In the early 15th century, the word ‘perfect’ meant ‘finished, completed, ready’. More than 600 years later, the word has been twisted, mangled and manipulated into all manner of meanings that boil down to the same exhaustive conclusion: keep reaching and striving, be better, faster, smarter, stronger, richer, prettier, thinner… the list is endless and varied. But the striving – that is universal.
On Instagram, the hashtag #flawless has been used over six million times to date.
That is a lot of striving.
And of those six million perfect images, scenarios, depictions online – how many are actually perfect?
To quantify that, we need to know: what are the parameters of perfection? Who defines the criteria?
The experts generally define perfection as “striving for flawlessness.” But where does it start and how have we come to be afflicted with this gruelling drive?
We indulge the idea of “perfection” every day and in every way. In modern society, perfectionism is seen as a virtue.
Who hasn’t used the “My worst quality is that I’m a perfectionist,” line in a job interview? How many selfies do we routinely snap to ensure we get just the right one? Why do we spend hours on social media painfully comparing our lives, clothes, last vacation to that one girl from high school whose life just keeps trumping ours?
For the perfectionist, nothing in life goes unchecked and unnoticed. Every accolade is a tick in the ‘yes’ column. Every minor fault and failure is a big fat glaring symbol of an imperfection. An irony in itself because if we take that 600-year-old definition at face value – when will perfect ever be good enough – finished, completed, ready?
When perfectionism pushes you to challenge yourself and learn, it is helpful, says LifeWorks Dubai personal development trainer Dr Mona Moussa. “But the downside is that it can also lead to a lot of pressure. Relentlessly pursuing extremely high standards can make you tense, stressed and leave you feeling inadequate and judging yourself as a failure.”
If it looks like a duck…
Picture a lake filled with ducks gliding placidly along. Except, under the water, their little legs are flailing like crazy, paddling furiously to keep up. They know a thing or two about ‘relentless pursuit.’
Duck Syndrome, albeit a cute way to describe perfectionism in women, is a term coined a few years ago by researchers at Stanford University in the US. It was a disturbing acknowledgement of the thousands of female students who feel immense pressure to do well, look great, have a thriving social life and generally tick off every box on every list.
And in doing so, put themselves at great risk of burning out – or worse. Increasingly, Duck Syndrome has been pinpointed as the precursor to depression and suicide amongst young females.
The roots of perfection, theorise the experts, are embedded in various minefields. One of these minefields: the bosom of the family. In their book, Perfectionism: Theory, Research and Treatment, published over 10 years ago, authors GL Flett and PL Hewitt tackled these roots. According to them, “It is likely that a perfectionistic orientation develops over time, and family history may contribute to this development.”
In 2012, a comprehensive study, The Influence of Parent Factors on Child Perfectionism, by the University of Nevada, backed up this view. Using data and research dating as far back as 1965, they found that perfectionism is learned when children feel that they must ‘earn’ their parents’ love and approval by behaving perfectly.
And once this incessant need takes hold, it’s hard to shake. Women in the UAE are no exception. A 2013 report by Hawkamah, The Institute of Corporate Governance, researched women board directors in the UAE; sussing out their state of mind, career goals, and challenges in the workplace.
On the whole, the information was promising, but read between the lines and it’s clear that women have internalised a need for perfection that stems from childhood. One respondent said, “Maybe I was very hard on myself because I wanted to satisfy my family’s needs first, and then wanted to prove myself to them. But I also desired to have achievements that I could take pride in. That was the most difficult part, because I always wanted everybody else to be happy.”
And then there are the scary, sad and often harmful exhibitors of Duck Syndrome: depression, feelings of inadequacy, stress and anxiety to name just a few. To name one specifically; alcoholism – in particular, “oblivion drinking,” as author Jan Bauer writes in her book, Alcoholism and Women: The Background and the Psychology.
“Alcohol offers a time out from doing it all. Superwoman is a cliché now but it is extremely dangerous. I’ve seen such a perversion of feminism, where everything becomes work: raising children, reading all the books, not listening to their instincts. The main question is: what self are they trying to turn off? These women have climbed so high that when they fall, they crash – and alcohol’s a perfect way to crash.”
