Spring breakers: Paradise Island

“Close your eyes. Imagine you’re in PI, standing on a bar and you have a belly,” Lily* overheard a senior saying in the library. This senior was referring to body image concerns in advance of the notorious Spring Break trip to the Bahamas. The trip is popular for its lack of adult supervision, a lower legal drinking age of 18, and the chance to spend time with friends on the beach.

Nearly 60 seniors will depart for the annual Paradise Island (PI) trip on March 15th. The ‘senior trip’ to PI is not a school sponsored trip, Head of School Tom Kelly said.

The trip is booked by students through GradCity, a travel agency specializing in high school and college spring break excursions. The company offers trips to tropical destinations in Florida, the Bahamas, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. According to their website, students at many other New York City private schools, including Trinity School, Ethical Culture Fieldston School, and Riverdale Country Day, have booked trips to PI through GradCity. As in past years, students will stay at Atlantis Paradise Island, a four-star resort.

The lower drinking age enables many seniors to easily obtain alcohol. Consequently, students from all over the country congregate in PI to party and drink with friends at the beach.

The trip costs $1,999 for five nights, including airfare, hotel amenities, and admission to parties facilitated by GradCity. Representatives from both GradCity and the hotel said that there are no restrictions on alcohol as long as clients are of legal age.

“I think the biggest enforcer is that it’s the ‘senior thing’ to do,” Ruby* said. Ruby decided to spend her spring break in PI because all her friends are going, she said. “Your experience depends on who you’re surrounded by with things like this, so I know I’ll have fun.”

Even though the trip is booked by professionals, some attendees are still worried about safety. For example, Jenna* is afraid of her friends “going overboard on drinking and partying,” she said.

Cameron Levy ‘18, who went on the trip last year, confirms that “there was definitely an expectation of drinking [at] these parties, because they were [at] large venues with tons of high schoolers and the environment was conducive to being intoxicated.”

“Many people view PI as a time to become intoxicated with their friends and take advantage of the opportunity to have sexual relations with people that they have never spoken to before,” Carl* said.

Some parents voiced concerns about safety. Libby Rosen P ‘17 ‘19 ‘23 said safety was her main concern when sending her daughter on the trip. “We wanted to be sure the kids knew to travel in groups not only when they left the hotel but also within the hotel complex, what to do and who to call if someone had too much to drink or got hurt,” she said.

Jen*, the parent of a senior last year, was so concerned about her child’s safety that she wished her child did not go. “I see it to be something that is fraught with potential for an untoward experience. I never want my child to be in a situation that is risky,” she said.  But Jen* relented to her daughter’s wishes to avoid disappointing her.

Patty’s* parents were originally opposed to her attending the trip. “When I told my parents I wanted to go, they were really not happy. They were kind of astonished that I even asked to go because they’ve heard all these stories in the news with bad things happening to people who go on this trip,” she said.

Patty’s family concluded that she could only go if her mother stayed on the island too, albeit at a different hotel. “Given that basically all my friends are going, I really wanted to go, and it would be unfortunate to miss out,” she said. “I would rather go with my mom staying on the island than not go at all.”

In addition, some students are deterred from the trip due to concerns about the price. The high cost of the trip is an impediment for many, Eddie Ahn (12) said. There is no financial aid system for a student who wants to go on the trip but cannot afford it, a representative from GradCity said.

“Not everybody is able to pull out over $2000 for a high school trip. [The payment is] also due pretty early in the year, so it’s hard to save the money up for those who need to,” Ruby said.

While there is no financial aid given by GradCity, one student is funding two of her friends’ trips, Ruby said. Even though it is good that these two students are able to go on the trip for free, there are many more students who cannot afford the trip and would have gone otherwise, she said.

Referring to stereotypes of economically exclusive private schools, Levy said the worst part of the trip was being around “the classic New York City kid who likes to flex his or her wealth.”

“There aren’t too many of those types at Horace Mann, but when you go to PI you see every type of New York City prep school student, and it’s very eye-opening,” Levy said.

In addition to the financial obstacle, the trip is socially exclusive. “It’s only fun if your friends are going,” Ahn said, who will not be attending for that reason.

Apart from safety, social, and financial concerns, worries about body image dominate the minds of PI dieters (“pieters”) leading up to the trip.

