Is Perfectionism the Dark Side of Feminism?

She ran the campus clinic, and was married to my graduate advisor. Both at the top of their game, both doctors (she an MD, he a PhD). He was a wunderkind obtaining multiple appointments fresh out of grad school, she oversaw the health of the entire university. They were the "perfect" family. Two kids: one boy, one girl. Both children gifted and polite. A house right out of Dwell magazine. They exercised together as a family, going on bike rides to the farmer’s market and week-long canoe trips for spring break. They were healthy, tall, good-looking with no visible cracks in the facade.

You might be waiting for me to say the “but” - but there isn’t one. They were actually incredibly nice people, and devoted their lives to helping others.

Of course, they had a nanny, and a maid, and family to help them when they needed. High-powered jobs yes, but also very well-paying so they could afford a lot. I don’t know much about their levels of privilege as far as family money, or any kind of connections, but I doubt they were non-existent.

I have no idea if there were anxiety issues, or addiction, fights or problems with their sex life. I don’t know if there were any number of secrets that appear when people seem to totally have their shit together.

But I do know this. I know that she is literally the only woman I can think of who checked all the boxes of “having it all.” Successful career, good-looking and loving partner, well-adjusted and smart kids. Heathy, wealthy and happy. Was she a perfectionist? Judging by the immaculate house that looked like a Scandinavian movie set, I’d guess probably yes.

Perfectionism is the dark side to feminism

I’ve noticed over the years a trend of women wearing perfectionism as a kind of badge of honor. I remember the first time that I really noticed it, years ago when I got into the car of a fellow social worker and remarked that it was spotless (my ancient 4Runner that was barely hanging on, most decidedly wasn’t). She said something about being a perfectionist and with a sigh, that just barely covered a tone of superiority, she said that she had to have things “just so.”

That’s something I’ve heard again and again, that tone of “it’s a curse” but with an undercurrent of pride. That knowing that "I may be high-maintenance but I am also checking all the boxes of what a modern woman has to do in order to be seen as successful.”

Because that’s what it takes. Let’s be real. You have to be a perfectionist to make it all work. If you are going to pack lunches, and kick ass at your meeting, if you’re going to remember snacks for your kids’ team and have clean underwear, and get a promotion and do it all while looking good, you are definitely going to have to have your proverbial “shit” together.

What does a successful woman look like?

When I was in graduate school I would puzzle over the unofficial uniform. I wasn’t an undergraduate, so I didn’t want to loaf around campus in my pajamas. But I wasn’t a professor, so wearing a suit or carrying a briefcase felt weird. I couldn't get away with the sloppy clothes my male counterparts wore, because my advisors already didn't take me seriously as a young mom who had to leave the lab early to take care of her kid. For women, a uniform can help us to look a part, but it’s always a double-edged sword.

Imagine the quintessential “absent minded professor” - it’s a white man who might wear a tweed jacket with elbow patches, glasses, wild hair, is a mess, but regarded with respect, seen as being too brilliant to be able to match his socks. They often have women at home taking care of the domestic duties. Their slovenly appearance is elevated because they can't be bothered with such trivial things.

As a grad student and aspiring professor myself, I realized that there was not a female equivalent of this trope. A woman looking disheveled was thing of concern, and her messy office frowned upon. I would watch the older female professors who clearly didn’t care about their appearance any more than the men, but in contrast, they were still put-together and their offices were tightly run ships. They were also accomplished beyond all reasonable doubt, raking in millions in grant money for the University and publishing at a break-neck pace.

In general, the female professors were well-toned, sharply dressed, and put almost as much effort into their appearance as their work. They were always meticulously organized and worked hard. Meanwhile I lost count of the number of old, tenured white male professors who showed up to class unprepared, and uncaring, if they showed up at all.

Never having it all

For women to "have it all," this includes a successful career, but also success in the domestic side of things, as well as the physical appearance. Sadly, this is not only reinforced by our culture, but as women we measure ourselves by this yardstick as well. I have so many female friends who are wildly accomplished in their fields, homeowners who take lavish vacations and have rich social lives, but because they aren’t partnered, they feel like failures. And they still spend a considerable amount of their incredible brainpower trying to figure out a way to fit into the beauty standards of the decade.

For centuries we’ve only had the white male as the standard of success. You can hear it in the critiques of Kamala Harris already. She’s too ambitious, but failed at her campaign. She’s wildly liberal yet a friend of the police. She’s not Black enough, she’s not Indian enough, her voice is annoying.

What these complaints are really saying is that we have no measure of what a woman is supposed to look like in this position. What is a successful woman, really? She’s an imaginary stereotype. We have a myriad and varied catalog of successful men to choose from, so much that they get to create their image on their own terms. They can manage to come forth as individuals. But a woman in power - what is she? She is strange and terrifying. A foreign entity.

So that leaves her striving to be ALL the things. She is working with an endless checklist.

Is perfectionism necessary?

About a year ago, I was reading about perfectionism and I found myself thinking, "How could I be a perfectionist if I have days where I stay in sweatpants all day? When I don't have a homemade dinner on the table seven days a week? How could I be a perfectionist if I never seem to be able to check all the boxes on my to-do lists 100% of the time? I can't be a perfectionist, I'm not perfect."

At that moment, a light dawned on me, it was one of those moments when you take a step back and suddenly see the programming running in your brain. Only a perfectionist would have these thoughts.

So, I decided to ask the people closest to me. I asked my daughter, "I think I might be a perfectionist, what do you think?" and she just started laughing at me. "of COURSE you are mom" she said. I was honestly shocked. How could I be, and not even know I was? I asked my partner, same answer, a resounding yes. It was an interesting turning point for me. I've always admired women who are perfectionists. And now I realize that I am one. What does that even mean?

It means that I am a human woman living in a time when we are expected to be everything to everyone and do it all well. It means that I am trying to survive in a world that demands nothing less than perfection. It also means that I'll never measure up, and as a result, I'll never really feel like enough.

If I'm completely honest, I'm not ready to give up the myth. I can feel that I still believe it's all possible. In fact, I'm unsure how to be a "success" in life without holding myself to impossibly high standards. So, like everything it's a work in progress. I've realized that this hidden part of me exists. That is the first step.

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