Musings on the Nature of Feminine Perfectionism

“If you ever start to feel too good about yourself, they have this thing called the Internet, and you can find a lot of people there who don’t like you.”

Tina Fey, Golden Globes Acceptance Speech, 2009

One of my best friends tells people that she’s a perfectionist. By this, she means she holds herself to an extremely high standard. Many of my female friends describe themselves as perfectionists.

As a grad student, you teach section and grade papers. As a Sociology instructor, I’m perhaps unsurprisingly non-authoritarian and hand out extensions to practically anyone who asks for one. You realize, really, that very few students really ever abuse the practice, but the thing you also realize after several years of doing it is that students most likely to ask for extensions aren’t usually the ones with the most life to juggle. There’s a marked difference in the faces that come to you overwhelmed by overscheduling and the ones who come overwhelmed by the assignment.

I’m not nearly so delusional to think undergraduates find me, as formidable as I am, all that frightening. But I do know enough to know that many students are wrought so fragile that a few red words at the bottom of a page might break them. With this anxiety they bring me, they are telling me something about our relationship. They are telling me that they are fearful of what I can say to them.

I’ve been in their position. I get it

Places like Harvard and other elite colleges are incubators of insecurity.

There’s so much class, race and sexual privilege ripening on any one of these campuses that the majority of students — if the college is doing its job — are walking around critically wondering if they deserve to be there, if they’re worthy of this opportunity denied to most other Americans.

For all the hullabaloo about hooking up, frat parties or whatever, undergraduate life is primarily defined by uncertainty and anxiety.

For years now, I’ve associated perfectionism with insecurity. Growing up, I knew being perfect academically was the only way I’d earn a scholarship that would allow me to attend college. My financial insecurity motivated me to put way, way more time into being a good student than virtually anything else I could and probably should have been prioritizing during my teenage years. In college, this anxiety haunted me and I irrationally feared every time I turned in a paper that having it returned back to me with a B- might mean getting my scholarship revoked. My college boyfriend, bless his heart, eventually ran out of patience trying to retrieve me from the panic attacks that accompanied virtually every writing assignment. No one really quite understood it. I didn’t exactly have a reputation for being dumb.

With the benefit of where I sit on the cusp of 30, blessed by the emergence of what I insist is my first forehead wrinkle, I try to relate this writing anxiety to my friends. I ask them: for whom are you trying to be perfect?

(Except I say “Who are you trying to be perfect for?” because obviously.)

I’ll tell you right now it’s a trick question. Either you’ve thought about this question before or you haven’t.

For me, I think somewhere down the line, a lot of us were taught that saying “I’m a perfectionist” is a more socially desirable way of saying “I’m fearful.” But because you were taught that perfectionism was sufficient explanation for discomfort, you never challenged yourself to identify what it is about each fresh hell life brings that makes you afraid. You chalk it all up to a single problem — you.

You’re the problem.

When I can actually get a student to admit that what they’re actually afraid of is my criticism, I get closer to making a better writer.

All academic writing starts with a question. The best questions are the ones you ask yourself. But the students primarily afraid of what I think don’t ask themselves good questions. They’re preoccupied with guessing mine.

And I’ll level with you, while it’s flattering, it’s not what I want.

My approach to writing assignments has always been show me what you’ve learned, expressed coherently enough to warrant three to five pages of my strained attention.

And I tell every student at every level I’ve ever taught: you’re not a graduate student. Your job isn’t to produce new knowledge, your job is to learn. Show me what you learned.

I’ve started wondering a lot about what perfectionism is when it comes to being a woman. For whom are you trying to be perfect? Whose favor are you currying? Who is it that you fear?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and yet, they sound like something Dove would appropriate for an achingly obvious campaign strategy pushing body lotion.

And while the self-esteem movement of the 1990s Trojan Horsed what is now an utter-bullshit veneer of neoliberal positivity, it did make us at least shallowly aware of how sensitive children are to bullying. But the kind of bullying teachers can do anything about is literally a piss in the ocean compared to the daily messaging boys and girls receive about how to conduct their lives.

Honestly, gender is the worst kind of bully because where as bullies can only hurt you so much, gender teaches you to hurt yourself.

The American experience is one where women my age were taught that everything about ourselves is open for social judgment and that the best of us would welcome such judgment as a valid assessment of our human worth.

That our entire selves are being graded, daily.

That we can be held to account by others for something as infuriating as not smiling enough.

Perfection from women is universally demanded.

Our subjection to the criticism of others is taken for granted.

In this world, it’s easy for me to see why so many women claim to be perfectionists. If you’re perfect, you think no one can hurt you.

But in my twisted logic, perfectionism is akin to putting on armor, knowing you’re going to be attacked because everyone’s coming for your throat.

The fact that you showed up with the armor on at all tells me you’re afraid.

That you’ve been conditioned to see every encounter as an opportunity for judgment and assessment rather than an opportunity for conversation, a potential chance for growth, a fleeting moment of mutual recognition.

Perfectionism in women gets pathologized and thus shrugged off too quickly. We treat it as a benign character flaw rather than what I see it as — an anticipated sense of power imbalance, a conditioning to a social order that too frequently puts women in situations of being assessed and dismissed. I recognize the ontological erosion that comes when women are routinely having their entire selves processed in the workplace, at school, in their dating lives, with their friends. Over decades, this can break you down to a point where you have no idea who you’re trying to please anymore, you just don’t want to get hurt.

But when you’re already wearing so much armor, trying to come up with answers to everyone else’s questions before they ask them, you just can’t ask your own.

It takes an insane amount of courage to stand up and risk imperfection because as a woman, you know all too well how quickly the world will close in on you for any lapse.

We are so preoccupied with appeasement we very often fail to recognize that women’s fortunes are systematically eroded not by policy, but in every moment we orchestrate our actions in fear. It takes chutzpah to stand up and ask more from society than what’s currently on offer.

And I guess the sum of it is this: if you’re so afraid that you must be perfect, then you’re too afraid to ask the necessary questions.