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Variations on 'Effortless Perfection'

But that's not what she's thinking. In fact, that's not even on the radar screen of thoughts zooming a mile a minute in her head: the tests she wishes she could retake, the boy she hooked up with last night, the second-round interview she didn't get.... At least I've only eaten 400 calories today. She smiles, recomposing herself, and continues her walk along the cold, concrete pavement toward the Bryan Center.

Maybe you know what she's thinking. You can see past her flawless exterior to the fraying emotional wires, short-circuiting under the suffocating pressures of the Duke bubble. Maybe you know this because you are actually just like her: thin, intelligent, effortlessly perfect.

A brief glance around campus and it quickly becomes apparent that Duke expects nothing less than the best of the best. Its pristine landscape of trimmed hedges and velvet lawns and indulgent neo-gothic and Georgian architecture sets the scene for talented and ambitious students to try to strive toward their Nobels and Pulitzers.

"We seek daring, brilliant students," declares President Nan Keohane on the front cover of the 2003 Undergraduate Viewbook. Well, sure. We're daring. We're brilliant. And according to the recently published Women's Initiative report, undergraduate women are preoccupied with an ideal of "effortless perfection." Has the pressure at Duke to be successful gone too far?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "perfection" as the condition, state, or quality of being perfect or free from all defect; supreme excellence--a definition similar to that of what Duke wants to project onto its undergraduate student body. The Office of the Provost's strategic plan for the University, "Building on Excellence," for example, provides a prescription for the University as a whole to attain perfection.

"Duke's ambition must be to excel in its chosen endeavors, to pursue the elusive goal of perfection through constant improvements, to surpass others and gain distinction," the plan advocates in the section entitled "Duke's Mission, Ambition, and Responsibility". "This striving to be the best is what gives us the prospect of being among the best."

The University's goal to attain such a level of excellence is evident in the selection of the students it invites to attend the prestigious institution. Approximately 90 percent of matriculating students come from the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes. These are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill 17- and 18-year olds. They are the team captains and the presidents of their high school classes. They are ambitious, driven and have resumes that could put a 30-year old to shame.

Most importantly, they are here at Duke because they don't know what it means to fail. The distinction between reality and dreams is blurred for many students here, as the "elusive goal of perfection" does not seem so infeasible. Duke students are bred to become CEOs, Rhodes Scholars, lawyers and congressmen--nothing can faze them.

But throw 6,377 type-A over-achievers into the competitive confines of this gothic wonderland and the problems begin to mount. Identifying these problems for at least 49 percent of the undergraduate population was the goal of the Women's Initiative report and what it found was a caustic "climate... that too often stifles the kind of vigorous exploration of selfhood and development... that one would hope to see at a place of the quality and character of Duke."

As Donna Lisker, director of the Women's Center and member of the steering committee for the Women's Initiative says, "Any time you take a group who were all the best in their high schools and you put them all together in the same place, there's going to be competition. There's going to be perfectionism."

The goal of the Women's Initiative was to provide the University with a concise list of challenges women on campus are facing and recommendations for overcoming them. Over 200 undergraduates participated in approximately 20 focus groups to discuss problems they found pervasive on campus. Although other important topics such as the "hook-up" culture, campus safety and the role of gender in everyday life and campus leadership were mentioned in the report, the phrase coined by a sophomore in one of the focus groups, "effortless perfection," is what seemed to have stuck.

In discussing the implications of what "effortless perfection" means, junior university scholar Jessica Ward conveys frustration over how local and national media sensationalized the Women's Initiative results, emphasizing "effortless perfection" over other similarly important issues. "One major concern I have about the Women's Initiative [is] how it was publicized," she says. Ward points out that while there were a number of key issues elucidated in the report about graduate students, faculty, staff and employees, "what the media picked up on was the comments about undergraduate women."

According to the Women's Initiative report, "effortless perfection" is a social environment described by the "expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort." The noun-phrase "effortless perfection" has taken on the characteristics of an entity in and of itself. "Effortless perfection" is not just an idea at Duke, the report implies by using the term in this manner, it actually exists.

"'Effortless perfection' is... VERY prevalent both at Duke and in our world, and it's very clearly a CULTURAL phenomenon," Pan-Hellenic Council President Devon MacWilliam writes in an e-mail. Women at Duke expect themselves to be perfect, and beyond that, perfect without effort. Doesn't that sound a little problematic?

"Yes!" is the resounding answer given by Susan Roth, chair of the executive committee for the Women's Initiative. "Undergraduate women at Duke function under the expectation of being perfect and if you can do hard things without even trying, it makes you look all the better. It's one step up," she says.

She goes on to further point out that if women on campus liked to work in this competitive environment under the pressure to be perfect and enjoyed trying to spread themselves thin by doing a million things while making it look effortless, then "effortless perfection" would not be an issue. "But what the people in the focus groups told us was that they weren't happy. And that's a serious problem," Roth says.

