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Abolishing "Effortless Perfection"

By Melinda Barlow, University of Colorado at Boulder

Recent studies at several universities reveal that women still feel an overwhelming sense of pressure to be perfect.

When Betty Friedan described the "problem that has no name" in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, she identified a form of ennui that had once been ineffable and thus socially ignored. By interviewing fellow female college graduates from the 1940s who had become full-time housewives by the 1950s, she discovered that she was not alone in feeling unfulfilled. She validated their shared experience by giving it a name, and in the process jump-started the second wave of American feminism.

A new catchphrase identifying something that sounds frighteningly like part of the feminine mystique Friedan described 30 years ago has recently emerged, thanks to a report released by Duke University's Women's Initiative in 2003. The study was a comprehensive look at the situations faced by the school's female graduate and undergraduate students, alumnae, faculty and staff members, and trustees. Its most controversial conclusion was that women undergraduates feel pressured by a fraternity-dominated social culture to achieve "effortless perfection."

These women felt they must be "smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular," all without visible effort, and when they can't attain this ideal, their sense of failure is manifested through self-inflicted wounds and eating disorders.

Another significant finding of the report: Undergraduate women crave more contact with female mentors whose personal and professional experiences offer an antidote to this impossible ideal, by allowing them to see in action other ways of feeling and being. To this end, Duke created the Women's Networking and Mentoring Program to help foster faculty-student interaction, as well as a new scholarship program that rewards and cultivates leadership potential in young women on campus.

Similar studies conducted at Harvard University and the University of Colorado at Boulder earlier this year likewise revealed that female students, faculty, and staff at each institution want to be mentored by senior women now more than ever. Why? In part so they can learn to negotiate what CU's study called the "gendered networks of influence" or old boy "clubbiness" of whose existence women in both schools are acutely aware.

The major result of the Harvard studies, undertaken by two task forces created by President Lawrence H. Summers as part of his apology for his public remarks regarding "innate" gender differences in math ability, was the commitment of $50 million over the next decade to help improve the climate for female faculty members at Harvard. At the time of this writing, the University of Colorado is awaiting an open forum to discuss the findings of the report by the Chancellor's Committee on Women.

Change can and should be modeled "from the top down," as CU's report recommends. That said, we need to think about how, as women who have attained positions of power, we can model something useful for our female students who long to be mentored. But with recent research on the expectations held by both male and female students of their female teachers revealing that they want us to be not only nurturing but unequivocally "nice," and that they are more likely to dislike us than our male colleagues if we are hard graders—how can we possibly escape the expectation of yet another form of effortless perfection? Perhaps it is time for a positive role model who is not afraid to appear in process, one with no stake in perpetuating the illusion of her own perfection.

Addressing the Needs of Female Undergraduates

Let me make clear that by "in process" I am not advocating professional sloppiness—showing up late, appearing frazzled, acting disorganized or arbitrarily authoritative—all of which would indeed constitute serious imperfections. But I do want to pass along the advice the one female member of my dissertation committee gave me when I was devoting several hours to single words rather than churning out chapters: "aim for excellence, not perfection." Do your best, and then go on.

Do young women need to hear this advice and see successful women embodying it in the ways they teach and interact more than young men? Years of experience teaching large and small classes, giving talks and offering workshops for graduate students, undergraduates, and junior faculty has taught me that yes, younger women need to hear this said and see it embodied in the women they admire as often as possible; like us, they have internalized cultural expectations of female perfection that take years of self-conscious effort to shake.

They also need to see us make mistakes and correct them; admit when we don't know an answer rather than pretend that we do; apologize if we overstep a boundary; wield authority with disruptive students calmly but with conviction and then go on. Grace under fire is impressive. It's a life skill you learn by seeing others do it well.

Most young women still have to be encouraged to speak up in mixed gender settings because they still "position themselves in traditional ways to male students—deferring, admiring, flirting," as a colleague at Carnegie Melon recently put it. Creating opportunities for women to cultivate their own voices—in oral presentations, in their writing, on panels—is a rewarding pedagogic challenge.

Art vs. Life

Finally, the movies are offering up some interesting female heroines. Occasionally, they even show us how to lead. But taking a cue from the movies is always risky, especially where positive role models are concerned. After all, the Hollywood Production Code mandated through 1968 that the end of each film punish "fallen women."

This means that the standard refrain following screenings in my Women and Film course is "another one bites the dust." Think of Mildred Pierce, Imitation of Life, and the notorious Fatal Attraction. The last 15 years, however, have given us Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, who persists in the face of sexism and solves the crime using her intuition and intelligence. More recently New Zealand director Niki Caro provided the prematurely wise Paikea, the adolescent heroine of Whale Rider who knows that, despite the patriarchal restrictions of Maori culture, "if knowledge is given to everyone we can all be leaders; we can all be strong." Paikea's tenacity inspires men and women alike, which is why I've shown this film to CU's President's Leadership Class as a powerful example of how one learns to lead.

Neither Clarice nor Paikea is perfect. In fact, sometimes their fearlessness seems downright foolish because it puts them in danger. However, both are refreshingly realistic and invaluable as role models because they offer my students (and me) strong female characters we can positively identify with. And occasionally everyone needs an inspiring vision of possibility. We need to see someone who possesses qualities we'd like to have, who has achieved what we'd like to accomplish, who gives us a glimpse of who we'd like to be. Long live the positive role model, in life and art!


References & Resources

(with special thanks to Angella Dirks)

Bachen, C. M. McLoughlin, and S. Garcia, 1999. "Assessing the Role of Gender in College Students' Evaluations of Faculty," Communication Education 48: 193-210.

Basow, S.A., 1995. "Student Evaluation of College Professors: When Gender Matters," Journal of Educational Psychology 87, 4: 656-665.

Chancellor's Committee on Women, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005. "Improving the Campus Environment for Women," www.colorado.edu/cu-diversity/ccw/Finalreport.pdf.  

Dube, K., 2004. "What Feminism Means to Today's Undergraduates," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 50 (41) (June 18): B5.

Fogg, P., 2005. "Harvard Committees Suggest Steps to Help Women," The Chronicle of Higher Education, (May 27): A8-9.

Haskell, Molly, 1974. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies New York: Penguin Books.

Ihimaera, Witi, 1987. The Whale Rider. Auckland, New Zealand: Reed Books. First US edition New York: Harcourt Inc., 2003.

Lipka, S., 2004 "Feminine Critique: A Study of Women at Duke Has Sparked Debate about the Pressures of Pursuing ‘Perfection'," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 50 (37) (May 21): A35.

Pierce, G., 2004. "Mentoring Junior Faculty," The Advocate, (October).

Sinclair, L. and A. Kunda, 2000. "Motivated Stereotyping of Women: She's Fine if She Praised Me, but Incompetent if She Criticized Me," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26, 11: 1329-1342.

Tasker, Yvonne, 2002. The Silence of the Lambs. London, England: British Film Institute.


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