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The Glacier Underneath: The Plague of Perfectionism

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Feminism author Courtney Martin talks body image issues among college girls. (Campus/Ying Teoh)

Feminism author Courtney Martin talks body image issues among college girls. (Campus/Ying Teoh)

Jia Ying.

Jia Ying.

Feminism author Courtney Martin talks body image issues among college girls. (Campus/Ying Teoh)

By Wendy Walcoff

From small talk in Proctor, to late-night brownie binges and even later nights in the library, the constant chatter that echoes through campus concerning the “perfect girl” not only exists, but has taken a toll on the College campus. With an acceptance rate of 17.3 percent, it is no question that our endeavors to get here had the power to jeopardize our mental health. Sadly, our strenuous efforts to arrive at Middlebury all too often permeated our experiences here: whether it be a sister, close friend or even ourselves, we have all witnessed the manifestations of perfectionism, and most of us have stood by as someone we loved engaged in acts of self-hatred.

“We have to be funny. We have to be well read. We have to be in shape. We have to care about the planet…we’re expected to be social while also maintaining perfect grades,” said Elli Itin ’16, co-president of Feminist Action club and coordinator of Wednesday’s “Perfect Girls” talk by Courtney Martin. “We’re told we have to be everything. I’m exhausted of hearing about friends of mine who have been hospitalized for eating disorders, of overhearing conversations in the dining halls of girls saying, ‘I can’t eat any bread tonight because I didn’t work out for an hour.’ I’m tired of having people comment on everyone’s weight, both guys and girls; I’m tired of watching people pile on bracelets from cutting […] I think we’re all exhausted from dealing with this.”

On Wednesday, Feb. 19, students, mostly female, gathered in McCullough Social Space and prepared to confront the stimulating issue of society’s pressure to be “perfect” when famed feminist Martin took the stage. A native of Colorado, Martin wrote her first book, “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating our Bodies,” as a reaction to the culture of self-hatred she experienced during her time at Barnard College. Itin introduced Martin to the crowd of over 200 students and community members, listing her accolades – five books, editor of Feministing.com, founder of The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy and appearances in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek and on Good Morning America, The TODAY Show – invited the audience to “catalyze a conversation about the voices in our heads telling us that we aren’t good enough.”

“Well that was a bad-ass intro,” Martin laughed, inviting levity on stage for a conversational, comfortable atmosphere.  Approaching a sensitive topic with grace, Martin announced, “I love learning from you how this [perfectionist trend] is showing up specifically at Middlebury.  I’m here to learn as much as I am to speak.” She began the conversation with a question, asking those of us to stand that knew someone who had suffered from a “full blown” eating disorder.  Four or five people remained seated as nearly the whole audience stood.

“Beyond the full blown eating disorder, what I am most interested in talking about with you today, is not the top line diagnosable eating disorders … what I am most interested in is the glacier underneath. The iceberg on top is what we see as these full blown diagnosed eating disorders, but underneath there is this huge massive epidemic of women and men, importantly, who are self hating,” Courtney explained. Over half of women between the ages of 18 and 25 would prefer to be run over by a truck than be fat and another two thirds would prefer to be more stupid, she highlighted.

“How can we stop settling for self-hate and redefine success to include wellness?” Martin asked.

In approaching a response, Courtney was certain to define the root of body-image issues: “[They’re] not really about beauty, but at this deep, deep level they’re about this existential sense: what makes me worth something? What makes me seen by others? What makes me feel in control of the world? It isn’t about food or fitness, but about the deepest questions we can ask about who we are.” The effort to “be everything to all people,” (in Martin’s words), and further, to make it look effortless, all too frequently results in self-harm.

But does this problem affect the wider Middlebury demographic? Prior to the lecture, a student edited one of the posters for “Perfect Girls,” commenting that the group that the poster addressed was one “of white women.”

“It’s statistically true — that the richer you are, the more privilege you come from, the whiter you are, the more likely you are to have an eating disorder,” she explained. However, this idea has led to misdiagnoses of women of color. A recent study showed that black women are as likely to binge and purge, and are more likely to fast and abuse laxatives or diuretics.

“A lot of times we think that the only beauty ideal in our culture is the white, thin, beauty ideal. Well there are actually many beauty ideals in our culture,” Martin said.

So how does this issue play a role on campus? A large part lies within the word “effortless.”  As one student explained, “I think that it’s much more masked here.  I think that there’s a lot of obsessive behavior, but I think the problem at Middlebury is that we convince ourselves of effortless perfection…not only do we convince ourselves that we need to be perfect and that our peers are perfect, but that it all comes very effortlessly — hugely detrimental to the psyche because a) no one’s perfect, and b) it certainly isn’t without trying.”

One freshman-feb said that before she came to Middlebury, she was told not to worry about the “freshman-fifteen,” because “you lose weight here.” Whether or not this is true for you, when 35 percent of Middlebury students are varsity athletes, it is hard to overlook the college’s reputation that places an emphasis on fitness and food. As one senior cross-country runner explained, “Being fit here isn’t just being healthy and being in shape, it’s, ‘Are you an All-American?’…It’s cool [at Middlebury] to run a marathon, to be the football star, be a lacrosse boy…and it changes what it means to have a good body; to be fit.”  We’ve adopted the mentality that fitness equates to value, and though it is important to be healthy and self-aware, we’ve lost a sense of true success by setting too high of standards for ourselves and others.

“I’d say the dominant scene at Middlebury is probably the athletic scene. But there’s other sides of Middlebury campus, and I would say those sides are no less overachieving, just in different ways,” Lily Andrews ’14 commented. As a Gender Studies major, Andrews explained that for her, achieving is making social justice initiatives and proving her leadership. Hannah Geldermann ’16, an Environmental-Chemistry major and pre-med, illustrated a similar perfectionist mindset within her field, described the intense self-inflicted pressure in a pre-professional atmosphere.  Jiya Pandya ’17, explained, “You can somehow never do enough at Middlebury.”

We have set impossibly high standards for ourselves in all regards, and in turn have suffered the consequences.  The last question to pose is now that we’re aware, how do we invoke change? Courtney offered steps to move towards a shifting mindset.

“We can change conversations about weight to well being. We can speak up against fat discrimination. We can think about ‘With who do we feel the happiest and most beautiful, and how can we hang out with them all the time?’”

She further explained that we need to trust ourselves if we need professional help, we can get involved with feminism on campus, and endorse health rather than “perfection.”  Itin explained, “We have to reach back into our little kid selves, and ask if our eight-year old selves saw us now, would they be happy with our choices? Not our resumes, but the way we treat ourselves.”

Additional Reporting by IZZY FLEMING

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