Hey, you! Hannah here. Today, I want to chat about a topic that’s been on my mind for the past couple of weeks — the similarities between the obsession with grades and the pursuit of thinness. Maybe this will resonate with you, and maybe it won’t, but either way, I’m grateful you’re here and thanks for reading. Go grab a cup of your favorite beverage (I’ve got a cup of hot coffee with me….caffeine always), and let’s get into this discussion.
I’ve been a high-achiever…or at least…what society deems to be high-achieving…from elementary school to now, my 4th year at Northeastern. I think that my grades have probably served me well in certain capacities: being accepted into colleges, having employers comment on the GPA they see on my resume, receiving academic awards in high school and college…I get it. High grades in our society are seen as the most worthy of recognition and thus, often-times, are favored in all sorts of ways. There is nothing inherently wrong with receiving A’s (if the person receiving them is deserving of them), just like there is nothing objectively wrong with grades symbolized by the following letters in the alphabet. But because a strong emphasis is placed on the highest grades in our society, those are the ones that are deemed the best. The gold standard. “A for Excellent”. It’s what many people strive for. And that’s okay. Being in our society, that’s normal.
Things get sticky though when the idea of maintaining excellent or perfect grades turns into an obsession. When it becomes life-sucking, stressful, and consuming. When it takes away from other parts of our lives that breath joy and calmness into us; when it defines who we are. Because in these contexts, it becomes a whole lot like dieting and disordered eating. Now, I’m not saying they are exactly parallel or the same at all, but I think it’s fair to shed light on the idea that there are similarities between these two worlds — the pursuit of perfection in academia and the pursuit of thinness.
I realized this parallel in my own life during a conversation with Robyn last month. We were talking about grades, and the fact that, oftentimes, the high-achieving part of my brain gets nervous that I won’t continue to “do good enough” in school. I think about grades – the ones I’ve gotten and the ones I’ve hoped to continue to get – a lot. If I’m honest with you and myself, as grad school applications quickly approached this year, the expectation to maintain the GPA and grades I currently have began to consume me. I started to feel all sorts of test anxiety and stress around studying enough. Achieving enough. Doing well enough.
So as Robyn and I sat there chatting about this, I recognized that the situation I was in sounded very similar to the ways in which dieting, bodily numerical values, and disordered eating habits used to take over my life and so much of my mental space. Through talking about this with her, I started to see that I did not want this obsession with perfect grades to consume me anymore. Dieting used to control me and my life, and now, a very similar thing was happening with grades. I didn’t want this underlying narrative to rule my life any longer; I wanted to be free of this high pressured mental and emotional hamster wheel. “I think I need to write about this,” I told her. “You should!!” she said with excitement that encouraged me to do just that…write about it.
An obsession (of any kind, but specifically here — disordered eating and the obsession with a GPA), robs us of our social life (or at least me). It can take away time that I would spend having fun with friends and turn it into time that I feel compelled and forced to use for studying (and in my diet days: meal-prepping, calorie counting, or exercising). For me, my friends are my lifelines. They are compassionate, caring, absolutely hilarious, and energizing. Spending time with them gives me perspective, laughter, love, and happiness. When I spend all energy and all hours of the week with my head shoved in books and highlighter covering my palms, I feel withheld of this happiness that even the smallest amount of time with friends brings me. The same thing used to happen with dieting, but thank goodness that ship has sailed.
This also applies to sleep. Obsessing about the test I just took or staying up late to study (and in the diet days: staying up to think about what I’d eaten that day or pack perfectly portioned tupperware for tomorrow) takes away from time that I could spend sleeping. Sleeping is so, so important — it’s one of the most critical things we can spend our time doing, and I know it makes me saner, happier, more engaged and better able to be present in my life. The obsession with my food intake, and now, the compulsion to pursue perfect grades, takes away from this really important part of my life that I know helps my brain and body a ton. WE NEED REST.
Dieting and chasing academic perfection both involve fixing on a specific number — there’s this belief in dieting that once we reach a certain weight or body fat percentage, everything in our lives will be better. Will will be happier. Life will have less problems. With grades, there’s the thought that once we attain a certain GPA or grade on a test, we will be more worthy — we’ll be happier. We will have more value. And if we don’t, then we’re less worthy, we may feel down, and we may question our abilities as students and people. Suddenly a B on an exam has us questioning our entire contribution to the world. Sounds dramatic, but this is how it can play out I think.
Both of these ideas are completely untrue, and while I’ve entirely let go of dieting’s hold on me, the numerical aspect as it ties into my worth regarding grades definitely still haunts me. I’ve been scared into believing that something lower than an A will “change” me or make me not as good. Not as worthy. Not a good candidate for future school programs. This is so similar to breaking free from disordered eating. When we first start out with the process, many of us are scared of eating foods that we restricted for so long and of possible weight gain because we think it’ll make us somehow less worthy than when we were in thinner bodies. But I instinctively know that this, as well as grades measuring my worth, are simply not true.
Numerical values that society and school tries to place on me cannot define me or you or tell me what I’m worth. Regardless of my pant size, the number on the scale, the grades I get on tests, or the GPA that I end up with, I’m still Hannah. I’m a determined, resilient, and hard-working student. I love to learn; I never want to stop. I’m a compassionate, kind-hearted, and sincere friend, sister, and daughter. (side note –> if it makes you feel uncomfortable to name positive qualities about yourself, that’s ok, but I’m going to encourage you to try and try again until you can begin to see who you really are because you’re valuable) I get to decide what I’m worth and who I want to be in the world. My weight doesn’t deserve that ability, and my GPA doesn’t either. Absolutely, I can choose to buy into the worth of numerical values and give them the power to define my happiness and my place in the world (I’ve chosen that in the past), but I am actively choosing not to now.
