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.