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“Effortless Perfection” from the Duke University Chronicle

I didn’t write this post that you’re about to read.  This column was submitted to the Duke Chronicle in 2003.  My daughter just sent it to me and I read it and I firmly believe that this is as true today as it was 8 years ago.  To me, this is a typical college girl and although a Duke University student wrote it; I feel this is indicative of how many girls in schools all over the United States feel. I have written and received permission from the Duke Chronicle to reprint this anonymous letter and I hope you’ll share it with your daughters as well as your sons so that they too can understand this feeling of “not being enough.”

Column: Effortless Perfection?

By Guest Commentary: Anonymous October 23, 2003

Author: Guest Commentary: Anonymous

 

She was, in many ways, a typical Duke student. She enjoyed her classes, but she was smart, not brilliant. She went out occasionally, but she was at best, cute, not beautiful. She was a member of a sorority, but not one of the top tier. She was, what you could call, a “student leader;” she attended meetings with “Larry” and “Zoila” and “Nicole,” and generally knew what was going on on campus. She had the onion-peels-friend structure: the widest layer of natural acquaintances from classes, freshmen dorm, organizations, an inner layer of good friends from different groups, and a small core of intimate friends.

 

People thought she was self-assured, articulate and together. “Oh you do so much!” they said. Just like every student on campus. No one would have ever suspected she harvested anything but happiness and a prestigious degree from her Duke experience.

 

She worked hard on that exterior. It was important. Because what no one suspected was the demons that controlled her life, that had ravaged her self-esteem during her four years at Duke. No one realized how she felt from the moment she rolled out of bed to the early morning hours when she hit off the light. Like a failure. “Effortless perfection,” the Women’s Initiative called it. Female undergraduates wanted “effortless perfection.” It was the new catch phrase. She didn’t even want effortless perfection. Just perfection. She’d work for it. She wasn’t afraid of work. But she was fixated on the ideal, and sooner or later, it all began to come undone.

 

She’d never been particularly self-critical or low on self-esteem in high school. Like all Duke students, she had made the grade, led the team, won the award, gotten the scholarship. But college was hard on her. She wasn’t used to being asked why she would eat two bagels in one day. Or to the competitive acquisition of a new group of friends. Everyone’s gotta have a BFF. Someone to call and tell you where the party’s at. But wait. We’re an odd numbered group, and she doesn’t have one. She wasn’t used to people thinking her A-minus wasn’t good enough, or that wearing sweatpants in public was something to be scorned. She wasn’t used to the constant reiteration that she just wasn’t good enough the way she was.

 

So she started to change. It started out small: the desire to fit in with a certain group, to make a certain grade, to get a certain guy, to be more like a certain person. But she wavered on the edge of self-confidence, and the seemingly minute failures began to stack up, layers of bricks in the wall that slowly was pressing all the oxygen out her lungs.

 

Too fat. Too ugly. Too unpopular. Too weird.

 

Too boring. Too unhappy. Too dumb. Too scared.

 

Too scared to tell anyone how out of proportion the little failures had become. The little failures, the demon “almost but not quite:” the cookie eaten at 1 a.m., the A-minus on the midterm, the lack of interest following up the date. Failure boxed her in, trapped her in a roomful of mirrors confronting her with her “almost, but not quite” life. The couple holding hands. The anorexic girl buying fro-yo. The accepted job applicant. The teacher’s pet.

 

It was the claustrophobic sense of failure that sent her to the out-of-the-way bathrooms to try to reject as much of her meal as possible without making noise. Eating marred the quest for effortless perfection. Luckily no one asked her how she got the scars on her hand. Her right front tooth, pressing down on the flesh as she thrust her hand to the back of her throat, day in, day out was the only marker of her failure. Fat people are not “effortlessly perfect.” She couldn’t let the cookie stay in her stomach.

 

Sense of failure isolated her from her friends. She felt nervy, anxious. She was a senior without career plans, the only non-banker amongst them. She watched them fly to New York and compare interview notes, and she knew she’d never make it in the corporate world. Another failure. Poor people are not effortlessly perfect. She had loans to pay. “So what are you doing next year?” they smiled and asked. “Well?” Nothing. Because she wasn’t good enough.

