In 2003, the Duke University Women’s Initiative released a study that analyzed the school’s culture through the eyes of female undergraduate and graduate students, alumnae, faculty and staff, and trustees. One of the conclusions of the study was that female undergraduates were entering the university with high levels of self-confidence and belief in their own abilities, but that over the course of their four years at Duke, that confidence was shaken by insecurity and interrupted by eating disorders and stress-related illness. Those confident freshmen became seniors plagued with self-doubt.
This finding goes against all the conventional wisdom regarding undergraduate education. We (all of us, of any gender or identity) know the story: We enter college like freshmen amoebas ready to be squished and smushed and shaped, and exit, four years later, as full-blown people with opinions and ideas and direction. Except, according to this study, we (just women*) don’t.
The phrase coined in the study was “effortless perfection.” The women interviewed for the study expressed the belief that it was not enough to merely be academically successful in college. To be truly “successful” at Duke they also had to be thin, pretty, well-dressed, in-shape, able to hold their liquor, possessing perfect hair, etc. Further, they had to be all of those things without breaking a sweat. In response, Duke set up the Baldwin Scholars program as a way of fostering mentorship and positive, confidence building experiences among a select group of female undergraduates. It’s unclear whether the program has actually mitigated the culture on campus, but the website is very impressive.
“Effortless perfection” extends past college campuses. Anna Quindlen, in Being Perfect, describes it as “… carrying a backpack filled with bricks every day.” As anyone who reads the news can tell you, it invades every aspect of gender relations. Female politicians are expected to not only be decisive, intelligent policymakers, but also likeable, attractive, and well-dressed. For those who disagree, ask yourself how many times has what Bill Clinton wore to an event attracted national news coverage? Now, how many times has what Hillary Clinton wore to an event attracted national news coverage? I rest my case.
That said, men are increasingly expected to conform to these impossible expectations. Men at my school fake-tan in preparation for spring break and spend those same countless hours at the gym as women do, albeit in pursuit of different things (biceps the size of my head, anyone?). The difference, I think, is that men are not necessarily penalized as harshly for not conforming, for dressing badly, for skipping the gym, for going to class in sweats, for getting too drunk, etc. But they are victim of that same cult of perfection, perfection that, at its core, requires looking like you aren’t even trying.
And we are trying. So, so, painfully hard. On college campuses all over the country and other places, I’m sure, but I’m not in those other places so I can’t speak to them. We are putting ourselves in pressure cookers trying to achieve perfection. We are going from class to our internship to the gym to the bar because we have to get perfect grades and have perfect work experiences and perfect bodies and then go out, perfectly, so that we have perfect social capital and the perfect amount of fun. And we still feel badly about ourselves.
What are we doing wrong as a culture, as a society? Sure, the gender gap in the pursuit of perfection is narrowing, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Now we’re just extending that same awful hamster-wheel of perfection to men, too! And it’s so terribly easy to say, “Fine, let’s just cut everyone some slack.” We, as people, can love others for their flaws and prioritize humanity over perfection. We, as mere mortals, can realize that no one looks good, feels good, speaks articulately, and does important things at all hours of every day. Right?
So much easier said than done. Because right now, I have to go to class and then to work and to yoga and to the gym and then out to the bar, and through it all I have to be fun and funny and personable and have on a killer outfit. And I have to do exceedingly well on all of my exams and papers and also get a job for after graduation, but I can’t be stressed about any of those things. It sounds ridiculous when I write it down, but I do, honestly believe that I have to do all of those things and do them effortlessly, with a smile and something witty in my back pocket.
I don’t know how we fix it, this culture of effortless perfection, especially when it is so pervasive, permeating everything, regardless of gender or class or race or sexual orientation (all of my examples are that of a privileged white girl, but if there is anything that can cross race/class/gender/sexuality lines, it’s the pursuit of “perfect.”) Honestly, I don’t know whether the Duke study even turned up anything at all, or whether “effortless perfection” is really just code for “being 18-22 and giving a shit.” I don’t know whether we can, in Anna Quindlen’s words, put down our backpacks filled with bricks before we “develop a permanent curvature of the spirit.”
Written by Samantha Jaffe