The gravity of "effortless perfection" came to a head when an anonymous guest commentary Oct. 24 in The Chronicle shook the campus to its "effortlessly perfect" core. Fixated on transforming herself into the "typical Duke student," the author described the struggle to make it through her Duke career and recounted how she lost her ability to discern reality from the world of shadows, convinced that perfection was attainable at Duke. The story of her troubling undergraduate life drives home the problem many women at Duke face when they finally realize they are not invincible.

"She worked hard on that exterior. It was important. Because what no one suspected [were] the demons that controlled her life that had ravaged her self-esteem during her four years at Duke," she wrote. "'Effortless perfection,' the Women's Initiative called it. Female undergraduates wanted 'effortless perfection.' ...So, on the outside she smiled and she ran and she led and she studied and she partied and she played the role of 'effortless perfection' to the world."

The anonymous column was the impetus for an onslaught of campus-wide discussions, forums and programs, catapulting the phrase "effortless perfection" into the realm of fashionable catchwords to bring up in casual conversation.

"The phrase stuck because of the anonymous [column] in The Chronicle. I'm not sure if it would have stuck in quite that way, if it hadn't been published," Lisker says. "I just think that the [column] put a face on 'effortless perfection'. And because that young woman stepped up and said 'This is my life. This relates to me,' I think it made people sit up and take notice."

But with the growing popularity of the phrase, the exact definition of "effortless perfection" has begun to blur. Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta, who was also a member of the Steering Committee, admits that the phrase has begun to almost overshadow the rest of the undergraduate findings in the report. "It's a catchphrase, and like other buzzwords, it seems to have taken control," he says.

Senior Sourav Sengupta worries that all the dialogue on "effortless perfection" may just accelerate the term's trajectory toward the garbage heap of yesterday's fads. "The phrase 'effortless perfection' has become sort of diluted," he says. "Like when people talk about racism or sexual assault--it's like, 'Oh, we're talking about it,' but they sort of forget the emotional underlying context involved in it."

Ward similarly notes that since the anonymous column in The Chronicle, "effortless perfection" somehow "took on the meaning specific to females and specific to eating disorders." Effortless perfection is about the pressures of success, she says, explaining how the phrase has many connotations that have nothing to do with eating disorders and may not apply only to women. "[It's also about] doing lots of activities, getting good grades and being involved and stretched too thin."

"Effortless perfection" as described by Ward may therefore affect a far larger segment of the Duke undergraduate population than just the women on campus. Men, too, may suffer under the pressures of attaining perfection, effectively complicating the definition of the phrase. As Lisker says, "There's a very complex reality behind that two-word phrase that affects women because it also affects men, and the danger is to simplify it.

"It's catchy. And it's so easy to say, 'effortless perfection,' but you have to also think about what it actually means!"

Although undergraduate men certainly feel the pressures to perform at Duke, they are less likely to recognize or define "effortless perfection". Brett Green, Interfraternity Council president, acknowledges that the Women's Initiative report has had significantly less of an impact on the male community.

"A lot of guys don't think that it affects them. Depending on your level of involvement in the Women's Initiative, it means very little or nothing to a lot of people," Green says. "I know that if I were to ask a number of my guy friends about the Women's Initiative and what it said, they would probably have very little idea because they would say that that's not something that's important to them.... Overall, it's definitely had a much smaller impact on the male population than on the female population."

Nonetheless, when asked to describe what he perceives as his goal as a Duke student, he describes a world surprisingly similar to that of "effortless perfection". "I think what it comes down to, here, is balance. It's like a circle--or a plate--and there's a point in the middle and the idea is to balance all these different things. Schoolwork and academics is a big part of it, as well as your social life and athletics. You know, there are all these different parts of it.... For me, the challenge has been to balance it all."

The pressure to succeed, however, throws some students out of balance and sometimes, out of Duke. This was the case for junior Adam Hill, who was kicked off the track team and suspended by the judicial board for plagiarizing. "I did what I did because I just wanted to get it done," Hill says. "I had not slept for three days because I had three 20-page papers to finish and they were all due in the same week. I was tired and turned in whatever I could." Finally back at Duke, Hill now realizes the importance of getting away from the unreasonable expectations of being able to both party hard and get the grades. "It sounds weird, but I am really glad I got suspended.... It is a lot different. My first year and a half were based solely around my social life. Now, I rarely get a night out and I find myself with more personal time. I do my work all the time and I enjoy my classes a lot more."

For others, perfection still seems to them within their grasp. Philip King, a varsity tennis player who once played on the ATP tour and a senior double majoring in computer science and political science and minoring in Chinese, believes being the best is just as important on the courts as off. "Winning solves everything. Doing well solves everything," he claims, making it sound so easy.

