The Crisis of Perfectionism Amongst Female University Students
It was in freshman seminar during my first year at McGill University when I first heard about perfectionism. The guest speaker asked the class if any students identified as being a perfectionist, and without missing a beat, myself, amongst quite a few other students proudly raised their hands. We immediately proceeded to survey the rest of the class while a subtle wave a self-satisfaction washed over our faces. At that point in time, I associated perfectionism with hard work, accountability and reliability. Thankfully, I have slowly started to make the distinction between the two – where you can achieve the latter without being the former.
More often than not, women are more susceptible to internalizing the social reality of perfectionism. We are constantly exposed to messages dictating us what it means to be a perfect woman, and most important what it means to “be one of us”. Perfectionism often stems from a group mentality, which may be sourced from social media influences, marketing campaigns, affluent friends or even the hard criticism from our family, and even from ourselves which ultimately create unrealistic ideals for the person we think we need to be.
The cultural landscape of many university campuses is cultivated by perfectionism. As women currently predominant in college enrollment they have a statistically more significant presence on campus. As of Fall 2018, 68% of all students enrolled in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the Macdonald Campus of McGill University are female, and that majority is also reflected in the entirety of McGill University, where 58% of students enrolled identify as female. With these numbers, we can appreciate the impact that perfectionism may have within our own social circle. Even if a small percentage of women internalize perfectionism, this can have drastic impact on university culture.
The issue with perfectionism is that it grants no room for struggle. As university students, we all know struggle is inevitable, but we also need to learn that this struggle in normal and to some extent, welcome as it challenges us to learn and re-build ourselves into a better person. I want to emphasize that again - the struggles we experience are normal to an extent. For example, we all require, and benefit from a struggle which encompasses stress, as this allows us to meet deadlines, accomplish tasks, and evolutionarily speaking, to escape a dangerous situation alive.
When our expectations for ourselves are motivated by a perfectionism’s agenda, the normal, valid and healthy stresses become suffocating. Receiving a failing grade (I got a 40% on my physics midterm in freshman year), eating toast for dinner because you haven’t figured out how to “adult” and buy groceries on a regular basis or struggling with expectations of relationships suddenly become a critical failure or a hopeless situation and ultimately a skewed reflection of our endless shortcomings as a young adult. When we look around to find comfort in the familiar; someone else who is struggling or at the very least, someone else who is not perfect, we often fail again. If everyone else is working to hide their own imperfections, we fall into a dangerous cycle as we are forced to deal with our issues in isolation which may manifest into anxiety, depression, eating disorders and many other kinds of serious, mental illnesses. As I lack the concise writing skills to condense my views within a few sentences, I will directly quote an article written by Duke University graduate, Caralena Peterson who perfectly sums up my position:
“Effortless perfection creates an environment wherein we all are so set on making it seem like we have everything together at all points in time that, when we do inevitably hit a road bump, we look around at our seemly flawless peers and assume we are the only ones struggling. We do not realize the extent to which every other member of our community is carefully holding their cards close to their chest, unwilling to show anything beyond a socially accepted front of confident ease. We conclude there is no other way to deal with our problems than by ourselves, alone, if we do not wish to stand out as “broken” or “the one who couldn’t keep up.”
To quote the article, the more we hold our cards closer to our chest, allowing not even a sliver of imperfection to leave our frantic, manufactured idealist persona - the more we are the ones who are contributing authors to the narrative of perfectionism on university campuses. A positive we can take away from our own realizing our own fears is that we may have identified one modifiable risk factor that may contribute to the development of mental illnesses on campus.
Eating disorders are a serious, but treatable mental illness that are seen in higher incidences amongst female university students, and the mental illness has been linked to perfectionist-like traits amongst individuals suffering with the disease. While this by no means serves as the only, or even most predominant or important factor contributing to the development of an eating disorder, it does gives light to a possible change in group mentality, which in turn may result in a significant impact on the expectations one has for oneself. Additionally, research consistently shows that by raising awareness and diminishing the stigma amongst mental illnesses, which include eating disorders, individuals who are struggling are more likely to seek help. Finally, people at risk for developing these illnesses may benefit from preventative messages and strategies.
The Dietetics & Human Nutrition Undergraduate Society (DHNUS) encourages all to show their cards every once in a while, and to know that by showing their struggle or imperfections does not render them any less of the competent, brave and beautiful human being they are. We also believe the conversation surrounding Eating Disorders has not been sufficiently addressed on campus and is only appropriate due to the incidence of university students that struggle with this metal illness. Furthermore, we think dissipating the stigma around this mental illness will work to break down the barriers in receiving help. We especially think this is important for dietetics students, where studies consistently show that students studying in helping professions, such as dietetics, may be the ones needing help themselves.
The DHNUS’ Eating Disorder Awareness Week consists of many events which aim to address some factors that may contribute to eating disorders. The primary goal of the week is to raise awareness and provide access and education about resources for those who are struggling.
We warmly encourage you to participate in our events happening this week, as well as our self-care challenge – where we believe if we practice making small acts of kindness towards ourselves, perhaps one day that act of kindness might not be so small – and may grant us the permission to seek help for ourselves when we are struggling. Help is the biggest gift we can give ourselves, and we deserve to be well.
Bouguettaya, A., Cruwys, T., Moulding, R., King, R., & Bliuc, A. (2019). Evidence That Frame of Reference Effects Can Reduce Socially Prescribed Perfectionism. Frontiers In Psychology, 9. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02703
McGill University. (2019). Enrolment reports. Retrieved from https://www.mcgill.ca/es/registration-statistics
Peterson, C. (2019). Trying to conform to a myth of effortless perfection is damaging women undergraduates' mental health (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/01/29/trying-conform-myth-effortless-perfection-damaging-women-undergraduates
Rocks, T., Pelly, F., Slater, G., & Martin, L. (2016). Eating attitudes and behaviours of students enrolled in undergraduate nutrition and dietetics degrees. Nutrition & Dietetics, 74(4), 381-387. doi: 10.1111/1747-0080.12298