By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Heidi Stevens reminds us how dangerous toxic critics can be, especially those voices which critique women's bodies, sex-appeal and self-worth.
Hannah Natanson, managing editor of The Crimson, Harvard University's student newspaper, has written a gut punch of an essay about the voices that find their way into our heads and derail our dreams.
"The Way Things Linger" revisits fall 2016, when Natanson and her fellow Harvard women's varsity soccer teammates learned that the Harvard men's soccer team was producing sexually explicit scouting reports, ranking the women players by appearance and ideal sexual position.
"The story hit like a slap, but the after-burn lasted for days," Natanson writes. "I didn't talk about it. None of us did."
In private, though, she read and reread the Crimson report that detailed the men's players' words.
"I couldn't help trying to pair each description with one of the women I knew in the 2012 recruiting class, all of whom were seniors when I was a freshman," she writes. "I hated myself for trying."
The October 2016 Crimson story focused on a "scouting report" written in 2012, but a Harvard General Counsel review found the men's team continued to produce such garbage well past 2012, which prompted Harvard to cancel the rest of the men's soccer season.
"I called my coach to say I was leaving the team in July 2017," Natanson writes. "I explained I wanted to quit for a lot of reasons, for one thing, I wanted to commit more time to The Crimson."
She applied for the paper's managing editor spot and got it.
"I told myself I had moved on like everyone else," she writes. "And I kept moving."
She told herself she didn't quit because of the men's team. She tried to point her life back toward normal.
"I tried to keep working out," she writes. "I tried using a stationary bike, then I tried weight lifting, then running.
"But the joy I used to find in exercise leached out," she continued. "Every time I stepped outside in tight-fitting athletic clothes, I became hyper-conscious of my body. I curated a catalog of faults: my ankles (spindly), my thighs (fleshy), my stomach (protruding), my shoulders (broad and manly).
"I found myself constantly wondering whether passers-by were watching me run.
"One day midway through junior year, I stopped running entirely. I started avoiding mirrors. I stopped looking down in the shower. I went on sudden, absurd diets, vowing to alternate fasting with all-vegetable meals, before breaking all my own rules and ordering Falafel Corner to The Crimson at 2 or 3 or 4 a.m."
Over the past year, she writes, she's returned to running.
"Week by week, I'm able to run faster and longer," she writes. "Sometimes, feet slapping concrete, knees rising to the beat in my headphones, Boston stretching before me, I forget I have a body. "Other days, though, it's all I think about."
Here's how I read that: A clearly bright, athletically gifted, intellectually rigorous young woman spent her first two decades of life filling her mind with the sort of learning and reading and mental training that get a person into an Ivy League school, that earn a person a spot on a Division 1 athletic team.
And sometimes, despite that lifetime of worthy voices, the only ones she can hear are the toxic critics, the ones that tell her she's little more than her body, her looks, her sex appeal or lack thereof.
It's also worth remembering when we're in the position to be one of the voices that weaves its way into a person's psyche, when we have the ability to influence a person's sense of self.
When we have the power to insert an imaginary, hypercritical audience into a person's head, an audience that finds fault, an audience that diminishes, an audience that never shuts up. We shouldn't.
I'm thinking about our kids, especially.
Not the sexually degrading stuff, which is obviously a special level of demoralizing for Natanson and her teammates and, frankly, so much of the female population. (You've probably heard about the world's best women's soccer player being asked to twerk onstage after accepting the Ballon d'Or.)
But the way the men's team turned a judgmental, belittling eye toward the women's team, and taught Natanson to do the same, got me thinking about the times and ways people who hold the power in a relationship, parent/child, an imbalanced marriage, can, and too often do, do the same.
It's toxic. Natanson's essay does a fabulous job of reminding us why and how, and how long that toxicity lingers.
Better to be a different sort of audience. The kind that values the whole person and all that she or he has to offer and hopes to accomplish.
Natanson's essay wasn't meant to be prescriptive. It certainly wasn't written as parenting or relationship advice. But I think her experience and her brave telling of it are worth ruminating on as we determine how to wield our own power.