I know that some people may disagree with this idea, and that’s 100% okay. We are all going to have our different beliefs — that’s what makes this world interesting. And I do very much believe that an obsession with thinness is like having an obsession with grades of a certain standard. Striving to obtain perfect grades in college takes away substance from my well-being and replaces it with stress in a very similar way to how dieting used to. And if there’s something in my life that is going to take away from me being my best person and the best version of who I’ve been put on this Earth to be, I don’t want any part of that. I stopped jumping on various diet wagons, recovered from disordered eating habits, and let go of having a “perfect, healthy” diet. Now, I think it’s time to break up with the idea of academic perfection, too.
Okay. Hold on. Does this mean I’m going to drop everything, throw my anatomy textbook out my five-story apartment building, never study again in my life, and not care at all about my academics or my future? No. Definitely not. Just like how intuitive eating employs a gentle, non-obsessive, and freeing approach to nutrition and movement, I’m going to work towards being more gentle and less stringent with myself in terms of academic stress and grades. I broke up with dieting and recognized my disordered eating habits. I realized that they were not serving me, so I moved in the direction of finding a balance and a way of eating and moving that was light-hearted, not rigid, and completely worked for me. It turned out that letting go of this obsession with health and healthy eating was one of the best things I’ve ever worked on because I now have a happy, easy-going relationship to food; I want to pursue the same with my academics.
I don’t have a crazy, well thought-out plan for this, as that would require stress, and I don’t want any more of that in my life! But, what I’m going to do is just try my best – do the best that I can – without obsession. Some days, this is going to mean I prioritize studying and grades: I’ll study a lot for an upcoming test (and take quality breaks) because the material is going to be important for, and really help me in, my future as a healthcare practitioner. Some days, doing my best is going to mean putting my extraverted, friend-loving self first: taking a morning coffee walk with a friend, eating a good brunch, relaxing, and going out with friends on Saturday night. I am in college after all!
At the core of all of this, I’m a college student and applying to grad programs because I want to be the best healthcare practitioner that I can possibly be one day. I want to help people and be knowledgeable and confident in my practice. That’s going to require some effort on my part and I know that. This requires blocking out time to study, going to office hours, learning difficult concepts, and passing classes. But I also hope, for the sake of me being a 21-year-old with a lot of life left to live and enjoy, that all of this effort can be put in without a lot of anxiety. I hope that it can be accomplished without excess stress and without striving for perfection in every single really hard science class and lab that I am in…and that I will be in for the next couple of years.
Just like with dieting, if I let the idea of perfect grades overtake me and cause me more stress, a dismantled/unhappy social life, less sleep, less movement that I genuinely love to take time for, and a disrupted mental state, I find myself straight up burnt out. And I have about ~4ish years of school left ahead of me, not to mention any continuing education that I may want to take on upon becoming clinician. Burning out now due to an obsession with my highest possible undergraduate GPA is unreasonable. It’s silly. This is just the beginning! I’d waste all my academic energy and capital on my college grades so that by the time the grad school program comes around, I’ll be tapped out and expended. I definitely don’t want that. If I really want to be a great practitioner, not to mention a person in their mid-20’s who’s emotionally stable and has energy, friends, and a happy outlook on life, I’ve got to find some time among the books and tests and powerpoints for ME. For my mental health, laughter, my never ending laundry, my friends that I cherish a whole lot. For sleep, movement that I enjoy, cooking satisfying food, investing in my community and taking on some leadership roles that I enjoy, and time to call my family because that’s important too. There are so many things that are important besides grades.
I’m in college to learn and change. A lot of this learning involves absorbing and understanding (not just memorizing and cramming and stressing about) information that will help me in the future. And a lot of this change means letting go of the ideal GPA and grades in every class, and doing my best in school under less amounts of stress and self-imposed pressure. No, this doesn’t mean I’m going to give up my ambition, drive, and determination to succeed and learn. I don’t think that’s the answer or I would like that…I’m one of those that really does enjoy school. I like learning. I am SO thankful to be in school — that’s an absolutely huge privilege that I never want to take for granted.
I thank my lucky stars constantly for my place at Northeastern. Here’s the kinda crazy part…what I’ve learned so far, just through beginning to practice this new approach to school, is that taking time for me helps me to do well academically because I’m not stressing and obsessing over specific numbers or honors anymore. I’m just going about each day, doing the best that I can, while understanding that: 1.) it’s okay if I make mistakes, and 2.) that it’s important I sleep, eat, move, and see people who support me throughout the week.
Starting this semester, there is ROOM for mistakes. There is room for failure and mess-ups. There’s room to GROW and change and do better and do worse and fall down and get back up again. Honestly, there’s just room for me to be what I am, what we all are: human.
This is very similar to how breaking up with dieting went for me (and maybe it was or would be for you, too). Once I began to let go of food rules, rigidity, and stress over my eating habits and my body, I began to have an easier time creating a successful, freeing, and happy relationship with food, how I looked, and movement.
I haven’t figured this all out yet. I don’t know what the exact balance is between achieving reasonable goals in school and also maintaining time for all those self-care things that are important to me. Truthfully, I don’t think that there is a perfect balance, but I know that something has to give. There has to be a way to imperfectly and happily strike that middle ground. All I know for sure right now is that the way I’ve been doing things — being filled with anxiety about tests and papers and quizzes and letting my self-worth be defined by certain grades and a GPA, has got to change. I’m determined to find that balance (if there is such a thing) that doesn’t allow room for so much stress, negativity, and obsession — one that holds space for me to take care of myself and connect with people I care about. I know I deserve that. I know we all do!