Flawless Failure: Are you living your life or are you perfecting it?
Ludmila Cesar, 17
Shaquana Mathis, 15
Whether or not" we are aware of it, the media and even the people around us may lead us to believe that it is important to strive for perfection. However, perfection is not only impossible to achieve, but trying too hard to reach it will also make you unhappy. What is a girl to do? Teen Voices explores perfectionism in the lives of teenage girls.
The perfect role I have to play,
Will it ever end someday?
The perfect daughter I once was,
Then that has turned to fuzz.
And now that role is back,
And happiness I do lack.
My whole life I've played the part
Of a perfect character that I did start.
Every day I act so fake
Just for everyone else's sake.
Fakeness that used to make me queasy
Now is natural and easy.
So no one sees the problems I own,
I do not change expression or even tone.
The perfect student I have become
Is now expected by everyone.
Now the perfect role model I am,
Always saying, "Please" and "Thank you ma'am."
I've dug a hole oh-so-deep,
Out of which I'm trying to creep.
Keeping others happy is all I do,
Making me feel used and blue.
When will I do things for me?
Probably never, for the rest of eternity.
With my life upside down,
All the time I feel like a clown.
My feelings are always in a whirl,
But everyone sees me as the Perfect Girl.
Celine Berthaud, 15
I remember coming home from a dance performance and telling my father how inspired I was, and how I wanted to pursue it professionally. He immediately shot me down and told me, "The only way you'd be a successful dancer is if you hit the gym and lose a couple of pounds. You are not the size of any dancer and you better change quickly if you're hoping to get anywhere in the dancing scene. I'm just telling you what others won't. You're too shapely to be a dancer."
After my dad told me this, I was on a mission to make my body into the perfect dancer's shape. I began to eat less and exercise much more than I already did. I had a cereal bar and strawberry milk for breakfast, and for lunch I had a pack of fruit snacks. For dinner, I would have a small salad and orange juice. Basically, I began starving myself. I wanted to become that perfect dancer so badly that I got really sick and couldn't dance for a whole week.
While I was in bed, sick from malnutrition, I began to tell myself that my body was made this way for a reason. I couldn't force it to become something that it naturally wasn't. I knew what I was doing was wrong but I didn't know what to do. If I kept starving myself then I would never become what I had aspired to. So I decided that from then on I was going to be me and nothing more, because there is no such thing as a perfect dancer. I have to be happy with myself. I put this plan into action as soon as I recovered, and promised myself never to strive for the perfect body. Now I'm healthier than ever, and pushing my way to the top of the dancing scene.
Have You Noticed Yet?
Katie Simpson, 15
Have you told your daughter
That being pretty and popular
Isn't the road to happiness?
And have you wondered
About those pictures of women
She cuts out
That she dreams of being?
Has she fallen on
The impossible hike to the dream,
Stumbling, cutting against the hard ground
Of society, food, beauty, and
Or were you just too busy
To notice yet?
Jenni Deveau, 16
High school can provide many stressful situations, especially for teenage girls. I am no exception. Different people deal in different ways. In an effort to balance my life, I developed an eating disorder.
My disease started out innocently enough: I was a high school junior with what I thought was a normal schedule. I was going to school, working, and playing a sport. I am a perfectionist, so when I do something I do it all the way. I was involved in a rigorous program at school, working part time, and cheerleading four nights a week.
From the outside, it looked like I had everything together: I was "perfect little Jenni." But on the inside, the stress of being a perfect daughter, student, and cheerleader was getting to me. In order to deal with this stress, I stopped eating. At first the decision wasn't a conscious one. My schedule was full and constantly changing. If a meal wasn't planned, I would forget to eat and not notice being hungry. After a while, though, withholding food from my body gave me a sense of power and control that I had lost in the rest of my life.
Now that I had developed a disorder, my life only became harder. Soon I began to lose weight and my complexion turned very pale. Suddenly I wasn't as well-prepared as I used to be. I was exhausted and people were beginning to notice. My mask of perfection was falling apart.