And maybe that's the point. Aileen Shiue, executive vice president of the Asian Students Association, posits that Duke students are "conditioned to be high achievers" where "effortless perfection" is a tangible expectation. Varsity diver, sorority member and senior Jeanne Dewitt agrees: "I don't think that it is completely inherent in the personality types that go to Duke.... But I also think that there is something particular about the Duke atmosphere that drives people a little too far."

Sengupta elaborates on this topic, explaining the phenomenon of "effortless perfection" as a result of a process of social normalization and flawed perception. "You see a lot of people, well, okay, maybe more like some people, at Duke doing really well, and that turns into the norm of 'well, everyone is doing well, so I have to be doing just as well.' Or you have two friends that don't have to study for a test and ace it, so you assume that everybody else in your class can do the same thing," he says. "There are very exceptional people at Duke. There are always those that can create that perception of 'effortless perfection'. But we can only perceive them from an outsider's point of view and we don't perceive the personal costs that may have been involved in creating that perception."

There is an emotional price involved in being effortlessly perfect. Zoila Airall, assistant vice president of student affairs, calls "effortless perfection" perfection with a price. "From what I'm hearing students saying, it's a high price that they're paying to be effortlessly perfect. It's not always being who you really think you are or who you really want to be," she says. "You're always working at being somebody else. And that's not comfortable."

"Effortless perfection" at Duke, Shiue says, also has a particular socio-economic ring to it. Only those with the financial capabilities to play the game will choose to do so. "The whole attention to image is only for people with the time and luxury to do it," she says. Lisker agrees. "It's quite expensive to have the right clothes, to train your body into a certain shape and get the manicures and the pedicures and the tanning.... [Perhaps] if you just can't afford it, then maybe you're more likely to challenge it or question it." Moneta echoes these sentiments, stressing the link between "effortless perfection" and class. "Students at Duke want to attain the highest socio-economic class without struggling to get there," he says. "It's an artificial set of expectations."

So while "effortless perfection" becomes the newest phrase to describe students at Duke, it also becomes apparent that it's not as easy as just throwing the term, like a blanket smothering a fire, over the entire undergraduate population. Lindsey Kister, a junior and member of one of the "core four" sororities at Duke, hesitates to apply "effortless perfection" so liberally. "I think 'entire' is a word I would avoid," she says. "I believe pressure exists, but coining a term or phrase to describe how women at Duke deal or feel about it is problematic."

Karen Krahulik, program director of the Center for LGBT Life was also suspicious of "effortless perfection" as accurately portraying undergraduates at Duke. The whole thing sounds like a racialized and heteronormative idea, she says. "Only certain people with the right gender and sexual orientation and right class can engage in the process of appearing perfect without effort."

Although Airall says she has seen a few women around campus carrying the designer bags and wearing the designer clothes, she is not convinced they accurately represent the student body. "I do see women walking around sometimes looking sloppy and not wearing the designer clothes.... So I guess I'm sort of confused because I just don't see [effortless perfection] to the degree that everybody is talking about," she says. "Or it could be that it... exists only for a certain group of people. And sometimes we tend to look at a certain group and then decide that that's the culture. So it's like there's this talk and we've raised it to this level of hype."

Freshmen Andrea Pemberton and Hanako Yashiro look at each other curiously when asked whether they've felt the pressure to be effortlessly perfect or met students at Duke who they would describe as portraying "effortless perfection". "Maybe they're out there," says Pemberton, an alumnae of the prestigious boarding school Deerfield, doubtfully. "But I haven't encountered them yet."

In any case, the phrase "effortless perfection" is hot and the players are just beginning to weigh in with their takes on the situation. As any administrator will say, the goal of discussing "effortless perfection" isn't necessarily to change anything, but to create dialogue, explore the various intricacies of this new buzzword and increase awareness.

"It's about calling on people and what's going on in their own lives. It's sort of like there's an elephant in the room and finally someone says, 'Hello, there's an elephant in the room. Why are we not talking about it? Why do we continue to play this game but have never talked about it?'" Sengupta says. "It's good that we've finally talked about it now."

Of course, as Moneta points out, "effortless perfection" is not like the flu. There's no antibiotic for it--no treatment. "We have to be realistic. There is no panacea," he says.

"The expectation is not to make them change, but at least we are giving them language--vocabulary to identify 'effortless perfection.' Our goal is to create a climate to talk honestly about what they feel and who they chose to conform with." Others take a harder line on resolving the problems of "effortless perfection."

"Any pressure to be perfect comes from within," says sophomore Reginaldo Howard scholar Marvin Wickware. "Parents, friends, the advertising and entertainment industries may promote certain ideals, but it is the individual's domain to accept or deny these ideals as being valid. No one, no matter how important they are to you, can make you think something.... People can choose not to force themselves into the mold of a person who runs a lot, eats little, balances studying and drinking perfectly well and still manages to drive out to the mall every weekend--in the BMW their daddy bought them--to get the latest horribly uncomfortable pair of shoes or ridiculous handbag."

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