Author Rainesford Stauffer, whose new book, An Ordinary Age, is out now, on what it even means to be a "perfectionist."

By Rainesford Stauffer
May 06, 2021 @ 12:45 pm
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Perfectionism and Being a Woman
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Rainesford Stauffer is a writer and author of An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional, available now.

Content warning: The below contains descriptions of disordered eating habits and low weight.

The first time I stared into a foggy mirror in the bathroom after a shower and counted the bones in my sternum, it wasn't because I wanted to be perfect. I was a teenager, a lost emerging adult hanging her self-worth on how loosely her leotard hung off her; a young person, who, only a few years later, would realize she'd have to unhitch her sense of enough-ness from her dreams of being a dancer and become someone else instead. 

My body was an instrument of my control — an illustration that I was on track, that I was doing something, and, perhaps most sinisterly, that I was doing something right. The less I ate, the more I became: I became someone in pursuit of a dream, someone living up to the ideals of the thing they're chasing. For a while, ballet was my benchmark of enough-ness. My shaky sense of self rose and fell with what happened in the studio, how I looked in the mirror. It was an empty sensation, never feeling like enough — that if only I could get "there," I'd feel full, and by extension, fulfilled.

But as I grew up, and dreams changed, the pursuit of being "enough" remained. It was there every time I wanted to be accepted, to be liked; every time I took a shot I didn't want that someone begged me to take in a noisy bar, my family history of alcoholism pacing in my mind; every time I chipperly agreed to work unpaid overtime, terrified of being replaced by someone who would say yes without hesitation; every time I skipped a social gathering and wondered if I wasn't being social enough; every time I got a bad grade and wondered if I'd really tried hard enough. I perpetually pondered if I'd ever be pretty enough, smart enough, strong enough, composed enough, together enough, good enough to finally stop weighing my enough-ness on scales of perfectionism. 

As I interviewed experts and and twenty-somethings for my book, An Ordinary Age, the tangle between perfectionism and chronic never-enough-ness felt so tightly woven, as though our average, ordinary, and just-fine selves were as frayed as the decade-old sweatshirts in the back of our closets.

Far from the cherry-picked fantasies of perfect selves, I heard people's desire to be "perfect," but not in the way we're used to seeing it — flawless bodies and adventures and lives on an Instagram feed, never making a misstep or failure, or somehow being more special than everyone else. Instead, again and again I heard echoes of the sensation that defined my young adulthood but I never knew how to articulate: When would I be good enough? Whose standards am I even trying to meet?

Attempting to meet these standards was cracking me in half.

Perfectionism and Being a Woman
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Those benchmarks of perfection — those markers by which we can measure whether we're enough — are both insidious and overt. We have beauty ideals that are historically centered on white, young, thin, able-bodied individuals, and "health standards" that overlap so profoundly with them. The message is that there is only one kind of "good" body — toxic messaging we know to be a farce. There are portrayals of perfect girlfriends and perfect women and perfect mothers, never rattled, always effortless, and endlessly ready to be "up for anything" while doing everything.

Whatever your identity is, there is an archetype of what you should be, illustrated by social standards also rooted in white supremacy. There is even inherent racism in how perfectionism — and our ideas of perfection — is discussed. As Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, whose work focuses on engaging marginalized youth and empowering them to care for their mental health, told me in the perfectionism chapter of An Ordinary Age, perfectionism gets ingrained in marginalized young people because "you gotta be five times better to be considered for half as much."

Meanwhile, capitalism loves perfectionism — it loves the hush-hush feeling that you are the only one who is behind, who is failing, who is lesser than. Because what's the natural reaction? To work harder. To do more. To chase 'enough.' Researchers of perfectionism wrote about this several years ago, explaining, "over the last 50 years, communal interest and civic responsibility have been progressively eroded, replaced by a focus on self-interest and competition in a supposedly free and open marketplace." In other words, this isn't just about whether or not to use a filter or embrace your flaws, or whether real life matches your #bestlife on Instagram. Perfectionism — chronically never feeling like enough — is embedded in our social structures, schools, workplaces, and systems, impacting people differently depending on their circumstances. This pressure has also increased over the past several years.

Our warped ideals of what perfectionism even means are also tied to class and economics — it binds too tightly to what we consider to be "good," "worthy," "beautiful," "successful," "capable," and a million other adjectives our society holds up as virtues. And of course, there's the hero narrative that permeates American society: That all the strain and struggle and self-sacrifice will render us worthy. I worked to become worthy for parts in ballets by measuring how thin I got; I worked to the point of exhaustion to be worthy of rest. I spoke to dozens upon dozens of twenty-somethings who articulated their own — in some cases, much more dire — versions of the same thing. 

I heard people describe losing friends to suicide or addiction, wondering if they could've saved someone if they'd been enough. I heard about lost jobs that meant lost healthcare and lost rent, pondering whether being better at work would've changed their fate. I heard about people struggling to feel they were doing enough as caretakers, as friends, as human beings. Viewed through this lens, it isn't a superficial concept. It's one that exists within the same structural context that defines our society: The higher the standards, the cost of living, and the expectations climb, the harder we try to chase them. Then, rather than these things being framed as structural crises, we internalize them as individual failings. What would happen if everyone had the resources they needed, and didn't feel compelled to meet impossible demands? What if we were untethered from the idea that there's a perfect version of ourselves at all — what if we didn't just embrace not meeting impossible standards, but dismantled them altogether?

And of course, perfectionism is presented as a problem with you — you're the only one who couldn't manage something, the only one who got rejected, and the only one who can fix it. The more my eating disorder spun out, the harder I hung on. I thought of the best-case scenario version of myself. In the book, I write "If I had any worth at all, it existed in 'if.' It's a dark kind of hope; placing your worth in your future self assumes that one day you'll be someone worth being." There's some shame in admitting how true that still feels — but that shame just points out how critical it is to shatter the hyper-individualism perfectionism relies on. It's not just opening ourselves up to failing. It's cracking open the idea that perhaps helping ourselves accept that we're enough as-is means looking at these selves, not the versions we've been told are supposed to matter, that we're supposed to transform into, that we're supposed to earn.

Now, my perfectionism doesn't look like whittling my body away against its will, but it persists. It manifests in thinking my feelings aren't "big enough" to matter, that I haven't "done enough" to take time for myself. We need structural changes to truly unravel the idea that none of us is enough, but I found solace in hearing the ways other people were working to unhook their lives and selves from perfectionism: Designated "brag sessions" with friends to celebrate what small things have gone right or made someone proud, devoting time and energy to causes that exist beyond you, letting your guard down to a friend or therapist, posting rejection letters on social media, making a list of good qualities that don't involve achievement or ambition or even dreams. 

I think of my scared and skinny teenage self all the time — I see her eyes staring back at me in the mirror, and in them, all the worries of enough-ness: How would she be good enough for ballet? And after "failing" at that, who or what could she possibly be enough for? I'd tell her about boxed chocolate cake on a weekday afternoon for no reason; I'd tell her that the biggest thing she'd learn as a young adult is to try less to make herself good enough, and to focus on how to bring goodness to other things. I'd tell her we now eat when we're hungry, and while we can still feel lesser, we now question what "lesser" means. I'd whisper to her, as she clung to the ballet barre to remain upright, that her life and herself would be flawed and hearts would be broken and tragedy would happen, and about the million things she'd get and do wrong and the dozens of standards she wouldn't meet. And I'd tell her that, somehow, her ordinary life still feels awfully full — like enough.