One day, I reached my absolute breaking point. I woke up late and didn't have time for a shower. I wore the wrong cheer uniform to school (completely out of character for me) and had to run home and change. I almost missed our performance. I hadn't eaten for days and I looked awful. After the assembly, all the cheerleaders were supposed to go to the mall and get our pictures taken. I almost missed that as well, just because I was unable to think normally. Later, two cheerleaders came to my house and confronted me about my eating disorder. I was an emotional wreck. I completely denied everything. It wasn't as though I was lying to them; I didn't think I had a problem. Soon after this, my mother took me to the doctor and I began seeing a counselor. I still have those pictures from the mall and every time I look at them, it reminds me how sick I was.
Through counseling, my disorder is under control and I am maintaining a healthy weight. The first step in counseling is to admit your problem, then learn how to change it. It is now much easier for me to express my opinions and stand up for myself. I feel like I have overcome a great hurdle and that I am strong enough to do anything.
Lindsey Kaplan, 14
She wants to become what she is in dreams,
a ballerina perhaps, a model, a singer.
I tell her she can; I know she can do anything.
Why doesn't she believe me?
As she dances, sweat builds up on face
and drips down like tears. But sometimes it is tears
that come from her eyes.
Her hair is golden-brown candy that swirls, bouncing up and down
as she waves her hands gracefully through the air.
She sings a note and her white teeth appear." They glimmer.
Her big brown eyes look out into the world and shine
as she sees her reflection in the mirror.
But she's disappointed with the sweet sounds that come from her voice.
Her smooth and elegant dancing, done to perfection, isn't enough for her.
It isn't perfect enough for her. I know it is. I tell her it is.
She says she can't do it, it will never be better; she will never be the best.
She wears herself out, and sometimes her eyes look so tired they swell.
She looks saddest when she looks in the mirror
and sees a figure of her standing there.
Her eyes open wide, and she hopes the image
standing across from her could just disappear.
But it doesn't,
and it won't.
Far from Perfect
Leslie Gruenert, 15
Sometimes I wish I could just run away. To be so far away from the world that nothing can ever touch you. But I still wouldn't be safe. Doubt and hurt are like my skin, my shadow. When I was younger, I just wanted to be that perfect little girl that has all the answers. I just wanted people to love me. I convinced myself that everything would be perfect by the time I started junior high. Then I pushed the deadline to the beginning of high school. Now here I am, halfway through high school and no closer to a magic fix, even further away from the perfection I once dreamed of.
My heart feels large and heavy, as though my blood is pumping too hard. How do I fix this melancholy "“ how do I fix all of this? I thought I was "fixed" when I left the hospital last fall, that my eating disorder had gotten the message after six weeks of treatment and finally left me alone. Then I realized it was right behind me. It had never left at all, just grown so huge that I couldn't name it anymore. My heart and my head are fighting two different battles and I don't know which the right side is anymore. I know that being thin won't make me a better person, give me the perfection that I pursue, but it feels so right. Do I fight this unseen villain, or do I give my heart just what it wants?
The loneliest girl in the world. The best little girl in the world. There are so many things that I wish I could go back and change. The best little girl isn't fat, and she doesn't cry. She doesn't make these weak attempts at happiness, and she most certainly isn't weak in her nature. I am such a contradiction. On the outside, no one could be happier. I have so many friends, so much support. But right now, I don't think that anyone in the world is quite as lonely as I am.
Pressure to be Perfect: Where's it Coming From?
- Born to be a perfectionist: Did you know scientists think there may be a link between your DNA and your picky ways?
- Media made me do it: The shows you watch and the ads you see may influence your need to have that perfect body and life.
- Mom only wants the best: Sometimes parents put pressure on you to be perfect without realizing it.
- Move to the head of the class: The pressure to get all A's can be overwhelming.
- Believing in perfection: Depending on your beliefs, you may think you have to live up to a certain ideal.
- Frozen by fear: Are you afraid of failing, being rejected, or losing control of your life?
Pains of Perfectionism
Trying to be perfect may seem like a good idea, but there are negative consequences.
Here are some symptoms:
- Low Self-Esteem: When you try too hard to improve yourself, you end up not appreciating who you are right now.
