Warm sun, good books, boat rides and leisure lounging cover the painting of an idyllic summer. But a college summer looks a bit different. It’s filled with applications, mentorships and internships. For many, relaxed summers are exchanged for the privilege of building reputations and connections. This summer, I followed my fellow Wolverines to a place that inflates with interns during the summer — Washington, D.C. Together we exchanged our casual sweats and yoga pants for awkwardly fitting suits and blistering heels. As we rushed on the metro and interned with various organizations, we all gained a taste of the workplace. But the taste I got turned sour and could not be rinsed out.

Maja Tosic

At first, I barely noticed it. The guidelines that dictated a woman’s place at work were silent, but extremely powerful. As I entered my building each day with a swish of my badge and the click of my heels, I also opened the doors to a vacuum. It was a vacuum that sucked out all the air and applied enough pressure to bend objects. It could not be avoided, and soon I was its subject — a young, malleable woman ready to learn.

I learned that a successful woman is never successful in just one thing. She’s successful for transforming herself into a superwoman and balancing between the scales weighed down with thinness, beauty, work and family. The pressure to abide by this notion of success consumes a cubicle like an ominous cloud of smoke. It choked me more and more until I simply could not inhale without suffocating on the very environment that was meant to ignite my growth.

I learned that the workplace was a battlefield for women. It was a battle of having less: less food, less weight, less fat, less outspokenness. And it was a battle of having more: more self-control, more resistance, more approachability. It was a battle to reach “the” lucky number on the scale. It was a battle to fit into the unattainable norm of beauty.

Every time food was offered in the office, I watched as each woman gave her excuse for eating as if it had become a necessary step in digestion. The in-sync line of women ogled and cautiously approached the rows of birthday cake and cookies as the days spun past. Every conversation lingering in the break room, lunch room, conference room and executive room was about the successes and failures that came with the latest diets and fitness plans. Women slyly interjected the details of their breakfast and walked with their small salads held high. These acts were far too common for them to be considered coincidences. We had siphoned ourselves into a battle, and these were our battle tactics.

But our battle was not fair. It was a delusional search for a prize that was never established. It was fought without written rules. There was no unbiased, uninvolved and un-invested judge. However, the greatest disheartening illusion was that there was never a winner. I quickly learned that no woman could ever step onto the first place podium and receive her medal, because it implies that the ideal has been reached. But we are told our bodies are always able to bear the loss of a few more pounds. We are told that we can always strive to be more perfect. As a result, our battle was designed to fight for a goal that is never in sight and never achievable. It’s intended to keep us spinning endlessly and to forget the things that truly matter.

As my internship came to a close, I learned my final lesson. I let my silence settle in the office, and it quickly turned into a nod of affirmation. By simply swishing my badge and silently walking through the vacuum, I approved of its effects upon me. It was understood that I had joined the battle, because I had never voiced otherwise. The only way to break the competition was to acknowledge its impending presence. I never did. But these written words are my first steps toward finally breaking the silence.

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