Blame it on Barbie. She has it all: successful career, active social life, and good looks. She’s been a doctor, an astronaut and even a president, yet maintains an enviable – if unrealistic – figure at the same time. Barbie is the plastic embodiment of a perfectionist’s dreams.
Barbie is just one representation of the unprecedented possibilities for women today. But millennial women are becoming their own worst enemies. Gen Y women tend to hear “can do” as “must do.” And, not only must they do everything, but do it perfectly, just like Barbie.
Perfectionism isn’t always a bad thing. It can have its perks. Several studies show that perfectionism affects drive and determination to meet personal, social, academic, and career goals. But, the dark side of perfectionism can cause depression, anxiety, and stress.
Starting in 2008, Barbara Kelley, a journalism professor at Santa Clara University, noticed an increase in unhappiness and dissatisfaction in her students. She began receiving emails from distressed former students asking for advice. They had great jobs, nothing was particularly wrong about their lives, she said, but some were unsatisfied and didn’t know what to do next. Kelley suspected that they were overwhelmed by the array of choices and opportunities.
“The niece of a friend once confided she sometimes wished she’d been born into a world where everything from spouse to career was chosen for her,” Kelley wrote in an op-ed on the situation for the Christian Science Monitor.
Her daughter, Shannon, then just out of college, realized the topic was ripe for exploration, with enough information for a book. Together, they wrote “Undecided: How To Ditch The Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career – and Life – That’s Right For You” and formed a corresponding blog in 2011.
“There’s a constant state of stress and the sense that no matter what they’re doing, it’s not good enough,” says Barbara Kelley. She attributes the stress to new pressures placed on the generation, saying they’ve “been raised on a treadmill.”
“From the time they’re very young it’s been about resume building. Get into the right school, have tutors if you’re not doing A level work, get into the best soccer team or the traveling softball team, the best high school, the best college,” she says.
Additionally, Kelley believes young women feel increased pressure because of the opportunities they are presented with that weren’t available before. She says that based on psychological studies of decision making, more options means a greater belief that one of the choices must be “the right fit.” Finding that no option – whether it’s a job, school, or spouse – can realistically be perfect makes disappointment inevitable.
Disappointment isn’t only found in professional pursuits, but in appearances, too. For Gen Y women, the challenge of doing it all has now come to include looking good while doing it.
With an all-or-nothing mentality, perfectionists are often at risk for developing eating disorders or negative body image
Nearly 92 percent of teen girls would like to change something about the way they look. Seventy-five percent feel depressed and guilty after spending just three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine, according to the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, a division of skincare brand Dove aimed at inspiring confidence and self-acceptance in women.
After discovering that 70 percent of girls will avoid normal daily activities, such as going to school, if they don’t feel good about the way they look, New York University senior Lauren Berninger decided to combat the pressure to be flawless.
Berninger is the founder and director of Finding the Fabulous, an annual summer camp and monthly outreach program to help girls ages eight to twelve struggling with self-esteem and confidence to find their inner beauty and build confidence.
The camp is partially inspired by recognitions of her own problems. A self-described perfectionist, Berninger says she let the fear of being perfect held her back.
“Nothing I ever did was good enough, I was never doing enough. I was always doubting myself and never really wanting to celebrate my accomplishments. That really prevented me from trying new things, because anything I wasn’t going to be perfect at, I was not going to do,” she says.
Her program aims to combat the ideal of beauty fueled by the media and intervene with a younger generation to keep them from following in Gen Y’s footsteps on quests to achieve unachievable perfect lives.
NYU journalism and women’s studies professor Carol Sternhell also notices the increased pressure for women to look perfect today.
“Young women today are obsessed with being beautiful, being thin, with being groomed everywhere,” she says. “There’s a sense that you have to look like a model and you have to be performing at a high level in a career and eventually you have to have a family.”
Sternhell thinks this pressure leads to increased anxiety that destroys the pleasure of high achievements. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, have a great career, and a great family life.
“It’s just that if you feel that you have to have it all at a very high level, I worry that the anxiety destroys the pleasure,” she says.
However, aside from beauty ideals, Sternhell sees perfectionism as an isolated problem, not a generational one. The pressures aren’t new, just different. For the most part, things are better for women today, Sternhell argues, not worse, compared to the past where women’s choices were limited.
“It’s good to do it all – but you don’t have to do it all at these neurotic levels. You don’t have to be the most famous dancer or the President of the United States or whatever field you’re in. You don’t have to be the pinnacle. You can just have a decent career.”