- Procrastination: If you spend all your time perfecting yourself, you might neglect getting other important things done.
- Anxiety: The thought of not being good enough can cause you to have panic attacks or other anxiety disorders.
- Depression: Feeling insufficient can make you sad or unhappy.
- Eating disorders: If you try to be like the thin models in ads or TV, this could lead to trying to "perfect" your body in a destructive way.
- Loneliness: The desire to constantly improve yourself can cause you to isolate yourself from friends and family.
Expect to Perfect? An expert tells you otherwise
Who knows more about teenage girls than Dr. Lisa Machoian? A member of the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology and Girls' Development, Dr. Machoian has been working with teen girls for over twenty years." Dr. Machoian noticed that people often don't listen to girls, understand them, or take them seriously. In an effort to bring girls' voices into the world, she wrote the acclaimed book The Disappearing Girl. Dr. Machoian speaks out about the pitfalls of perfection in this interview with Teen Voices.
Teen Voices: Since you began working with teenage girls, have you seen a rise or a decline in girls being overly concerned with their personal appearance? If so, why?
Lisa Machoian: I have seen a rise in girls being concerned with their appearance. I think that there are several reasons. The media targets girls more through advertising, and there are more ways to advertise now than ever before. I also think there is a subtle backlash going on. As women advance and have more equality, and more girls are going to college, the culture keeps girls and women sexualized and objectified through being overly concerned with appearance. It distracts girls from developing other aspects of their selves, from following their passions, and it lowers their self-esteem. We are in a capitalist culture, where people can make money when girls buy the products and items that they think will make them look a certain way.
TV: When you were a teen, did you struggle with these issues? If you did, how did you face them? If you didn't, what distracted you from them?
Lisa: When I was a teenager, there was not as much emphasis on looks and designer labels as there is now. It's very different now. I cared about what I looked like but it wasn't something I was overly concerned with.
TV: What are some ways that the media and advertisements encourage perfectionism in teenage girls? Do you feel the same pressure is put on teen boys?
Lisa: The media and advertising often don't show "real" girls; they are models and celebrities, people with makeovers and sometimes plastic surgery. There is a cultural image of how girls and women "should" look. Some girls become consumed with trying to emulate what is put forth by the culture as perfect. The media distorts pictures so that girls think people actually look the way they do "“ they stretch pictures, airbrush pictures, and girls may think that is how someone looks naturally. I don't think there is as much pressure on boys to look a certain way as there is for girls. I think there is more emphasis on looks for boys and men now than before, but not nearly the pressure girls are under.
TV: Are there any other factors (family, school, boyfriends/girlfriends) that encourage perfectionism?
Lisa: Family can certainly encourage it, [as well as] school coaches, friends, boyfriends and school. If girls are anxious or nervous, sometimes that can make them have tendencies towards perfectionism.
TV: Is perfectionism passed on by your family? How can you break free of the pressure of your family's perfectionism?
Lisa: Yes, it often is. We internalize aspects of our parents and families. Try to remember that you are perfect just as you are. Ask: who defines perfect? What is perfect? Who decides? Who is setting the standard? And why? Focus on all your strengths and talents, the things you like to do and are good at doing.
TV: Can perfectionism be life-threatening?
Lisa: Yes, in cases of anorexia and depression. If girls are not happy with themselves, they can become depressed and anxious. This can lead to stress and even suicidal behavior.
TV: Are there any positives to being a perfectionist? Is it okay to strive for the ideal appearance?
Lisa: It is positive if it propels you to excel in school, work, sports or something you love and succeed in. But if you are never happy with what you do, it is a problem, especially if you think your value is only in how you look.
TV: What are some ways to battle perfectionism? Do you have any advice for adolescent girls who want to look or be perfect?
Lisa: Focus on what you have. Develop coping strategies for stress and anxiety. Write down what you like about yourself, your strengths. Take care of yourself in healthy ways: eat correctly, stay hydrated, and get regular exercise. Have someone to talk with that you trust and can express what you are really thinking and feeling.
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