Have Women Finally Had Enough of Effortless Perfection?

December 3, 2015

effortless perfectionAre Millennial women finally turning their backs on the insidious self-destruction of Effortless Perfection?

Much has been written about the curse of Effortless Perfection. The term was coined in 2003 after a Women’s Initiative landmark study by Duke University sought to evaluate the school’s climate for women. The research included faculty and other employees, alumnae and grad students, but the most troubling finding came out of the discussions with undergraduates.

What is Effortless Perfection?

Donna Lisker, then Director of Duke’s Women’s Center summarizes:

“They provided a wealth of data on social and academic life, with far more emphasis on the social. One sophomore described the undergraduate social culture for women as one of “effortless perfection”; she said women were supposed to be academically successful and driven, but also thin, pretty, well dressed and fashionable— all of which was supposed to happen without visible effort.

This environment enforces fairly stringent norms on undergraduate women, who feel pressure to wear fashionable (and often impractical) clothes and shoes, to diet and exercise excessively, and to hide their intelligence in order to succeed with their male peers. Being “cute” trumps being smart for women in the social environment.”

Full disclosure: My daughter graduated from Duke in 2011. Many posts in the early years of this blog were inspired by her experiences, as well as those of her friends at a variety of other colleges. In my view, this portrayal of the pressure women feel to be amazing while appearing carefree is both accurate and widespread. It’s not just a Duke issue, is a cultural issue that pervades all aspects of life for young American women.

Nannerl Keohane, Duke’s president at the time, agreed:

“The problems we’re hearing about are mostly not unique to Duke but devolve from our common culture. Suffocatingly complex codes tell college women what to wear, how to act, what to eat and drink, which weight machine is for guys and which for girls, how many hours they are “allowed” to study, whom they may have sex with, how they should treat their younger peers.

I am concerned about their high level of conformity to harsh norms and the resultant problems of self-esteem. Some of this, of course, is what all young adults go through as they’re trying to find their identity, but structures and expectations in place in Duke and elsewhere are channeling many women into a very narrow notion of femininity.”

Femininity vs. Achievement

From the report:

“Two intense pressures to conform characterize the lives of many undergraduate women at Duke. On the one hand, students speak eloquently and in depth about the intense pressures to conform to strict norms of femininity.

…On the other hand, the women also testify about their efforts to conform to standards of academic achievement that have traditionally been associated with masculine performance. They have internalized these norms as their own.

…These young Duke women seem intent on demonstrating their femininity even while minimizing how hard they work to prove their intellectual merit.”

Many Millennial women are caught between a rock and a hard place. My generation of parents applied considerable pressure to achieve in hopes that girls could catch up and realize equal opportunity with their male peers. But their own generation continues to value traditional femininity.

I recall a visit to Duke when we met our daughter for coffee before her first class at 8 a.m. She wore a cute, casual outfit with boots. Her hair was blown out and her makeup applied perfectly. And she was no exception – all over campus, focused young women hightailed it to class on the verge of being late. But they looked fantastic doing it.

Girls strive to be attractive to both guys and other girls so that they can be socially successful during the all-important “college experience” that has become a milestone in America.

I worried. It was too much. Flannel pants and a hoodie would have been far more appropriate for the hour and task at hand.

After the Women’s Initiative was published, a senior girl wrote an anonymous letter about her experience to the student newspaper. It’s heartbreaking. You can read the whole thing HERE, but I’ll highlight what I think best describes this feeling among women students:

“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.

…People thought she was self-assured, articulate and together. “Oh you do so much!” they said. Just like every student on campus.

…She worked hard on that exterior. It was important…Because 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…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.”

For a 2013 update on the state of effortless perfection medical student Amy Yao interviewed Emily, a student at Oberlin College. Not much had changed:

It’s kind of like a high school and college equivalent of the “second shift.”

“Women have more opportunities now, and we’re able to succeed in academic and work areas, but we’re also expected to succeed in traditionally feminine areas, like being beautiful. We’re expected to do everything,” Emily says:


“While the quintessential “effortlessly perfect” student varies from school to school, they all have one thing in common — the seemingly innate ability to succeed in whatever they attempt, whether it’s academic, social, or emotional. But how much of that is a façade?”

Social media plays a large role in perpetrating the pressure. One student who is a prestigious scholar on campus had this to say in a recent article:

“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.”

A sophomore at Cornell agrees, pointing out just how curated our lives are on social media, exacerbating the perception that others achieve perfection easily:

“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.

…When I first arrived at college, I wasn’t having the greatest time…Although my page was 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…this leads to the perpetuation of the image of a perfect lifestyle without any adversity.”

Since 2003, many colleges and universities have attempted to understand this phenomenon so prevalent among American college women. Prescriptions vary, including everything from new female scholars programs to mentoring programs and structured dialogue among female students as a means of support. Still, there is little evidence the dynamic has shifted.

A Hopeful Sign of Change?

In writing this post, I’m not saying that women are worse off than men. I don’t view gender relations as a zero sum game. The truth is, women are excelling in areas traditionally populated by men, and that’s having a detrimental effect on young men, fewer and fewer of whom attend college.

But what my daughter’s generation of women is experiencing is enormous pressure to have it all and be it all. While maintaining a grin and high self-esteem. Never let them see you sweat. They’re caught between Betty Friedan and Beyonce. It’s a tall order, one that very few women can fill (and remain sane).

Interesting new research by Harvard Business School shows that Millennial women may be rejecting these demands. In the study Compared to men, women view professional advancement as equally attainable, but less desirable researchers found:

  • Compared to men, women have more life goals, but fewer of them are focused on power.
  • Women perceive professional power as less desirable than men do.
  • Women anticipate more negative outcomes from attaining a high-power position.
  • Women are less likely than men to jump at opportunities for professional advancement.
  • While women and men believe they are equally able to attain high-level leadership positions, men want that power more than women do.

The researchers were so surprised they then surveyed over 500 Harvard undergraduates and found exactly the same thing. I’m encouraged by that – because it means that some of the most “effortlessly perfect” young women in the country are setting limits while still young. They’re fighting back and taking ownership of their lives.

I’m curious to know how and whether you have experienced this pressure. I can tell you that I felt it in 1978, though it’s much worse now for your generation.

When does it start? What role did your parents play in making you feel it? How do you fight back?

Let’s discuss.