 

Her lack of interest was a failure. She’d never been anything if not energetic. But now she felt different. Flaccid. Tired. People called it “senioritis.” “Oh yes,” she laughed, “I’m ready to graduate.” But all she wanted to do was go to her room, lock out the world, lie in bed, sleep and not wake up. She didn’t want anyone to see her, walking around in the baggy clothes she wore to hide the roll of stomach fat and the swinging thighs she couldn’t forget. The grades she couldn’t forget, the classes skipped she couldn’t forget, the date functions with her girlfriends she couldn’t forget. Entering the world meant walking outside to see “effortless perfection” striding across the grass, stepping on the bus, strutting down the runway. It meant seeing the world through the film of inferiority.

 

So on the outside she smiled and she ran and she led and she studied and she partied and she played the role of “effortless perfection” to the world. But alone in her room she hid and she ate and she threw up and ignored the phone and skipped her classes and all the meanwhile the cancerous lump in her stomach reached out insidious tentacles, poisoning an increasing number of hours, minutes, seconds. Until she started to worry her façade was going to crack. And she would have to commit the greatest failure yet: admitting there was a problem.

But she couldn’t trust anyone.

 

So it became another worry. She worried about telling someone she had a problem. She worried about not telling someone she had a problem. And when she felt the worse, she worried that her roommate was going to have to walk in one day and see that she wasn’t there anymore, that all the little failures had been swallowed up in a bowl of bloody water and a pink Wal-Mart razor.

So she reached out in the only way she could: she wrote an anonymous editorial to The Chronicle the week they ran features on the Women’s Initiative report, hoping, praying, that they would publish it. So that, no matter what, she wouldn’t have failed to let somebody know what the Women’s Initiative report never could: what it could be like to be an undergraduate woman on Duke’s campus.

 

This column was submitted to The Chronicle anonymously.

Editor’s Note:

The Chronicle holds a strict policy against running columns or letters to the editor submitted and/or intended to be run anonymously. However, we believe the column above is an extraordinary case, and we run it in this space so that those who may recognize this person may help her, and those who know people like her may help them as well. The issues the author raises affect nearly everyone at Duke, directly or indirectly, and we hope this column provokes thought, discussion and, perhaps most importantly, action.

 

I hope that this letter raised some awareness on how girls feel nowadays.  Please share it as I think it deserves to be read.  Again, these aren’t my words but as the mother of two college-aged girls and as someone who had an eating disorder for years; this had a huge impact on me.

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24 Comments

  1. Hollee Temple
    April 21, 2011

    Oh, what a sad piece. I can so relate to this Duke undergraduate. I remember what it felt like to be pursuing perfection, and with all of the beautiful, smart, typically “successful” women on that campus, I can only imagine how difficult it was for her. I don’t have any easy answers, but the scene she described is not much different from what I saw at Northwestern in the early 1990s. For me, it took maturity and developing a sense of self to overcome those demons.

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      The reason i printed it is because i think this is true of most universities where there are bright, articulate and competitive kids. I think it can just wear you down. I think thats why it just resonated with me. Thanks for reading.

      Hopefully, that girl, who would be around 29 now is doing great. I wrote it for all the mothers and sisters and friends out there to recognize what’s going on.

  2. Lady Estrogen
    April 21, 2011

    Wow. It is so sad – and the scary thing is that it seems to happen to some of the most unlikely people! One of my best friends – sexy, popular, funny, creative – and she’s tried to kill herself… twice.
    Lady Estrogen recently posted..3 Lies &amp A Good byeMy Profile

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      That’s why I printed it! I see such a lack of self esteem and self respect amongst college girls today…so sad!

  3. Adryon
    April 21, 2011

    You are absolutely right – any young girl could have written that. I could have written that and my fear as a mother is that my daughter could one day write it. Thank you for reposting it….even if I am tearing up at work.

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      Yeah…especially since i have two girls in college, i felt very strongly about this.

  4. By Word of Mouth Musings
    April 21, 2011

    Not the usual escapism over here today but instead, a really hard dose of reality.

