As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working toward being more authentic individuals.
Kitty Sargent, MCAS '16
I walked into my seventh grade math class the day after I got my haircut, feeling like a million bucks. My hair was straight and shiny, and my smile stretched from ear to ear. I felt pretty -- beautiful, even. That’s saying a lot for an awkward seventh grader. Suddenly, a voice cut through the happiness I was feeling like a hot knife: it was my friend Gabrielle, saying “Wow Kitty, now if you only got contacts, then you’d actually be pretty!”
Wait. So I wasn’t pretty? But I could be?
I had gotten glasses in fifth grade, and wore them everyday for the next ten years. I tried contacts, but never liked them, so I stuck with my four eyes. As I got older, I seemed to have it all together on the outside, but my self-confidence plummeted. Pretty girls weren’t supposed to wear glasses. It didn’t bother me as much in high school, but that changed once I got to BC. My insecurity about my glasses was compounded by a host of other body image and appearance-based concerns.
Never before had I been around so many people who cared so much about what they looked like. Diets weren’t a thing at my high school, but in college, carbs were suddenly evil. The elliptical became a close personal friend of mine at BC. Shouldn’t that have made me pretty? Shouldn’t it have made me happy? The other girls certainly seemed happy, and they were pretty too. My sophomore 8-man had dieting competitions to hold us accountable, with charts posted in the kitchen and planks doled out to those who messed up; the app I used the most on my phone was my calorie counter. I was doing it “right,” but I still didn’t feel pretty.
My body image issues were also largely driven by a need to overcompensate for shortcomings in other areas. At the end of my freshman year, I found a lump in my throat that was growing quickly. It was a thyroid nodule, and it continued to get bigger all throughout first semester sophomore year. My doctor wanted to wait and monitor how big it got before making any decisions on what to do with it. This “watch and see” attitude drove me crazy: I was trying so hard to do everything right, and I still wasn’t in control. It was like my body was laughing at me: “You want to fit in? You want to feel pretty? You don’t want that confidence to be fake? Well, here’s a curveball!”
The “watch and see” method led to a decision to remove the nodule in March of my sophomore year. I knew about the surgery in January, however, which led to two months of agonizing waiting. It was in this two-month window that I started a gratitude practice. I needed to find a silver lining to come to terms with the lump in my throat, so I hoped that practicing gratitude would help me to do so. Every morning I would wake up, sit down holding my mug of tea, and list off what I was grateful for: my parents, my friends, and BC.
As the weeks went by, my practice grew more routine. I’m grateful to be a woman in a society that respects me as an equal contributor to society. I’m grateful to live in a democracy, where my vote--my opinion--matters. I’m grateful that the sun rises in the east every morning. And one morning during my reflection, a new thought popped into my head: I was grateful for my body, because it lets me run and jump and sing and hug. It lets me explore the world and learn new things. In that moment, I wasn’t grateful for how my body looked, but for what it did. That morning was the first morning in many years that I liked my body.
The surgery came and went. I was back at school a week later when my surgeon called: it wasn’t just a lump. It was cancer. I was shocked. It wasn’t supposed to be cancerous. I wasn’t supposed to get cancer, especially as a sophomore in college. My body didn’t love me, and I didn’t love my body. But then there was that nagging gratitude practice, where I’d discovered all of these great things that I adored about what my body could do. As my treatment ran its course over the next few months, I found the chance to marvel at modern medicine. A hundred years ago, I probably would have died. But with the aid of medical treatment, my body found the strength to fight back.
I was declared cancer-free on July 1, 2014; I was free from doctors, needles, and medical words too long to pronounce. I was free to be me again, and not just a girl with cancer. Somehow, by getting sick, by being pushed so far into loathing my body and what it had “done” to me, I stopped hating my body. Obviously, I experience setbacks--I still have days where I criticize how I look. I got LASIK surgery the same summer that I finished my cancer treatment, and I won’t pretend that my glasses disappearing didn’t help my confidence. But generally, I found I couldn’t hate something so incredible that had fought back and won against this terrible disease. Now, when I eat healthy foods, it’s to nourish my body so it can perform its very best, not because I'm counting calories. When I work out, it’s not to lose weight. It’s just nice to feel strong after feeling so weak in the past.
The more I forced myself to love my body, the less forced it felt. The more I forced myself to act confident, the less it felt like an act. I went abroad to Paris and ate more bread and cheese and wine than I had in the previous 2.5 years at BC. I realized that good food isn’t evil; it’s heavenly. The French would call it a“raison-d’être." Being away from BC for a whole semester also showed me that I needed to want things because I myself truly wanted them. If I didn’t want to fit in to the BC stereotypes of beauty, then I shouldn’t let myself feel pressured to do so. Of course, that’s far easier to say when you’re six time zones away.
Back on campus now, that pressure is still just as present as it was before I went abroad. Sometimes I wish my waist were smaller, my hair less frizzy, my laugh less obnoxious. The list goes on, and the critiques are still as numerous as before. But then I remember what I’m grateful for about my body. I’ve sung a mass at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I’ve climbed the Duomo in Florence. I’ve gone on sunset jogs along the Seine in Paris. I’ve beaten cancer. The positives start to outweigh the negatives, and those critical voices seem to get a little quieter each time.
The words that one thirteen year old girl forgot five seconds later still occasionally ring in my ears nine years later. Am I actually pretty today? Am I ever actually pretty? I will always be working to shift my conception of self-worth away from just what I look like. But today, I know I can usually look in the mirror and be happy with what I see--with who I see. I see someone who’s just a little more confident than she was yesterday. Just a little happier. And today, that’s all I need.