Body image issues plagued Shreeya Tuladhar much of her life, starting when she worked as a child model and intensifying after verbal abuse from classmates when her family moved from Nepal to New York. She’d skipped a grade and was physically behind the other kids, something some wielded as a weapon against her. Even while leading anti-bullying campaigns, like the C.I.T.Y. Project facilitated by Calogero Argento in the Central Queens Y, she continued to struggle with the bullying she’d endured, the pressure of being told she was too fat, too skinny, too wrong, by society, family, friends, boys, boyfriends, and eventually herself.
Last year, I was lucky enough to work with Tuladhar in one of my classes. I liked her from the start. She wasn’t afraid to express herself but she wasn’t afraid of new ideas. A biology major and aspiring surgeon, she also minors in both anthropology and writing. When she studied the personal essay with Cynthia Davidson, the final project called for students to center on something that defined them without making it an autobiography.
“Oh, snap,” Tuladhar thought. “Like my body image issue.” She knew what had haunted her as a child was still affecting her. She was always a writer. The writer was born of the pain.
“Writing started for me because of this,” she says. “I couldn’t express myself any other way.” When she was younger she’d starve herself, or work out due to fear rather than any desire to be healthy. She’d write poems about her struggles on hi5, the social networking site, a way of saying all the things she’d otherwise leave unsaid, of unburdening. Her class project was no less cathartic. “The minute I started writing, I couldn’t write because I started crying, ’cause it reminded me of so much…This is my outlet to conquer this.”
She saw opportunity. “How can I write about it in a sense that it’s changed me, but I decided to counteract and change it back?” A good writer shows audience awareness, she knew, and she knew the silent majority of her audience had fought or was fighting their own civil wars with self-acceptance, too.
“[Body image issues] are definitely something that connects to me and definitely something that connects to my audience, because as a writer I always think: What audience am I talking to?”
She told Davidson her idea. Coming into college, Tuladhar imagined writing professors to be “really old people” with “gray hair” who are “scary and they talk about weird things and they kind of look like Einstein,” but she’d been pleasantly surprised, describing Davidson as “so nice, so chill,” and Davidson’s classes like discovering “a whole new dimension.” Her non-writing classes are fairly impersonal. “There’s no interaction with the professor and the student. There’s only the material and the student.” She asked Davidson if she thought it could work.
“That’s beautiful,” Davidson said, and Tuladhar realized she had her title – “Project BEaUtifull.”
In high school it was Kelly Convery, her freshman year English teacher, who exposed her to the wide world of literature beyond her poems. Junior year, Lauren Kucker introduced her to The Great Gatsby and the existence of a larger, outside real-world of writing, an audience Tuladhar could touch someday. In A.P. English, Vincent Parker inspired her to pursue writing in college, taught her about writing and about life beyond her high school walls. Davidson’s class opened her eyes to the world of incorporating digital art into writing.
Tuladhar dove into the project, completing the written work in a single day, creating a written history by alternating pieces from old diary entries with short expository paragraphs adding context where needed. As she considered the project’s digital component, she saw a chance to expand the scope and reach of her message.
“If people can make me feel ugly, I can make people feel beautiful.” She emailed friends, asking for photos of them confessing an insecurity – body; personality; race; ethnicity – written above the words “& I am BEaUtifull.” Her friends not only helped, they brought in friends of their own, unsolicited, who contributed. That weekend, Tuladhar and three friends went into Manhattan to share “You Are Beautiful” messages with strangers. She filmed Project BEaUtiful on her iPhone.
Encouraged by her current writing professor, Shyam Sharma, Tuladhar continues to generate material she can share online. As far as where this project goes next, she’s cryptically bright: “Yes, there is a Project BEaUtifull future, because I am working on something. But I’m not going to tell you what.” A little mystery keeps the audience intrigued. As far as after college, she has a lot of plans, and writing plays a big part in them.
“Writing professors tend to tell us stories,” she says, “and they tend to inspire us through their stories.” Having seen for herself the power of storytelling, the aspiring surgeon already has plans for a med school blog. After she retires, she wants to write about medical narratives and create and teach a medical writing class, where med students can hone their professional writing skills but also have a free space to tell their stories. In high school she’d been vice-president of Medicus Journal, where she saw how, for herself and others, writing about diseases and patients not only made it all bearable; the personalization motivated students to continue pursuing a career in medicine. The more she writes, the more obvious and holistic the benefits become.
“My writing classes are the classes where I feel free, where I feel like it’s not that bad,” she says. “As a medical student, there’s so much stress…the last thing they want to do is write a paper. But if you get classes where…you write about yourself, it’s like re-creation.”
From hi5 to introductory college writing to a digital essay class, Shreeya Tuladhar has used writing to re-create herself and hopefully help others do the same. Starting with poetry and continuing through academic, personal, and professional writing, she’s seen the range of what’s possible when a writer has a conscious purpose, an awareness of their audience, and a commitment to making that audience feel as invested in that purpose as the writer. It’s difficult as a professor, never knowing what students retain once they’re out of your class. When you see a student go beyond retention to elaboration, to helping others, it’s a lot easier.