    I had not heard of this article before, thank you so much for featuring it today. As a Mom of two girls in the world in which we live, this really hits home. Hoping my children never doubt their self worth, to know what strong beautiful women they are – inside and out, to never let other people make them feel less about themselves …. so many things.
    Each day I try to be an example, some days I fail …

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      Thanks…I’m glad it meant something to you

  5. Laurie @mylivingpower
    April 21, 2011

    I’m so glad you shared that post. It’s such an insidious issue we all have with being perfect. I sent this to another friend of mine too – she wrote a book on finding freedom in our imperfection, and her life message is to reach to women like this young gal at Duke… to help us all find freedom instead of scars. So glad you’re sharing this too!!
    Laurie @mylivingpower recently posted..What if you could change the rulesMy Profile

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      Thanks…it really sank in with me too

  6. RedShoes51
    April 21, 2011

    As a professor, I stress to my students to do the best that they can… I tell them that striving to be PERFECT can only lead to failure… No one is perfect… NO ONE!!

    No matter how perfect… how ideal someone’s Life seems to be, it isn’t… there are warts… moles… scars… they’ve just managed to do a great job of hiding them from everyone else…

    Thank you for posting this!

    ~shoes~

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      Your welcome

  7. Brad Procton
    April 21, 2011

    It’s the endless pursuit of perfection. We all know what it is. Some of it is brought on by parents who have such high aspirations for their own children. Part of it is society….which places a stamp of unattainable expectation indelibly stamped on the subconscious. Mostly though it’s the constant strain of “What will I be when I grow up” forcing “Effortless perfection” to become the highest mantra of our young.

    Work hard to teach your children that there is more to life than the next “A”. More to living than the next job interview. More to laughing than the next rude joke. Live, breathe, laugh – Every day.

    Thanks for posting this Lynn – so many sad children who need our reassurance and hugs each day.

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      Thanks Brad…I just wanted people to see what’s inside of these poor kids.

  8. Name *
    April 21, 2011

    That’s a lovely letter and beautifully written. Being a young woman today is difficult for so many reasons that have to do with competition, negative media messages and the idea that only perfection wins. In truth, it’s the imperfections that make us unique, special and beautiful. Giving girls good self-esteem, helping them cope with losses and failures in positive ways are some of the best things we can do to help them get through the rough waters of childhood and adolescence. Young women of today need to embrace their differences and love themselves from the inside out instead of the other way around. Thanks for the inspirational post, Lynn.

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      Thanks for commenting…I figured you would find it compelling.

  9. Pamela D Hart
    April 21, 2011

    It’s terribly frightening what can be hidden behind a smiling face, squared shoulders and a firm chin. And it’s heartbreaking that in an effort to get through this crazy life—we sometimes forget to LOOK so we don’t SEE the suffering hidden beneath the façade of bravado and “effortless” perfection.

    Thank you for sharing this Lynn. I too hope that one day women, especially young women, will believe they are worthy just as they are.
    Pamela D Hart recently posted..Just Meno-STOP Already!My Profile

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      I just really wanted moms, sisters, dads, brothers and boyfriends to know what all this pressure is doing to our girls!

  10. Sara Hawkins
    April 21, 2011

    Perfect timing! I felt like I could easily put my name on this. And so sad that 8 years later it is still so relevant. So relevant, in fact, that my 8yr old and I have been discussing Operation Beautiful. She knows I’ve struggled, but doesn’t understand why. At the same time she struggles with her own need for perfection.

    I remember the first time I was told I was fat. When doing my best wasn’t good enough and when I was looked past because I wasn’t “pretty enough” or “smart enough”. And I am quick to apologize and offer my praise when those same phrases pass my lips to my daughter’s ears.

    Thank you for getting permission to reprint this. As back then, I hope the post along with the comments resonates with others so that we can help the next generation of women escape the need for self hate.

    Sara

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      I feel the exact same way and i really wish i had a way to make EVERYONE read this. Thanks for your support.

  11. Handflapper
    April 21, 2011

    The really sucky thing about this is so many of us grow up, get jobs, get married, have daughters, and STILL feel like this. How can we break the cycle for our own precious children if we continue to tell ourselves every day that we’re not good enough? What the hell is wrong with us, anyway? Thank god I have boys, but I suspect they’re not immune from this insidious mindset.

    • Lynn
      April 21, 2011

      It’s tough…I struggled, so many people do. The pressure on these kids is immense!

  12. Karen
    April 23, 2011

    A lot of our names could easily be on this letter, I know mine could. I always had a happy face to the outside world but so much turmoil and self loathing inside for so many years, never thinking I was good enough or pretty enough or skinny enough. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Lynn
      April 23, 2011

      i know what you mean…thanks for your comment

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