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Dr. Amy Shah Headshot

Women: Our Disease Is Perfection

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Women are hell-bent on perfection.

Women dress nicely, do their makeup proficiently, pick fashion-forward shoes, act polite, watch their words and do Pilates, all while "leaning in" at the workplace. No wonder that by the time we are in our late 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, we experience the ill effects of a new syndrome I would like to term "Perfectionitis." It's a disease that results from the pursuit of outward perfection, causing negative health effects such as anxiety, moodiness, hormonal imbalance, exhaustion and guilt.

Our expectations seem to steer astray even in childhood. I have a toddler who is already, at the age of 4, displaying the signs of a image-savvy female. For example, I see her trying so hard to be well-behaved and proper while she is at preschool during the day. To our chagrin, she waits to come home to unleash her "real" emotions. That means full-body tantrums, crying and a lot of "NO!" It's as if she already knows that there is an ideal image she has to conform to in public. Our son, on the other hand, is "what you see is what you get." He doesn't seem to be bothered by what others think and acts pretty much the same all the time. Unfortunately, according to teachers, this is typical behavior for girls. It worries me that our daughters have already learned to display an unflawed version of themselves to society.

As they approach high school and college, most girls are well-versed in extreme diets, can do a makeup tutorial for their parents and handle a daunting academic course load -- and excel at it. In fact, studies show that more women are succeeding in high school then their male counterparts. At this stage, female hormones also kick in and women often deal with huge hormonal swings. This is worsened by the fact that stress hormones "steal" the building blocks of estrogen and progesterone and we are left with imbalanced levels of hormones.

Then women get into the workforce and they are trying to succeed in their career while managing to dress well, exercise, diet and use polite and friendly etiquette. Social constructs dictate that we have to try to look attractive, maintain a tidy living space and act demure around our male counterparts. It takes enormous vigilance to maintain this perfection on all fronts. It's the Stepford wives image superimposed on the Hillary Clinton image. It's our internal stress hormones as a constant "wide open" faucet mode. It erodes our other hormones and interrupts our sleep. It increases rates of depression, anxiety and many other medical disorders.

We see women in the doctor's office more often than men. The rates of anxiety are 50% higher in women. Why? Because they are manifesting physical symptoms of their inner turmoil.

In today's world, social networks such as Facebook are like an addictive drug for those suffering with this perfection syndrome. There are airbrushed pictures of women doing amazing things like "Baking a cake with my 2-year-old twins!" or "Just relaxing in St. Barth's". Meanwhile, you are sitting in your pajamas at home wondering how you could live up to this. As you engage more, the problem is deepened.

This also explains why women find it so refreshing to other meet women who are able to admit publicly that they are not perfect (think: Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling). We all know that we have messy houses, imperfect bodies, problems with our jobs and disobedient children. We relate to women out there who are comfortable sharing what we all know: Nobody is perfect.

Did our female ancestors suffer this same plight? I argue that with the advent of modern career moms and the stressors of our digital world, the health and mental effects of perfectionism are magnified today.

I feel compelled to share this idea with women because our society paints the picture of female leaders as without flaws and the only way we can succeed is by becoming superhuman somehow.

We, as women, must remember that being hyper-stressed is the major health crisis facing women today. When we are trying to live up to a perfect picture of our lives, our bodies and minds are stressed -- leading to a downward spiral with consequences for our health and well-being.

In order for us to continue to advance in the workplace and home, we must literally and figuratively remove the airbrushed media images of female success and tame our own unrealistic expectations for ourselves. We need to tackle this deeply-rooted problem that sickens women of all backgrounds.

As Debora Spar wrote in her 2012 article, "Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect": "The problems that plague women... come partly from the media, partly from society, partly from biology, and partly from our own vastly unrealistic expectations."