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​For Duke women: higher education, lower self-esteem?

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In doing my own research on women’s empowerment at Duke University, I stumbled into a study from which I couldn’t quite extricate myself.

Twenty focus groups composed of representatives from virtually every Greek organization and student group on Duke’s campus met throughout both fall and spring semesters to parse the gendered issues that shaped their experiences. For women, body image and disordered eating, sexual assault and hook-up culture, and social status and hierarchy proved the most pervasive forms of pressure molding their four-year tenure.

The focus groups informed the undergraduate arm of the Women’s Initiative, a study spearheaded by Duke’s first and thus far only female president, Nan Keohane, in her attempt to evaluate the status of women at the University.The same series surprised everyone but Duke undergraduate women by confirming that their self-confidence levels underwent a marked decline from freshman year to graduation, while males overall reported the opposite trajectory.

The term “effortless perfection” was coined from those conversations, defined as “the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and all this would happen without visible effort.” It explained the environment that normalized and even encouraged under-eating and excessive exercise, silenced sexual assault victims and induced anxiety levels that would devastate women’s confidence. The epidemic was diagnosed, the media had a field day, and then…it faded into little more than a phrase.

But it wasn’t cured.

That research collected data from the 2002-2003 school year, but as I sifted through boxes in the renovated Rubenstein in 2016, it seemed to me that the library had undergone significantly more transformation in the past decade than the female undergraduate experience. To my knowledge, no more recent study has published updated information, but, as far as I can sense from my own observations and that of my friends, not much—or certainly not enough—has changed in campus culture since those focus groups met. 

In part, that may well be due to such radical change in larger culture. In 2002, we didn’t have Facebook or Instagram, we didn’t consume images—especially images of our peers showcasing exclusively the highlights, the literally filtered versions of their lives—to the extent that we do now. There are dozens more popularized sources of pressure in the diet and beauty industries telling women what shape they’ll be attractive in. 

But “effortless perfection” extends beyond appearance in terms of beauty. It demands that students appear put-together, successful (rarely by their own definitions) and happy, in spite of stress and anxiety levels that warrant treatment. Duke offers its students numerous resources, but to seek them out requires students to admit they’re struggling. 

What most appalled the focus group coordinators in 2002 was that women explained getting groped at frat parties was to be expected, and that they went back after it happened. That being noticed by socially high-ranking men was more important than being respected. It’s been 14 years since that study, and sexual assault is still nearly as common a consequence of our popular nightlife-style as a hangover. 

The issue of sexual assault has been the plague of college campuses for so long that the numbers have lost their shock value. One in five? One in three? It’s a normalized crime in which the victims not only endure but actively hide the psychological and physical repercussions. The trauma and shame that accompany sexual assault can destroy both GPAs and self-esteem. Those effects are not ephemeral. And the pressure to be perfect, to have it all together all the time, prevents many victims from seeking help. That, and the Women’s Center has been moved a bus ride away from most upperclassman housing. 

If Duke women still suffer their lowest levels of self-esteem after four years of elite education, they enter the job market at a severe disadvantage. While the students themselves, not the institution, are capable of and responsible for improving campus culture, I hope Duke will continue to investigate solutions to the social factors limiting women’s success and implement them as soon as possible. 

Another decade from now, I expect the experiences reported in 2002 to feel much more foreign than familiar to female undergrads. Now that the library is updated, I think it’s a project worth prioritizing. 

Elizabeth George is a Trinity senior. This column originally ran in The Herald-Sun.

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