A perfect version of me lies out there somewhere. His limbs are more outstretched than mine, landing his shiny head of hair at the 6’ mark. Where a shallow valley gapes between my eyes, a well-defined nose bridge juts out from his face. And he sorta looks like me, if only I could slap muscles onto my shoulders, pinch off the baby fat from my jawline and tighten my posture into a vertical pole.
But, of course, there’s a kicker: This guy lives deep in the trenches of my imagination. He’s not me, nor even an attainable picture of what I could look like. He’s taller, defined, chiseled. Softer where my features are too jagged, sharper where my features aren’t. And though I know I can’t edit my body the way that you can tweak a Bitmoji, I find my brain constantly using him as some fuzzy baseline for comparison every time I glance into a mirror.
These days, impossible what-if’s over my appearance infest my thoughts like ants swarming a picnic basket. They dig themselves into my head all day long. As I’m getting dressed in the morning. Before I step into lecture halls packed with classmates. Whenever I catch my reflection in the Four Seasons window on my walk up to campus.
And as I’ve spent more and more time mulling over my physical appearance these past few years, I’ve started to notice the toll that comes with owning and navigating a physical body in a college space.
I came to Cornell with an understanding and an acceptance that I’d struggle with Imposter Syndrome. To be thrust into an academic environment that breeds future senators and CEO’s? To have my intellect probed, weighed, dissected alongside my peers? Academic anxiety was a burden that I expected to carry into Cornell.
Less expected, though, were the ways in which I’d feel my body, my physical self, become a central subject of insecurity.
My first week of college, I dove headfirst into the freshman party experience. I remember sober treks to Collegetown, annex-hopping down Eddy Street, clumsy hikes back up to North Campus. I remember my first sip of Keystone, the bass of mo Bamba, lapping up my first dizzying O-Week experience. And somewhere along the way, I also remember learning the importance of a good “ratio.”
A classic term in the Cornell handbook: A good ratio means having a friend group with a higher proportion of girls to guys. It’s key to breeching shitty annex parties. It means counting off your friends by gender before approaching a door, calculating and configuring the best formula for entry. And to some degree, it also demands us to start viewing ourselves as bodies. Bodies on a binary. Bodies in relation to the other bodies around us. Every time I went out freshman year, I stumbled into Collegetown with an acceptance that, for the night, my social identity would flatten into a single, faceless label. “Boy.”
It was a striking lesson in my college curriculum, learning to see myself as a physical body detached from my interiority. But that’s just what college does to us. The social systems here wash us over with messaging that we’re not much more than bodies to be objectified and commodified.
And we don’t have to look far to see where to point the blame. With a third of Cornell students in fraternities and sororities, and a college nightlife that heavily revolves around frat parties, Cornell’s social environment is one that follows the compass of Greek life. Which, evidently, is a system that sews bodily objectification right into its social fabric.
We’ve all heard the stories. Frat brothers referring to girls as “throats.” The hookup tallies and the body count lists ranked by weight. And, it’s no secret that higher social access is granted to those who fit within the beauty standards in the Greek-life vacuum — a set of rigid parameters for what Cornell considers to be attractive. At this point, the blondication and bronzification of the sorority girl are long-running jokes. But, again, isn’t this just a product of a system that pushes individuals, particularly women, to aspire for narrow benchmarks of beauty? And what happens to those who don’t align with the cookie-cutter mold, who might lie outside of the expected skin color, sexuality, body size? When White heterosexuality governs beauty standards, minorities are left to consider whether their bodies even belong in the social hierarchy. Whether their bodies are desired. Whether their bodies are tokens or liabilities.
It took me a while to consciously realize how my college years have shifted my attention toward my physical presentation. But, over the years, it’s wedged a gaping dissonance between my mind and my body. I’ve always believed that I have a pretty strong grasp on who I am: I’m a raging optimist, I enjoy crosswords and I prefer tequila over vodka (a recent revelation).
But, again, to the rest of the world’s eyes, we are worth how we appear. I’m Asian, I have black hair and I often wear green — this is how the world perceives me, not for my interiority. And no matter how hard we may try to tweak our appearances, our physical images don’t belong to us. They belong to the system that shuffles us around as objects and commodities. The system that appraises us, judges our social value, then doles out rewards only if we pass litmus tests of beauty.
Maybe the tides will turn after Cornell, when we graduate from the frat parties and the sloppy college nights. But so long as our bodies stand in for our social worth, I’ll be left doing as I’ve been trained to do. Standing in front of a mirror, picking apart my flaws and praying for corrections, aspiring for some physical validation from a system that sees me as nothing more than a body in a sea of thousands others.
Niko Nguyen is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Fault Line runs every other Friday this semester.