A few weeks ago, I heard the following quote: "Duke is not a good place to be, it is just a good place to be from." Hearing this was like a slap in the face. How was it that this girl felt this way? How tragic to think that she would appreciate her college education the most once her four years were over! I wondered what could possibly make this young woman feel so miserable at Duke and realized it probably had something to do with the idea that many undergraduate females at elite universities struggle with the notion that they must be effortlessly perfect.
Effortless perfection is when a girl seems to have it all - the 4.0, a perfectly sculpted figure, leadership positions in clubs, picture-ready makeup and hair at all times, a jam-packed social life, a killer sense of style, a loving boyfriend, healthy eating habits, a circle of best friends and euphoric happiness without ever putting in any effort. Stanford University refers to this problem as the "duck syndrome," which uses the metaphor of a duck appearing to glide peacefully along the surface of the water, all the while paddling maddeningly with its flippers underneath. "Effortless perfection stems from the high school years, when students are pressured to be 'well-rounded,' and perpetuates from there ." Once in college, this concept of "well-roundedness" spirals into an even greater challenge: effortless perfection.
When asked about the prevalence of effortless perfection at her school, Rose, a junior at Dartmouth, replied: "To me effortless perfection was epitomized by Beyoncé; it's someone who can wake-up flawless. If you have ever tried to wake up Beyoncé-style five minutes before class starts, you probably discovered that Beyoncé lied. [But], effortless perfection goes beyond appearance, particularly in college. It's the good grades without the library or the athlete without the gym. Effortless perfection is an art form at Dartmouth."
Vivian, a sophomore at Columbia, commented: "Everyone wants to seem better than they are because they are at an institution with such a high reputation. Eventually, they either end up truly believing they are great or struggle because they didn't live up to the fantasy of themselves."
The term "effortless perfection" was first introduced at a Duke University study in 2003. The study was held by the Women's Initiative and analyzed Duke's female population: its undergraduates, graduates, alumni, professors, staff and trustees. The most shocking conclusion reached by the study was that female undergraduates feel pressured to be perceived as effortlessly perfect. It also found that women's confidence intervals drastically dwindled from their Freshmen Years to their Senior Years. Females entered Duke with a great deal of optimism, but by the time they left, their self-confidence was gone. For guys, it was the opposite. In the United States perfectionism is greatly revered. The danger with “effortless perfection” is that women want to hide from one another all of the diligence that goes into their seemingly perfect lives.
In an attempt to combat this serious issue, Duke University launched the Baldwin Scholars program in 2004. Each year, in the fall, 18 freshmen girls are selected to join this program with the goal that they will fight the unrealistic, effortless perfection ideal. During their four years at Duke, these 18 ladies take certain classes together, get prestigious summer internships and try to ward off this perfectionist stigma. A major contributor to the problem is that women try to outperform each other when what they really should be doing is working together. The Baldwin Scholars program is trying to change that by making high-achieving women bond with one another. Yet, a drawback to this program is it only includes 72 women out of the several thousand women that go to Duke. So, while it is a start, it is not a solution.
Anne, a Baldwin Scholar, spoke to me about her own battle with effortless perfection and the effect social media has on it: "I think that social media has made it particularly difficult to see the struggles that people who may appear to be perfect are going through. I don't necessarily find the need to be effortlessly perfect but I know that I have a really hard time with comparing myself to other women on campus. I definitely compare my body, clothes, grades, internships and relationships to other women on campus even though I would say I am a fairly confident person. Social media makes it nearly impossible not to compare yourself to others. Even if I'm having a perfectly good night, if I see someone on Snapchat or Instagram who appears to be having the time of their life, I may feel jealous or self-conscious about what I'm doing."
Anne is not the only woman who feels this way about social media. Claire, a sophomore at Cornell said: "People post pictures and posts to show their 'friends' what they're up to-no one is going to post something about a bad grade received or a detailed review of an issue they're having with a friend. However, people are quick to post about internship opportunities, fun pictures from an overseas vacation or decadent brunches with friends. People use these social media outlets as a way to portray the best versions of themselves. When I first arrived at college, I wasn't having the greatest time. Going online, I saw pictures of everyone at their first college parties and it seemed like everyone was having a great experience. Although my page was also filled with photos of me and my friends at school, I knew that I wasn't having as great a time as it may have seemed to others viewing my profile. I feel as though people take advantage of the fact that they can choose what they want to show to the world, and this leads to the perpetuation of the image of a perfect lifestyle without any adversity."