Students prepare for the trip by molding their bodies to a “desirable” standard. Girls often attempt to lose weight while boys attempt to bulk up. “PI is just a lot of people in bathing suits and they want to look good and they feel like others might judge them,” Sandra* said.

The constant talk of pieting and being surrounded by people who are pieting makes others hyper-aware of their body image, Monica* said.

Patty has been working out more frequently and has become more aware of what she is eating, but has not intensely dieted, she said.

Patty has observed others making drastic changes to their diet, and is now more self-conscious about her body image. “When I look in front of the mirror, I wish I were thinner and that I could lose a few pounds,” she said.

“Not everybody is comfortable showing their skin in front of people for different reasons, so wanting to feel more comfortable is okay as long as you’re being healthy about it, which not every[one] is doing,” Ruby said.

Students “piet” by cutting calories and carbs, exercising more, doing intermittent fasting, and taking part in fad diets, Sandra said.

Yet some students say pieters are taking it to new extremes. “I actually [think] it’s been quite scary recently. People who never used to think about their bodies this obsessively are starting to, because the piet conversations surround them every day,” Ruby said. “It’s really hard not to get caught up in it, which I think is the most detrimental part – the way it spreads.”

“I normally am a little self-conscious but pretty comfortable with my body,” Patty said. “Pieting has made me feel like next to a lot of people, I might look bad in a bikini, and I’m definitely more self-conscious about the way I look than before. This has really had a negative impact on my body image.”

Lily has noticed tendencies of extreme pieters, such as making others feel guilty eating, she said. Lily saw a pieter ask a non-pieter, “Can you eat that food slower so I can pretend I’m eating that myself?”

Emma*, another senior, also said that a friend ridiculed her for eating breakfast one day. “I’m being shamed for eating apples and bananas– people come up to me and say ‘there are too many carbs in that.’”

“Concern about how your body looks affects all genders,” Head of Counseling and Guidance Dr. Daniel Rothstein said. “There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in shape and feeling good about your body.  It is all about balance.  If someone is worrying for months about how they will look for spring break, and they are taking extreme measures to have a body type based on someone else’s standard, rather than the body they have, they should consider asking for help to get perspective.”

“I don’t remember hearing about ‘pieting’ until more recently,” Delanty said. Pieting has probably existed for several years, but started gaining more prominence with the rise of social media and young people feeling pressured to always look a specific way for their online presence, she said.

The role of social media intensifies the idea of an ideal body image for PI, Monica said. Students compare their bodies to pictures of alumni who posted pictures of themselves on social media during their PI trip, even though the photo may be edited, she said.

“For me, I care less about how other people see my body and more about how I feel,” Ruby said. “If I’m feeling self-conscious, I’m not going to have as much fun. I have more fun when I feel and look good for myself.”

Yet some argue that exposure to parties like the ones in PI is inevitable. Situations on a trip like PI are experiences one will have sooner or later if financially available, Nader Granmayeh (12) said. “Pieting is a response to trips like these,” he said.

Granmayeh believes it could be better to have these experiences now, when there is a stronger support system from parents and friends, as opposed to later in college and life.

Nicole Warszawski (12) hopes the trip will make her more self-sufficient and independent, she said. “The trip is preparing me for the college experience that I hope to have,” she said.

PI foreshadows the college party scene “in which you spend nights in a friend’s room until three a.m, sometimes,” Levy said.

The trip is also one of the few times when such a large part of the grade is in the same place and out of school at the same time.

“I guess I’m excited for a lot of the grade being together,” Sandra said. It will be nice to just be together and not talk about work and school, she said.

Many alumni still treasure their experiences at PI to this day. “The trip for me was a time to focus on how special my grade was then, is now, and will be,” Beatrix Bondor ‘18 said.

Nevertheless, administrators voice concerns for students’ safety. “I think in our hearts we would prefer that it didn’t happen for safety reasons,” Dean of Students Dr. Susan Delanty said. In general, it’s dangerous to have thousands of students together in one place, unsupervised and drinking, she said.

Delanty and other teachers tell students to always know where their friends are on the trip and to take care of each other, she said.

“We just hope that in the end they’re safe,” Delanty said.