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'Never Let Them See You Sweat': The Myth of Effortless Perfection

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I'm willing to bet that there was one phrase that haunted the majority of your high school career: the ominous, elusive term, "well-rounded." I remember listening to endless Q&A sessions and admissions spiels in the guidance counselors' office during my senior year, all of which incorporated that seldom defined expression nearly once per sentence.

As everyone eventually does (hang in there, class of '13!), my friends and I survived the college application process, drove a few or a few hundred miles and settled in at our chosen schools. If we had hoped to leave behind the maddeningly vague goal of becoming "well-rounded" at home, along with our outgrown jeans and embarrassing duvet covers, it was only to let in something much more fateful -- the relentless, exhausting search for "effortless perfection."

First coined in Duke University's landmark study by the Women's Initiative in 2003, the concept of "effortless perfection" has spread virulently since, giving a name to the constant pressure felt by college women to be "smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular," all without "visible effort." The price of such a lofty goal, however, has far-reaching (and sometimes devastating) consequences. And here's the truth: effortless perfection just isn't real.

"It gives people an unrealistic expectation of what they should be like," according to Emily, a student at Oberlin College majoring in Comparative Literature. "It's like a competition to do the most extracurriculars while doing well in your classes, without going insane. Everyone does so many things, and the constant question is, how many things are you doing?"

The fact of the matter is that no one on campus is completely on top of things, all the time, no matter what they might want you to believe. Although students recognize that there is a certain level of give-or-take when comparing themselves to their peers, many still feel inadequate when they're outperformed by a classmate, and no one wants to be the first to admit defeat.

"Even when we acknowledge that things are not as great as they may seem, it would just be awkward to be the one person who openly says that they're not 'doing great' or 'loving life,'" says a student at Princeton University, who wished to remain anonymous. "We then perpetuate this image as a collective."

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?

"As long as you don't outwardly appear crazy, it doesn't really matter what's going on inside your head," says Ashley*, a student at a top-ranked liberal arts college in New England. "Even if you aren't objectively attractive, you can still be a model of 'effortless perfection' by seeming like you don't have to try hard to be good at everything -- it just happens."

Such severe pressure has driven more than a few students to the breaking point. "I know a lot of people who have broken down," says Kate, a dual International Relations and Voice major at Eastman School of Music. "We all set really high standards for ourselves, and sometimes I feel like I'm going to explode because it's all I can think about."

To make matters worse, simply staying on top of your classes and extracurricular activities isn't enough anymore. The rapid gains that women have made in the professional sphere have outpaced any prospective parallel social movements, saddling college women with an absurd amount of expectations.

"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.

"This girl I used to live with, she always made me feel awful because she wore skirts and tights and curled her hair before class, and I would leave my room in sweatpants and a t-shirt," says Ashley. "At my school's prospective student meeting, we were told that roughly 60 percent of graduates end up marrying one another, and that our future spouse could be sitting in this room. I thought, 'Great, add that to the pile of things I have to accomplish in college, along with making friends, getting good grades, having a job, and doing something productive over the summer that will set me up for after college... I now have to find the perfect guy in this room.'"

Of course, attracting a future partner isn't the only source of these deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. Much of it, curiously, stems from within the individual themselves. "If I can't reach my goals in every one of those little aspects, I'm mad at myself, and then I feel like I need to put much more effort in," Kate says, "and then other things slip."

Personal self-esteem issues notwithstanding, college men generally do not feel the same level of anxiety related to "effortless perfection" as their female counterparts. Whether this is culturally or biologically driven is yet to be determined, but men seem to be largely more comfortable with handling the day-to-day tensions.

"Do I necessarily know where I'm going in life and what I want? Not that much, but I'm comfortable with where I am," says Yufan, a double major in biology and psychology at Dartmouth College. "I'm measuring my own accomplishments relative to myself, rather than to other people. I think it's just how culture has formed us -- men look more towards themselves for validation."

Jack, a conservation biology major at St. Lawrence University, says, "I think the pressure is felt equally by men and women... but women just tend to internalize it more. It's definitely mainstream media that is the source of a lot of the pressures to be perfect."

The upshot of it all is that students are still uncomfortable with speaking out about the issue. According to Ashley, "It's not okay to talk about it unless the school is making you talk about it." If there's ever going to be a change in how we perceive ourselves, we've got to relinquish our pride in favor of honesty and objectivity.

For now, though, the race to become "effortlessly perfect" is still a very significant, albeit unspoken, part of our reality. Emily put it best, quipping, "Never let them see you sweat." But naturally, hiding it doesn't take anything away from the fact that it still happens -- to everyone.

*name has been changed