THE BLOG
11/18/2014 06:37 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

The Endless Quest for Perfection

Vincenzo Lombardo via Getty Images

How refreshing it was to hear a high-powered woman be honest and tell it like it really is when it comes to being a working mother. Debora Spar, President of Barnard College and the first tenured woman professor at Harvard Business School, is the mother of three children and knows what it's like to constantly be pulled in different directions. Author of Wonder Women, Sex and the Quest for Perfection Spar sought to address her own life circumstances and reveal the "underside of what it means to juggle all the time."

Spar's research asks two questions: Where do American women stand today and how come we haven't come farther? Born in 1963 she is among "the first generation of women told that we could be whatever we wanted to be. Our mothers couldn't, but everything around us was telling us we could." The messages from advertising she grew up with conveyed an image of some sort of effortless combination of work, motherhood, sexuality, professionalism and ease. Coming of age nine years before her, I clearly did not receive these same messages.

After years of living and studying female leadership, Spar says, "We were wrong. Women struggled for power and instead got stuck in an endless quest for perfection." That quest for perfection entraps women in an emotional maze, zapping courage, creativity and confidence. Fortifying the myth of perfectionism is the fear of being an imposter and the unrealistic expectations we hold for ourselves. "The standards of contemporary beauty are now much less attainable than ever before in history. Models that women see in images are no longer real bodies, she's being digitally enhanced with photo shopping, selling women the myth that if we try harder, we'll feel better and be successful." A myth it most certainly is. "We also presume that if we do everything right, we will create perfect children. The competition for perfection is making us all crazy."

The day I heard Debora Spar, she was speaking to a room of 500 psychotherapists at the 24th Annual Renfrew Conference on Feminist Relational Perspectives and Beyond. Herself a survivor of anorexia, she talked about "the emergence and epidemic of eating disorders, because eating disorders are the disease of perfect girls. At the end of the day, when you can't control anything, you can try to control your body."

Spar inspired her audience with pointers for what we can do to make it better.

1. Give up the notion of perfection and change the narrative; trumpet real people and stop holding others up on pedestals.
2. Get women to understand that life is about tradeoffs. We were sold on the message that we could have it all, but in the real world, something has to give if you want to be successful.
3. Recognize that biology matters. Women have babies, men don't.
4. Bring men into the conversation. She assures us that there are more men out there who want things to be better for girls and women. Many of them are dads of daughters.
5. Get back to remembering that feminism is rooted in making the world a better place for people to live in.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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