On the flipside of oblivion, however, is the perfectionists’ need for rigidity and control – an equally dangerous territory. A 2013 report in the Journal of Eating Disorders cites that two aspects of perfectionism are manifested as body dissatisfaction and the development of eating disorders. The researchers (surveying over a thousand women) found that those striving for the lowest body mass index and the smallest body size were more worried about organisation and had higher self-doubt than anyone else.
A fundamental understanding of perfectionism needs to start with looking beneath the surface, explains Dr Moussa. “Is your perfectionism directed to yourself, demanding high standards from yourself? Or is it about demanding high standards from others?
Moving beyond perfectionism, she says, is about developing awareness such as recognising when we might be pursuing unrealistic standards in order to keep our self-doubt at bay. “It’s about gaining more awareness into our underlying beliefs and assumptions about ourselves, others and the world.”
Hearteningly, we may just be getting in touch with that awareness. A refreshing new movement is stirring. Let’s call it the real “I Woke Up Like This.”
How did you look when you woke up this morning? No, not how you looked when you snapped a filter-flattering pic for Instagram… the real you? If it was anything like most of us, it was hair matted to the side of the face, a little eye goo and morning breath.
Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her latest book, Big Magic, “Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat.” Well, it seems that women around the world are pushing back against the fear and kicking off those fancy shoes – and it’s causing a seismic response.
Global skincare brand, Dove kicked off its “Campaign for Real Beauty,” in 2004 and last year celebrated 10 years of its particular sort of anti-perfection movement.
Last year, 30,000 people showed just how quickly change could be effected in the war against perfection. A petition, registered on Change.org called for lingerie brand, Victoria’s Secret, to change the wording on some of their advertisements to a phrase that “does not promote unhealthy and unrealistic standards of beauty as well as pledge to not use such harmful marketing in the future.”
Victoria’s Secret paid heed, amending their Perfect Body marketing campaign.
Then there’s the tongue-in-cheek spoof on perfect parenting by Tumblr site It’s Like They Know Us, which shows classic parenting images with a twist. A picture of a mother playing with her baby in a field is captioned: “As a backlash to attachment parenting, many moms and dads are now literally trying to hurl their children into space.”
The founder of the American site, Sara Given, has now parlayed the Tumblr success into a book. The idea, she says, came from the advertising saturation of stock images of perfect parents and children. “They’d have you believe that parenting is a piece of cake and every significant moment of family life takes place on a spotless white couch.”
In the book, entitled Parenting is Easy, You’re Probably Just Doing it Wrong, she purposely turns that notion on its head and says that it’s about “exploiting the disconnect between those preposterous photos and what happens in real life.”
Sara’s cause is just a drop in the ocean of the bigger crusade against perfection and its harmful implications for women. Feel More Better, started by a former advertising executive Seth Matlin in the US is working to pass a law, called The Self-Esteem Act or Truth in Advertising Act that proposes a strict regulation on Photoshopped images in advertising.
The mission statement of Feel More Better says, “We’re trying to add new faces and new voices to a woman’s fight for the right to like herself. We want you to feel good enough about yourself. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out… grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO.”
If countless campaigns, media directives and pop culture narratives aren’t enough to convince you of a turning of the tide, consider this: In 1988, Richard Lenski of Michigan State University began growing cultures of a bacteria.
Almost 30 years later, those bacteria are still growing, proving that even in the simple, stable environment of a lab, bacteria never stop making small tweaks to improve themselves. Lenski concludes: “When it comes to evolution, there is no such thing as perfection.”
Let go of perfection these holidays
How to rein in your perfection monster…
1 Figure out what’s important: a perfectly clean house or the knowledge that everyone in the family is having a grand old time – even if they are trekking mud in through the house?
2 Striving for a Masterchef-worthy dinner is great – but would you rather slave for hours over a hot stove in pursuit of that, or spend more time with your family?
3 Who among us doesn’t have the odd dysfunctional family member (or even two)? Repeat after us: you cannot control them. Do your best to create a fun, neutral environment, but do not let yourself get caught up in their drama or fixated on smoothing over their bad behaviour.
4 Look, we all secretly delight in the extravagant gift. It’s great to give it and even better to receive it, but if you can’t afford it, look for alternative, realistic ways of showing your appreciation without miring yourself in debt for the next few months.