The University population should cease its obsession with image and think of the impact it may have on diverse students
As a scrawny, bespectacled high school sophomore touring the University’s Grounds for the first time, I was duly impressed. The domed majesty of the Rotunda acted on my imagination: Jefferson’s vision of the Academical Village, the oasis of scholarly pursuits, seemed embodied in his life’s proudest achievement. My tour guide emphasized this quality, saying with exaggerated peppiness, “I mean could you go to school in a more beautiful place?”
Nearly a month into my time here, I am more convinced than ever of the architectural splendor of the University. The beauty of its students is likewise impressive: CollegeProwler.com gives our ladies an A grade and our gentlemen a respectable A. Salmon shorts, turquoise Polos, and the ever-popular Sperry topsiders are staples of almost every student’s wardrobe. And let’s not neglect our physical bodies, either; runners and cyclists weave through pedestrians on McCormick Road at almost all hours, testament to the University mentality that if you are not running, you are widening.
On the surface, what is there to complain about? Beautiful Grounds, beautiful people — it could be worse. But what is missing from this picture is the mentality cultivated by such single-minded focus on the appearance of things: the University has become image-obsessed.
It seems harsh, but it has to be said. Our students dress nicely for class not from some intrinsic desire to appear presentable in the sacred halls of academia but rather to concede to the prevailing Grounds-wide consensus that looking nice is necessary for acceptance. Those who dress sloppily are quietly and subtly judged; those who sport Vineyard Vines receive tacit approval. Little thought is given to the pressure this unofficial dress code places on financially strapped students who cannot afford to frequent high-end retailers. Even less thought is given to the idea that our strict clothing standards reveal a troubling preoccupation with how things appear rather than how they are or what they can offer. Those who do not fit the mold of our collective conception of a “University student” are left subconsciously making excuses for their choices. Is this Jefferson’s vision?
The problem extends to our standards of physical fitness as well. Students of all ages and genders sprint across Grounds, feet pounding out mile after mile. For some, the ideal of physical well-being is the goal; for the majority, however, the purpose and motivation for exercise is to match the increasingly difficult standards of bodily appearance our students achieve. How many of us were guilt-tripped into exercising because we saw so many other people doing it? This is not a school of cross-country fanatics; it is a school of people running to be acceptable in the eyes of their peers. Running makes us look disciplined; it makes us look well rounded, concerned with our physical shape; and it makes us toned and attractive. We run because the image of running, and all it entails, is promoted and endorsed by the student body. We run so that we fit the image ideal of the athletic, well-dressed student we are told to esteem even from our pre-admissions trips to the University.
What are we all told about the University on our tours? It is the only university in America to be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Lawn is picturesque, the Rotunda serene. The serpentine walls lining the gardens are one-of-a-kind! To be sure, the beauty of Grounds is a huge benefit for the University, and I would not have it any other way. But the over-emphasis on the physical appearance of our buildings and Grounds stood out to me even when I was applying to the University. The University was uniquely proud of its architectural excellence. At the time, the language of the admissions brochures and personnel did not strike me as emblematic of anything significant; now, it seems to me to be a weaker manifestation of the same attitude that dictates our clothing choices and our exercise regimens.
In the end, this problem is not serious enough to detract from the University’s numerous positive qualities, including the beauty of everything associated with it. But we all too often accept the University-wide culture of image deification without thought to the implications of our misplaced priorities. What message are we sending to prospective students, and how many are we discouraging from applying? What habits and values are we instilling in our own? I am fully supportive of a well-dressed and well-maintained student body, but at the University these ideals seem to come hand-in-hand with a pre-determined image for what is and is not acceptable dress and behavior. We are a diverse campus; our styles, expectations, and priorities should better reflect that.
Russell Bogue is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily.