconnect from what we say and what we do, it causes stress and for many folks, emotional compulsive overeating. As student affairs professionals, we are all about teaching about the importance of wellness to students. But, how are we actually practicing wellness? Students (and others for that matter) can pick up in an instant whether or not someone is being “real”. If we “preach” wellness, but don’t practice it, we are lying to ourselves and our students. Cathy Pales

  3. Jenesha-

    As always, you have an amazing voice and speak the truth so eloquently! Thank you! I especially agree with the being treated differently at 190 and 150. It is a world of difference, some positive, some negative.

    Let’s all just support each other and stop tearing each other down!

  4. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your story, it is one that I will strive to incorporate to my own story, which as a new professional is still in its early chapters.

  5. BRAVO! BRAVO! THANK YOU for having the courage to share these important words. For me, my “thing” is family. I will never, ever sacrifice them for my work. I come in on time, do my work, do it well, and I go home to be with them. They fill me with joy and purpose. They give me courage to get in my car and commute, to come back to work the next day and do it all again. I have learned to ignore the stares of colleagues or passive-aggressive comments from peers, because I know who I am and that knowledge keeps me grounded. It also makes me a competent professional. I second your notion that we need to stop sabotaging people. And instead, encourage and support them in their “thing.”
    Monica M Fochtman, PhD

  6. Amazed by your strength and courage in writing this, Jenesha. Such an important topic (so many important topics, actually) and ones that we don’t discuss nearly enough because of all the implications. You’ve given me a lot to think about – how can I make changes in myself, support positive change in those around me, and promote change in the field as a whole? Thank you for your powerful honesty – I hope to see powerful changes as a result!

  7. JPenn – As I’ve taken on more responsibility at work, and started a doctoral program, I’ve gained weight. The person you knew a few years ago seems to have gotten lost – I can’t find the energy to drag my butt out of bed to go to the gym; my thoughts are consumed by the homework that I should be doing rather than the work outs that I should be doing. Your post is a nice reminder that I need to take care of myself so that I can continue to role model balance and good health for my staff.

    Thanks for the kick in the pants that I need to get back to the gym and back on my bike!

  8. Krissie

    As always, I am amazed and inspired by you, dear friend. Thank you for the courage to share your story in a genuine authentic way. I am so proud to have such a tremendously talented colleague and friend. You are a true wordsmith.

  9. Beth Moriarty

    This post was wonderful. Thanks you. As we are starting RA training at my institution today, I have challenged my staff to promote wellness and self care throughout training. I have recieved some mixed reactions from staff but I am going forward. I am challenging staff to get enough sleep, we are building in optional fitness session during morning and discussion at meals. We are making sure that in addtion to the cookies, brownies and other processed sugar that is prevelant during trainng that we are offering fruit and other healthy choices. We are ROLE MODELS and if we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we ask our students to?

  10. You make a great point about self-care and how it’s important personaly and professionally. I’m just wondering why you had to bring weight into this. Poor nutrition and not being active have negative health outcomes regardless of the weight of the person. Dieting doesn’t work for the vast majority of people and actually is far more unhealthy than being fat.

    Modeling good health and self-care behaviors is great. I fail to see how fat-shaming female student affairs professionals ties into that. A better approach would be to celebrate the body diversity of staff and students and promote good health as well as positive body image.

  11. jenesha

    Thank you ladies. This was one of the hardest things to write…but one of the most refreshing as well. I very much appreciate you for reading it and reflecting on it and sharing your thoughts…supporting one another is so critical to our success.

    And, CGolz, you’ll always be my fitness guru–so get on your bike and I’ll do the same. Keep me updated on your progress!

    All my best, always,

  12. Kudos to you JP for having the courage to say the ‘hard things’! Your openness gives me the added motivation I need to continue striving to be an example to students and colleagues alike in both word AND deed. I love you and pray you continue to find the strength to love and care for Jenesha as well as you take care of your students.
    *logging off my PC & heading to the rec*

  13. Christyn Toomey

    I wanted you to know that I forwarded this to a supervisee back when it was written and she has chosen to pass it on to our staff for a professional development that she is leading today. While I think the balance is an important piece, I am hoping that she brings light to the lack of support and space for women’s voices. We all need to share our stories and speak up. Thank you for having the courage to do that through this post and know that your words are still providing the inspiration for other women to do that on their campuses.

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