The Effortless Perfection Myth

Caralena Peterson initially wrote it off as a superficial cliché, but now as a recent college graduate, she believes it should be considered a major mental health concern.

January 29, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/CSA Images

Along with which professors to avoid and the best places to buy late-night food on campus, one of the first pieces of advice I received during my college orientation week from upperclassmen was to be wary of “effortless perfection,” or “the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort.”

The term was coined at my alma mater Duke University in 2003 and has since been used, particularly by women, to describe the cultural climate on campuses throughout the United States. Initially, I wrote it off as a superficial cliché. But as a recent graduate feeling like I just barely survived college, I have come to see that it needs to be considered a major mental health concern.

Most of us do not go into our undergraduate education expecting to experience a significant drop in confidence. We expect the best four years of our lives. From the outside looking in, that narrative fits. Women now outpace men in college enrollment. And as we achieve and excel at unprecedented rates, our generation of women appears to comprise nothing but brilliant, strong, unbreakable females with the world at our fingertips.

But this is just the story from a distance. From the inside looking out, the story has a different feel to it. Young women are too often leaving college with less self-esteem than we came in with. We are questioning ourselves in academic and leadership roles due to gendered phenomena like impostor syndrome and stereotype threat. Between 10 and 20 percent of us are estimated to develop eating disorders in college. We are experiencing depression at twice the rate of our male peers. And nobody is catching on because all this is hidden beneath a gilded front of effortless perfection. The act many of us are putting on is too convincing.

During in-depth interviews I've conducted with women undergraduates at 15 institutions of higher learning across America -- including small, private liberal arts colleges like Colgate University and large public universities like the University of Alabama -- a constant thread ran throughout each narrative. It was an intense pressure to, as one Virginia Tech undergrad worded it: “get good grades, be a good person, a good student, good daughter, good friend, be beautiful, and have it seem like that’s all just flowing out of you as who you are and not something you constantly have to think about and live up to.”

Most interviewees claimed the pressure to appear effortlessly perfect had started in high school, where they felt capable of handling and even living up to its expectations, but that when they reached college -- suddenly small fishes in a big institutional pond -- it had become too much. A Vanderbilt University undergrad recalled the moment at the start of her freshman year when it hit her “like a freight train” that all the people around her were “just like [her] or more so -- prettier, smarter, more outgoing.” The thing she had been using to stand out, the guise of effortless perfection, was suddenly the thing everyone was using to fit in.

This “game” of effortless perfection had become one she could no longer win, but that did not stop her from trying. She describes being compelled to do everything on overdrive until she crashed because -- in trying so hard to define herself as a flawlessly, effortlessly perfect girl -- she had “lost touch with the things that really did define [her], like being good friend and being genuine.” She was not alone in those feelings. Many of my interviewees illustrated similar behavior patterns -- striving for effortless perfection at a million miles an hour until the consequences become negative enough that they were forced to seriously re-evaluate their motives.

“What am I if I’m not this effortlessly perfect version of myself that lives up to the expectations put on me by everyone else?” a young woman from High Point University asked me.

Although the term “effortless perfection” was coined 15 years ago, the first scientific assessment of this growing phenomenon was not published until recently. In their journal article for the American Psychological Association, Lea Travers of Loyola University Chicago and Edin Randall of Boston Children’s Hospital note a clear correlation between the pressure to be effortlessly perfect and psychological maladjustment. They attribute this maladjustment to tendencies including: 1) only comparing oneself to those deemed social or academically “above” oneself and 2) incorrectly believing that qualities like intelligence are innate -- thus requiring no effort, as opposed to having to be acquired through trial and tribulation. They conclude that, in an increasingly competitive world, the women who model effortless perfection may be attempting to establish themselves in line with a new and distinguishing feature of success that establishes its “superiority” by appearing to occur naturally and with ease.

In other words, there is no room for struggle. But my personal experiences, along with the research I’ve gathered and interviews I’ve conducted, have led me to the following conclusion: effortless perfection creates an environment wherein we all are so set on making it seem like we have everything together at all points in time that, when we do inevitably hit a road bump, we look around at our seemly flawless peers and assume we are the only ones struggling. We do not realize the extent to which every other member of our community is carefully holding their cards close to their chest, unwilling to show anything beyond a socially accepted front of confident ease. We conclude there is no other way to deal with our problems than by ourselves, alone, if we do not wish to stand out as “broken” or “the one who couldn’t keep up.”

Unfortunately, this self-imposed isolation -- this sense of being “the only one” -- causes the consequences of such struggles to become much more harmful and extreme than they might otherwise be, as the data on depression and other damaging reactions reflect. Indeed, it may be one key reason why the student demand for college counseling centers increased an average of 30 percent between 2009 and 2015, while enrollment only grew 6 percent. Or why a study by the American College Health Association found that 57 percent of collegiate women surveyed reported having experienced episodes of “overwhelming anxiety” in the last year. In the same study, 33 percent of collegiate women said they had experienced depression that made it "difficult to function" in the same year.

While counseling and psychological services are integral to supporting undergrad students as they experience a period of their lives that can dramatically challenge their identities, this work needs to be happening far beyond the closed doors of a clinician’s office. The solution to this mental health crisis is to insert more alternative narratives into the mainstream, the daily lives of most undergraduates -- stories that show what is truthfully occurring behind the front of effortless perfection being projected by the collective.

Luckily, a small but growing body of campaigns and organizations has already begun to take up this torch. #HalftheStory encourages individuals to “share parts of their lives that exist outside of the standard social media” by posting more than just a highlight reel of their best moments -- instead bringing up taboo issues like mental health and belonging. The What I Be Project creates photo campaigns, often on college campuses, that allow individuals to highlight their insecurities while also using their own words to frame those stories the way they want them to be told. Me Too Monologues, established before the Me Too movement, curates a theatrical performance of monologues that anonymous students write about their feelings on identity issues like race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status and ability.

Each of these campaigns encourages undergrads to show enough of their own vulnerabilities that others do not feel the need to hide their own. If we want to push back against the effortless perfection myth and the mental health crisis it has helped to create on college campuses, institutions all across America need to create and support such vital efforts.

Bio

Caralena Peterson is a recent graduate of Duke University and is completing her first book, The Effortless Perfection Myth, on the gender issues that today’s women confront in college. You can sign up for her monthly newsletter by visiting her website here.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top