Content warning: sexual assault.
Last Sunday, I was eating brunch with a fellow senior friend of mine, reminiscing on our time at Carleton, when the topic of dating came up.
“You know, I’m kind of sad that I never really dated anyone at Carleton,” she told me.
For the past few weeks the same thought had been filtering through my mind whenever I reflected on the last four years. While lamenting over our failed experiences together, she eventually brought up physical appearances.
“I think my main problem is that I’m not really the Carleton type,” she said.
“What’s the Carleton type?” I asked her.
“I think the girls that typically do well here are like, the thin, white, cross-country type of girls.”
I’d heard this before. The first time someone brought this up to me, I’ll admit that I did a little bit of an internal eye roll. Carleton is such an accepting place, I thought. There’s no way this is an actual thing. A big part of me didn’t want to recognize or accept this theory as valid because I didn’t want to see myself as someone who didn’t fit a certain beauty standard. I’d already spent the first half of my life ashamed of my appearance and my racial identity. In high school, I’d finally learned to accept myself, and I didn’t want to revert to a state of racially-motivated self-hate again.
But despite my adamant refusal to accept the thought, I couldn’t shake it. I started noticing and hearing things. I told someone that I wanted to set my friend, a woman of color, up with this guy in one of my classes. “Oh, he only likes tall skinny blonde girls,” was the response I received.
A few weeks later I confessed a crush I had on someone to another friend.
“I think he’s mostly into tall skinny white girls,” she replied.
As I began to grow more aware of comments like these, which I started hearing all too often, I grew more self-conscious about my own appearance. Was I not white enough, or tall enough, or thin enough? Did my body type and racial characteristics make me undesirable or unnoticable? I hadn’t had thoughts like these in ages. I assumed they’d disappeared forever. I never thought that spending time at Carleton, a liberal arts college that prides itself on its inclusive community, could make these feelings reappear.
Full disclosure here: I am writing about racial and body image issues within the Carleton dating scene from a relatively privileged standpoint. I’m a half-white, half-East Asian straight-sized (not plus-sized) girl. While my physical appearance doesn’t conform to the typical skinny white girl beauty standard, I’m not completely removed from this realm. Fattie EDU, an episode of the podcast series She’s All Fat, emphasizes the experiences of Carleton women facing greater challenges. The episode, released in 2019, features our college specifically, highlighting key takeaways from interviews with white and POC female Carleton students in larger bodies. Many interviewees expressed feeling more unnoticed, unwanted, and left out of the dating/hook-up scene at Carleton than they had anywhere else. “I get the sense that here, there just isn’t as much respect for different bodies…and I think it also heavily relates to dating culture and hookup culture on campus,” confessed one interviewee. This podcast shed light on a fundamental flaw within the Carleton social sphere: as a community, we’ve adopted and accepted extremely rigid beauty standards. Body positivity does not exist at Carleton.
There are thin white bodies all over this campus, while much fewer large bodies and bodies of color inhabit our school’s spaces. Before coming to Carleton, I’d never felt like the fattest person in the room. Nowadays I constantly feel this way. Being among a minority race and what feels like a minority body type while simultaneously feeling unnoticed and unwanted is a double blow to my self-esteem. Hearing other women with various non-white racial identities wonder about whether or not a guy will like them due to their race pains me. The fact that I can relate to other women of color who claim that they “had it much better in high school” confuses me.
Pondering the potential racial implications of my sexual assault experience at Carleton devastates and exhausts me.
For a while I’d managed to sweep my fears under the rug, but this single incident surfaced every insecurity I held about my body and my race within the context of both Carleton and this country as a whole. Not long after my assault, six Asian women were murdered in a targeted mass shooting in Atlanta. Some news reports suggest that the shooting was sexually motivated. In general, violence against Asians has spiked in the past year. While my situation is far removed from these numerous hate crimes, I couldn’t help but wonder. These national violations, compiled with the various experiences, thoughts, and discussions I’d had regarding Carleton beauty standards begged the question: did race play a role in what happened to me?
My assaulter was someone I’d barely begun dating. On our second date, he started talking about physical intimacy and said something that caught me off guard.
“I typically see taller women…I mean, not on purpose, it just happens that way,” he explained. “Since you’re a lot smaller, I’m afraid of hurting you, so just let me know if I’m hurting you.”
