“Go do something uncomfortable.” It was the first day of my senior seminar in cultural anthropology. We were all sitting in a circle – just about ten of us, receiving our first assignment from our professor.
“Go do something uncomfortable,” he told us. “Go sit in a bathroom stall for a half hour and see how awkward it is. Go into a sex shop and just watch people. I don’t care what it is, but pick something that would make you seriously uncomfortable, and spend an hour doing it. Then write about it.”
We all left the class brainstorming about what type of uncomfortable experience we wanted to have. My gut reaction was the gym. No one is completely comfortable at the gym. I decided to go to the weight room.
For context, I’m rather slight, and rather girly. I played volleyball in high school, so I have a basic understanding of weights, but in general if we’re being perfectly honest I have no idea what I’m doing and have no place in a serious weight room.
But I went. And I spent an hour, and I wrote about it. I wrote about how aware I was of the norms, aware of how much I stood out.
This assignment was just one of many I had in the anthropology department that forced me to think differently.
When we came together in class to discuss our experiences, we had each done something different. We talked about how it was like an out of body experience. How we felt so exposed. How it was difficult to pay attention to anyone else when we were paying so much attention to how strange we felt. But, our professor reminded us, did we not come away from the experience with a crystal clear sense of what the norms were in the space we occupied? Were we not absolutely sure at this point the exact reasons we didn’t fit in?
This assignment was just one of many I had in the anthropology department that forced me to think differently. Over the course of my curriculum, assignments like this one encouraged me to stop taking situations at face value and to critically consider the implications of every feeling, every sight. Tasks like this, pushing us into the field and bringing us together to reflect on our experiences, readied my peers and me for life as anthropologists. It helped us to learn that anywhere can be a field of study. Every routine we take for granted has significance, and every culture, even that of the microcosm of the weight room, is worthy of analysis.