For the better part of my life I have wanted to major in psychology in college and it was largely for two reasons. Firstly I wanted to know what was “wrong” with me. I wanted to know why I was the way that I was. Secondly, I wanted to be able to help people who went through what I went through. I wanted to do what I could to make sure that no one ever felt as alone or awful as I did. It wasn’t easy to orchestrate topics for essays in this food and sustainability themed course that sparked my interests and focused on what mattered most to me. In my writings about societal fat shaming and media exploitation of tragedies of school and eating disorders I was able to address an aspect of my interests that I was previously unaware of. I recently declared a minor in sociology due to this interest because I now realize that a huge part of what I have gone through, why I am the way I am, and why I felt the way that I did is caused by the media and societal expectations. In my research throughout this course I was able read all sorts of articles, watch countless shows and movies, and conduct a handful of surveys regarding social expectations and how those influences create consequences that cause bullying, mental illness, and violence.
Youth in America is becoming more and more dependent on various electronics and constant connection to the media. The average American teenager has an account on at least one of the many popular sources social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. All throughout the media there are clear depictions of what is viewed as attractive and/or beautiful and normal. Between models and celebrities and the plots of all the movies and tv shows students are influenced by these expectations. Not only does the media create physical expectations but it also creates lifestyle expectations. Plots of movies and television shows give students perceptions of what extracurricular activities are viewed as cool or right where others are weird or wrong. There is a clear stereotype depicted in these shows and films of what the cool male and female are: athletic, masculine guy and a skinny, well dressed (in expensive clothing) girl who is often times a cheerleader and when entering college joins a sorority. Students are driven by these portrayals when they decide the clubs they will join and the paths they will take throughout their academic lives. These stereotypes then become the expectations and the norms in the school system. The more intertwined life becomes with the media the more inevitable these social expectations become and the more they influence the lives of students.
Though social expectations alter as we grow, and the ways in which we respond to these expectations changes as we mature the influences of these expectations are almost always affecting us. In middle and high school, our decisions and actions are affected. Those who do not fit the social norm are shamed, bullied and isolated for simply being different. This in itself can lead to violence, but so can the expectations alone. In high school and beyond the consequences of these expectations can lead to events similar to those unfortunate events of school violence that we have seen in recent history, such as the massacres at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School. In college and throughout adulthood the ‘norm’ broadens greatly. Instead of focusing on what people do or how they look, for the most part, the taboo characteristics that lead to ridicule and disrespect are generally more internal issues such as mental illness. No matter what stage of our lives we are in there, we are hugely affected by these social exceptions, whether we know it or not.
In the past generation school violence has become more and more prevalent. It has become a plot line in the entertainment industry. Though the presence of a plot line regarding school shootings is offensive and exploits the horrors of true events, in this case, it is an adequate example of how social expectations create situations that lead to these violent acts. In season 3 episode 16 of One Tree Hill, titled “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls We Slept,” a school shooting is depicted after multiple unfortunate events. A senior named Jimmy Edwards who used to be close friends with a handful of the main characters brings a gun to school, and fires at his bullies. In the previous episode, a time capsule of video entries of the student body was released much earlier than it was meant to. In Jimmy’s entry, he expressed hostility towards the social hierarchy, insulting the popular students. He is then beaten up and bullied for his entry. During the school shooting, Jimmy holds a number of students hostage in the Tutor Center of the school. One of the students is his former best friend. When Jimmy is explaining to the students why he has given up and why he said the things he did in the time capsule leading up to the events that day he tells the story of how he was ridiculed at school for being different, for not being athletic but for being interested in technology. He explains that he was ridiculed to the point that his father left their family out of shame, and then one day he went through an entire day with not a single person, student or faculty, talking to him, looking at him or acknowledging his existence in any way.
“You see one day I spent a whole day in this school without a single person looking at me or talking to me. And I realized that was the best day I’d had in a long time, the day that nobody noticed me at all. The day I stopped being there, that was the best day. Well, that was kinda depressing, so I went home and took an antidepressant. And then I took another one. And then for fun, I took 12 more. My mom and the doctors called it an accident, and then two weeks later when I got back to school nobody noticed. It was like I never left. I guess that’s the upside to not being there in the first place right? Nobody misses when you’re gone.” (Schwahn)
That isolation that Jimmy felt, and all that bullying, that caused him to fall apart. That caused him to attempt suicide, and then to bring a gun to school one day to try and stop the horrors he was feeling. The episode ends with Uncle Keith, an adult who is related to the main characters and a mentor of Jimmy’s attempting to dissuade him from committing suicide.
- Uncle Keith(K):Why don’t you hand me that gun, Jimmy? And we can just follow them out of here.
- Jimmy(J): I can’t.
- K: Well I’m not gonna leave you here son. I’m not gonna do that, and I’ll tell you why. Cause I’ve been there. I’ve bought the gun, and I planned on using it, okay. I’ve been there. And I wanna tell you something. It gets better.
- J: Not this. It can’t.
- K: It does Jimmy. That pain in your stomach, that pain in your heart, it goes away. That voice in your head that’s saying there’s no way out. It’s wrong Jimmy. Would you please, please just believe me, it gets better.
- J: No it won’t. Not after this. I can’t take this back. I can’t erase this. She’s gonna die. K: You don’t know that
- J: *sobs* I just, I wanted, I wanted them to leave me alone. I just I wanted them to like me.
- K: I understand son. Thats what we all want. That’s all any of us wants.
- J: I’m not here. I’m not here.
