The impossible quest for perfection

Debora L. Spar's new book talks about the need for women to end their 'quest for perfection' and be more realistic about their lives.

The challenges that confront women nowadays are more subtle than in the past and many come from the nearly impossible standards of perfection expected from women in every aspect of their lives, says US academic Debora L. Spar.

In her recent book Wonder Women: sex, power and the quest for perfection she says women cannot “have it all”. She says women simply cannot do everything. She writes: “Almost by definition, a woman cannot work a sixty-hour week in a high-stress job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without the sixty-hour-a-week job and all that stress. She cannot save the world and look forever like a 17-year-old model, or bake a perfect cheesecake the night before a major presentation. No man can do this; no human can do this. Yet women are repeatedly berating themselves for failing at this kind of balancing act.”

She states: “The quest for perfection simply must end…Women of the postfeminist years have taken this quest to the brink, truly, of madness.”

She says that women born in the 1960s and onwards took female liberation and twisted it from a collective endeavour to an “individualised quest for perfection, into ‘somehow a charge’: “because we could do anything, we felt as if we had to do everything”.

That has condemned women either to failure or “a nagging sense that something is wrong”, she says.

The book charts female life from girlhood upwards. Spar, president of the all-female Barnard College, talks about the contradictory and enormous expectations on today’s girls. They are not only brought up to be intelligent, but to be beautiful, to be “sex goddess and a scientist”. She says the weight of the expectations on them is greater than it has ever been, resulting often in depression.

She covers sexuality and the college hook-up culture, women’s attitudes to their bodies, their expectations about love and birth and the “veritable arms race of enforced youth” for older women. She says that women began to achieve more at work, but did not cut down significantly at home. Indeed, encouraged by the media, they ‘upped the ante’ on the home front as they were encouraged to bake the perfect brownie, create ‘the perfectly pillowed home’ and be ubermothers. She comments that New Age dads, who share more on the homefront, are more numerous among the working class than their Ivy League-educated peers.

She talks about how parents send their kids to numerous after-school activities and on educational trips in a bid to supposedly increase their chances of getting into a top college, something she says this constant scheduling of their children’s every hour doesn’t actually help them. “Give me a kid with a passion for learning, a kid who has demonstrated some measure of autonomy and motivation. Give me a kid who knows his or her mind… these things are harder to come by if the child has been tutored and handheld from birth.”


It’s not that women are to blame necessarily for these increased expectations or that government cannot help share the load. Spar acknowledges that men have an important role to play, but she says that men can only help if women know what it is they want.

Spar also argues that women’s differences in the workplace need to be acknowledged. She cites research on women in the workplace which suggests women are more risk averse and work more collaboratively than men. She realises that talking about difference could reinforce stereotypes about women at work, but she says that if these differences could be harnessed they could help define models of work and leadership which might fit more comfortably around more women and don’t mean them ‘accommodating to alien environments’.

She talks about how feminism has been ‘privatised’ as women are too busy being perfect to help each other, although many senior women managers these days appear keen to help their fellow women up the career ladder. She also talks about women being ‘realistic’ and making choices based on an understanding of how they could impact their future life if, for instance, they have children. This includes who they choose as their partner and what career they enter, even if it might only be possible to change the culture of some types of job from the inside. It’s about planning ahead, being realistic and not creating expectations that are impossible to live up to.  Spar ends on a lighter note about the importance of increasing the sense of joy in women’s lives and of allowing them true choice over how they want to work [or if they have enough money, whether they want to work], about what they look like and about how they want to be. She concludes: “Feminism…was about expanding women’s choices, not constraining them. About making women’s lives richer and more fulfilling…Somewhere, though, the joy fell out of this equation, along with the satisfaction that true choice should bring.”

*Wonder Women: sex, power and the quest for perfection is published by Sarah Crichton Books.

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