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Talking about 'effortless perfection'

Ever since The Chronicle published an anonymous guest commentary titled "Effortless Perfection?" Oct. 24, 2003, the campus has been buzzing with its new favorite--or not so favorite--catch phrase.


Some are surprised, and others accept it in a nonchalant manner. Some believe, and some don't. As the year winds down, Duke's community members have read the editorials, participated in forums, held casual conversations and settled on the idea that there is a problem. The complex issues behind "effortless perfection," many say, are still visible. Either way, the campus is sick of the phrase.


Susan Roth, chair of the Women's Initiative Executive Committee and one of the authors of its final report, said the phrase "effortless perfection" has certainly stuck--although she's not entirely sure that is a good thing. "People are talking about things that I don't think they were talking about before so it has had an impact," she said, "[but] I don't think it's a magical word.... I don't know if it captures all that we came to understand [in the Women's Initiative] from undergraduate life."


Women's Center Director Donna Lisker, another integral member of the Women's Initiative, also said the phrase has taken on a life of its own and has overshadowed other findings of the Women's Initiative. She is convinced, however, that the problems needed to be brought out in the open and the anonymous column prompted the overwhelming response from Duke students.


"Had that [column] not run, I'm not sure the conversation would have gotten as deep as it has," Lisker said.


The issues beyond these deep conversations, she added, won't disappear, because students come to Duke with the background for such expectations and will likely find that leaving college does not mean the pressures fall away as well. "The pressures are not unique to Duke. They don't come into existence within the Duke gates and go away when you leave," she said.


The common perception of the Duke population is a collection of over-achievers, perfectionists, and socioeconomically advantaged kids. "Effortless perfection is an expensive lifestyle," Lisker said. Come graduation, the issues just change names, like "becoming a super-mom," she added.


Freshman Laura Mosby also noted that the issues concerning image are not unique to Duke and said similar pressures abounded in her St. Petersburg, Fl. high school. "The whole idea of everyone being pretty all the time, and thin, I feel like that's present pretty much everywhere," she said.


But not all Duke students buy into it. Senior Anna Burkhead, who just finished serving as Vice President of Membership on the Panhellenic Council, said she did not personally feel the pressures that were brought up in the Women's Initiative report. As a leader in the largest women's organization on campus, Burkhead felt that effortless perfection was nonetheless an important issue among sorority girls.


"Women who are in sororities tend to be more concerned than the average woman with all things social," Burkhead explained. "So, the concept of effortless perfection is one that applies to women who are concerned with image. Connecting the two is probably a fair thing to do."


Unlike many other students and faculty, Burkhead does not believe the phrase will stick around past this year. "I think it's been for the most part phased out, [but] that doesn't mean it's not a problem anymore," she said.


Even with the overload of discussion on effortless perfection, most people aren't so sure that they will find a solution soon--if a solution even exists. Roth, Lisker and others agree that talking about the issues is part of the solution. Next, said Lisker, people need to learn not to judge each other, accept that failure is not the end of the world and then look for the middle ground.


Lisker hopes the new Baldwin Scholars Program, which will consist of 18 women per class and is scheduled to start in Fall 2004, will foster another environment for women to shape themselves as leaders who can continue to tackle the problems raised through the Women's Initiative.


And from new student groups to columns to plays, students are also finding solutions for themselves. Seniors Mary Adkins and Tamara Giwa, for example, decided to put together a collection of monologues to address the issues they saw facing women at Duke.


"The play is called 'All of the Above,' which isn't a very sexy title, but I do think it captures the diversity and complexity of womanhood at Duke that 'effortless perfection' misses," Adkins, who became interested in women's issues after she discussed her own eating disorder in a column in The Chronicle, wrote in an e-mail.


I think [the issues of effortless perfection are]... a freshman-sophomore year phenomenon," she added. "By junior year people are tired and realize the struggle doesn't really get them anywhere, so they throw their hands up and accept life for the good and bad and the imperfect. Then they start having fun."


Burkhead also said the Panhellenic Council leaders came up with an optional effortless perfection worksheet for sororities, divided up by pledge class, to see if there were differing opinions depending on age. "I think older women were more aware of the whole effortless perfection stigma or what it meant, whereas the younger girls [were not]," she said.


But Mosby thought that freshman were aware of the pressures of effortless perfection, and that the ideas are well known to everyone on campus because so many people can relate to them. "[Effortless perfection] was a pretty accurate campaign as to how people felt," Mosby stated.


Roth said she hoped the outcome of the discussions about effortless perfection and the Women's Initiative will have a positive influence on current and prospective students. "Our hope was that [the Women's Initiative] would make Duke more attractive to make people know we were thinking about the status of women... and the comfort level of women on campus," she said.


So will the phrase "effortless perfection" be around in the fall? Only time will tell. Regardless, almost everyone agrees that the issues raised have been life-changing for some, and at least thought-provoking for most.


Now, Adkins said, "we need a new catch phrase that is hopeful and complex."


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