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Sindhuri Nandhakumar
Questions for Answers

Credit: Sindhuri Nandhakumar

Last week, when I was at Student Health Services, a nurse practitioner remarked on my weight loss of about 10 pounds since 2011 and warned me that my weight was dropping to a level that was unhealthy for someone my height.

This is ironic, because when I look in the mirror, I don’t see someone who needs to stop losing weight. Instead, I see someone who could benefit from losing a few more pounds. Why do I think this way?

Perhaps it is because of the two conversations I had with two different young men over these same two years. In both of these independent interactions, each of them told me that I needed to lose weight.

One of them, a high achieving Penn student, told me that having an extremely toned body would be a testament to my really high willpower and commitment to success — a trait that people (read: employers) would really admire in me.

Back then, I couldn’t quite imagine how achievement correlated with body weight, but after hearing the same argument twice, I began to believe it was true more than I wished to.

Penn alumna and speaker at Harvard Business School’s Class Day 2013 Brooke Boyarsky lamented that perception. As she said, the principle seems to be, “If you’re not smart enough to know what to put into your mouth, you can’t possibly be that smart.”

Being in an environment like Penn, where the outfit of choice for class is workout clothes, we often tend to measure ourselves against other people, even if they have completely different body structures, genetics, health histories and metabolisms.

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Comparing ourselves may not be a bad thing, but as Boyarsky noted, “We often don’t use the right comparables.”

It’s one thing to differentiate between medically healthy and unhealthy weights and another thing to buy into mainstream culture’s notion of “fit and healthy.”

I might not be flaunting a body that is coveted by swimsuit models, but I’m also not interested in being a swimsuit model. Am I less healthy because I don’t have clearly defined abs? Doctors at family checkups don’t think so — quite the opposite, as I learned last week. They would think I was unhealthy if I did lose more weight.

There is a large discrepancy between the medically accepted notions of healthy bodies and the images encouraged by popular culture, and I’m not the only one who’s been affected by it.

I once went to the gym with a friend who is of a smaller build than I am. She spent an entire hour lamenting to me about how “fat” she was and how she was disgusted with herself for having all these extra pounds.

I had no sympathy for her because if she thought that she was fat, then in relative terms, I would fall into the category of the obese. (I later learned that this friend was suffering from an eating disorder and now have much more sympathy for her.) Like me, she fell victim to voices that told her that she was never good enough.

But even if I did have an unhealthy weight, that begs the question of whether those men had any right to tell me. The truth is, neither of them meant it maliciously — they truly believed they were just trying to help me out.

The attitude they have is representative of mainstream culture in that physical appearance is so tied to the perception of ability and, in turn, success. In their minds, they weren’t mentioning something sensitive. They were just reminding me of a basic truth. It was telling that my reaction was to think the problem was with me and not with their tactlessness.

My visit to Student Health last week has helped me realize that there is a fine line between taking care of ourselves and doing it to such an extreme that we’re actually harming ourselves, mentally and physically.

When going to the gym stops being something we do for ourselves and becomes a chore we do to satisfy standards imposed on us by society or our friends and family, we know we have a problem.

Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a College senior from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Her email address is Follow her @sindhurin. “Questions for Answers” appears every other Thursday.

Cutler Reynolds (art) is a College freshman from Arlington, Va. His email address is

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