There is an eye-opening video on the teen suicide of Madison Holleran, a student from the University of Pennsylvania, which states: "Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others' filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered." This is a major contributor to the obsessive tendencies women undergraduates experience with effortless perfection.
The frightening thing is that effortless perfection is similar to what Betty Freidan once denoted as "the feminine mystique." It's an itch of unhappiness despite the outward appearance of a seemingly happy, successful lifestyle. This strive for perfection is not a new thing: before women were proving themselves in the university setting, they attempted to be idealistic housewives, serving breakfast for their families with pearls around their necks and heels on their feet like in I Love Lucy. Nowadays, women are undergoing this college version of the second feminist shift where they must excel not only in academia's pursuits but also in conventionally girlish areas such as beauty and popularity.
The stress associated with effortless perfection comes with some dire consequences. Studies find that the pursuit of perfection causes serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders among other concerning problems. A research study performed at UVA in 2015 found that female students who considered themselves highly motivated held extremely high standards for themselves and had tendencies to hide their effort, suffered from the most serious mental health issues. Alexis Andres, who conducted this study for her dissertation research, said of these women: "They also seemed to be the least equipped to handle anxiety. Many just shut down and turned inward...It's so ironic that they're putting in effort to not show effort. It's not healthy."
So what can we do to tackle the unrealistic expectation of effortless perfection? Let's face it: effortless perfection is a fallacy. These prestigious universities, where the perfectionist epidemic is so prevalent, are where America's future CEOs, politicians, teachers, researchers, you-name-it, reside. Another Baldwin Scholar, quoted in imdiversity.com, stated: “If women don’t have the confidence that they need to enter top professions, we’re losing out on half of the talent pool that could be benefiting everyone in the United States and everyone in the world. So it’s important for women to feel equally as confident as men and have the impact that only females can have on our country and on our government and on our businesses."
What young women need to do is figure out what aspects of their lives are lowering their self-esteem and re-evaluate. Jenna, a sophomore at Muhlenberg College, shared her way of battling effortless perfection: "[Effortless perfection] means never taking risks because you're scared you'll fail and never taking that interesting class because you'll lower your GPA. I definitely wanted to be effortlessly perfect when I entered college, but I soon realized that trying to be that way would ruin my college experience. [College] is a time to try new things and take risks, and you can't do that when you're worrying about being perfect. You can combat [this] by taking classes you're interested in, not ones that will necessarily be an easy A. This year, I got more involved in organizations that I felt passionate about, instead of ones that might look better on a resume."
Women need to be proud of the colleges they attend. They need to understand that if they do the best they can they will do great things and become successful, in a manner that is much more effortless than when they attempt to be effortless. Rose, the junior at Dartmouth said: "I [once] had a day where I felt like no one around me was trying and yet everyone around me was succeeding. I eventually realized that people who don't look like they are trying are trying really hard to "not try" and are actually the hardest "tryers." The point is, we should be proud of what we put our time into. After all, what's college without any effort and a few (or a lot) of mistakes?"
Another factor that can help girls combat effortless perfection is the female role models whom they look up to. Older women need to show their successors that it's okay not to be perfect: it's about aiming for excellence and not perfection. Universities also need to encourage women to discuss their problems with each other.
I asked another Duke student, Luisa, what effortless perfection meant to her. She said she had never heard the term before and so gave me two definitions. The first was the standard meaning of the term but the second was a definition I had never associated with effortless perfection. She said it was: "The state of accepting that you are perfect the way you are without having to make an effort to become someone else. I have felt the pressure to be naturally perfect yet I have trained myself to realize that there's much more to every person than what we see, and that 'perfection' and 'success' are subjective terms." Luisa is right: all of the students who live the standard definition of effortless perfection need to work towards living Luisa's alternative definition.
As some final food for thought, female undergraduates need to understand that the feminist movement is about having options. As a researcher at UVA put it: "We [women] have the ability to say that 'I'm going to do my own thing and that's going to be just as valuable. And I can see myself as a valuable individual with quirks and failures."
*All names in this article have been changed