- K: Jimmy, please. It’s gonna be okay son. It’s gonna be okay.
- J: But it hurts. It hurts. It always hurts.
- K: I know. please, please.
- J: I’m sorry.
- K: No!
As Keith yells no, Jimmy turns the gun to his own heart and fires, committing suicide. All Jimmy wanted was for someone to notice him and to like him. And in all likelihood, without social expectations controlling the social hierarchies someone would have.
Jimmy was clearly bullied by his peers. The only time he fired his weapon that day, aside from shooting himself, was to shoot at a group of students who had just bullied him, thrown all his things on the ground and threatened him. Unfortunately this experience of Jimmy’s, of being bullied and isolated, is one that is far too common. It is something that I personally have experienced. I was bullied for being overweight for about a decade. Because I did not fit into the social norm of body image I was a target. Though I would like to, and was trained to, say that my experience being bullied was not that bad in the grand scheme of things, it was. In sixth and seventh grade three major events occurred that triggered my first major depressive episode. First, I found out that a boy I had a crush on, who was incredibly nice to me, called me a fat ass behind my back. Second, another boy yelled to me, at the beginning and end of a picnic I was having with friends, across our town center, “hey Leah, guess what… you’re fat.” And finally, two boys, twins, both of whom I thought were good friends and one that I thought I had a crush on left me a voicemail on my phone rapping and making fun of how fat I was, calling me “lardy lard” among other things. It was these events along with other minor events of being bullied that triggered my first major depressive episode. It was these events that triggered a now lifelong struggle with depression, anxiety, and trust issues. It was these events, that led me to cut the words people said into my body. I will always have faint scars of those words, because I, like Jimmy, was different and so I was bullied until I left my school forever. These social expectations changed my life. For a decade, I was told that I was fat and ugly, and whether or not I believed it the first time I heard it, I did the last time. After hearing something said about yourself over and over, by multiple different people, for years and years, it is virtually impossible not to believe the things that they tell you.
As I stated above, I suffer from a mental illness formally known as major depressive disorder. This means that the chemicals in my brain are unbalanced and that at any time I can be triggered into a major depressive episode, which is essentially a time when my depression is at an all-time high, and I feel as Jimmy did before he pulled the trigger. I have had two major depressive episodes in my life, the one I spoke of above and another this past spring that I only just got out of. Both of these events were triggered by the actions of my peers at least on some part. Unfortunately, mental illness comes with a stigma. It is hard for people to understand that a major depressive episode is more than
just being sad, or that a panic attack is more than just being a little bit nervous and having a pit in your stomach. And because people don’t understand, they don’t always believe or respect mental illness. Because mental illness is different it is outside social expectations. Often times the only people who truly understand the struggles of someone with mental illness is another person who struggles with it. I have that. One of my closest friends and a member of my sorority has the same disorders that I do. When I was struggling this quarter I reached out to her, and it was talking to her that prevented me from feeling the debilitating isolation that often leads to cutting. Instead, though I was suffering through an episode, I knew I was not alone and was able to hold on until it passed.
However, it isn’t just situations like mine that are affected by the media influence of social expectations. The social perception of an attractive female body image-skinny, tall and well kept and because of this eating disorders are far too prevalent in the United States. “In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS” (“Get the Facts”). EDNOS is now referred to as OSFED which stands for ‘other specified feeding or eating disorder.’ The novel Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson depicts anorexia in a brutally honest way. Wintergirls tells the story of two best friends, both of whom are anorexic, and one of whom recently died due to her anorexia. It shows the life of the friend who lived, a girl who obsessively counts calories, counts how many times she chews each bite before she swallows and works out in the middle of the night when no one is awake, often to the point of near-fainting. Anderson by no means depicts this lifestyle as a good choice, nor is it shown to be a solution. It is described as a dangerous illness and as a disorder, which it truly is. Anderson illustrates the life of a teenage girl with anorexia nervosa, in all of its horrors. She raises awareness to the issue without glorifying or demeaning it. Wintergirls is an example of the detriment of social exceptions of body image. It shows the truth about eating disorders which are far too often present because individuals feel as though they do not fit the social expectations of beauty.
What I have come to realize through my research is how much of my experiences stem from social expectations created by the media. When I started my research I was “lucky” enough to have a preexisting knowledge of media references and stigmas of body image issues, bullying, and mental illness. From my preexisting knowledge, I did further research to come across the larger media influence. Since learning this I have realized the importance of attempting to counter that influence. I have shared my personal story being bullied on a website. It was picked up and published in a blog called “Into the Raw” and just yesterday I received a request that it be translated into french and posted on a french blog, “Parfaitement-Imparfaites” (perfectly imperfect). I shared my story with the intent of trying to help those who are struggling through similar things to realize that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Most of all, however, I have been trying to send the messages that (1) whether or not we understand something, we should respect it, and (2) we should never ever be afraid to stray from the norm. If we all respect one another, whether or not we understand one another, and if we all have the courage to be our true selves, no matter how abnormal we may be, then we can break the hold these social expectations have on us and recreate them. We can create a new social norm that everyone should be themselves and we should always respect everyone. With that as the baseline, we can all be extraordinary. I am now going to close with the last lines of my blog post: “I’m not fat, I’m awesome, and I’m me—and if you can’t see that you don’t deserve me.”
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Wintergirls. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.
“Get the Facts on Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2016.
Schwahn, Mark. “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept.” One Tree Hill. Dir. Greg Prange. The CW. 1 Mar. 2006. Television.