He was trying to be courteous, but something about the statement rubbed me the wrong way. The possible undertones in his message blared like a siren. If he hadn’t dated anyone like me in the past, maybe I wasn’t someone he’d typically consider as a romantic prospect. Maybe my racial characteristics and body type diverged so far from his usual bounds that I appeared almost alien-like: a strange, weaker and much more delicate creature than the other women he’d encountered.
He must’ve noticed my unease, because then he asked, “has no one ever brought this up to you before?”
No. Believe it or not, not every guy I hook up with thinks I’m an alien just because I’m 5’2”.
At another point in time, he said this:
“I’ve never dated an Asian gi — well, maybe I shouldn’t say that because then you’d feel pressure to represent.”
Right. Because all Asian women are the same. Did he also hold back on telling his first white girlfriend that she was his first white girlfriend?
Later on during that same conversation, we started talking about racial fetishization.
“Oh yeah, it’s awful how some guys fetishize Japanese women, especially because the fetishization stems from so many messed up stereotypes,” he said, “like how Japanese women are submissive, shy, obedient…”
I don’t remember every stereotype he listed, but I do remember the list continuing on for quite a while. I never realized there were so many stereotypes about my ethnicity.
Later that same evening, he sexually assaulted me. I said no twice, and even blocked him during his first attempt. I guess I was still too “submissive” in the end.
In the aftermath of my assault, I couldn’t stop thinking. I stopped sleeping. I felt confused. I wanted answers. I came to a reluctant conclusion: my perpetrator didn’t value my boundaries or my body because of my race.
My conclusion stems from the assumption that he’s never assaulted anyone else before, which I’ll admit is a pretty big one. Part of my rationale comes from what he told me about his previous relationship: that he never had sex with his last girlfriend, who he had dated long-term. From what I gathered, he wasn’t a virgin before he began dating her, and he alluded to hook-ups he’d engaged in after breaking up with her, so it didn’t seem like sexual repression was his motivation for assaulting me. What ultimately stuck out to me was the fact that she was white and he respected her boundaries, while I was Asian and he disregarded mine.
Again, I could be wrong. Perhaps there’s more nuance to the situation from my perpetrator’s perspective. What matters is that I came to this conclusion, regardless of whether or not it was true. I’m not trying to attack my assaulter here, this is much more a criticism of the Carleton community as a whole. What happened to me was bad, but the fact that it happened within the context of Carleton’s dating culture made the aftermath feel much worse.
My self-esteem plummeted. I began seeing tall thin white bodies everywhere, and I couldn’t resist comparing myself to others. I felt embarrassed to leave my townhouse, and when I did I made sure to cover up my flaws in an oversized men’s flannel. I started reducing my meal sizes, and then I started skipping out on meals altogether. I felt uglier than ever. I’d spend some days lying in bed weeping, wondering why and feeling ashamed. My worst nightmare, it seemed, had finally manifested: I was an unwanted unnoticed, and discarded body.
It’s true that the dating/hook-up pool at Carleton has multiple layers of exclusivity and complexity. Plenty of people who conform to the typical white and thin beauty standard have also expressed difficulty in entering this sphere. A lot of success is based on fashion and social circles, which suggests a classist element to this dynamic. And overall, many Carleton students are either incredibly shy or focused solely on academics. While I often hear students of every race and body type address these concerns, I’ve only ever heard students of color address the racial implications and body image issues at play in the dating scene. This means that the majority of students at Carleton have failed to recognize the ways in which minorities are marginalized within the dating/hook-up context. Exclusivity sucks. The fact that most people remain unaware of their own exclusive behavior makes it so much worse. We need to address this. Dating or hooking up at Carleton is hard enough when just considering the classist aspects of the culture. Imagine how much more difficult this might become when your race or body type is excluded. Sure, some students of color have had success with dating at Carleton, but this doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist.
On a campus as white as Carleton, recognizing minorities becomes vital. When it comes to beauty standards, the dating pool, and hook-up culture, Carleton is not an accepting space. We need to re-evaluate how we view each other’s bodies and consider our biases both as individuals and as a community. Representation is a good start. Let’s make an effort to address inclusivity in every aspect of our social spheres. Let’s be more vocal about body positivity.
This is my contribution, and I hope others will join me. I’ll graduate soon, but I encourage those remaining on campus to raise their voices in the many ways Carls have raised their voices in the past. Start a club, start a movement, write. For those of you learning about these issues for the first time, listen and support. There are many options for change. I beg you to consider at least one.