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The impossible quest for perfection

Why does it bother me when I feel my thighs touch?

I don’t mean see my thighs touch. If and when that happens so that I can see it in a reflective surface, I like it.  It symbolizes, for me, that I am a woman, with curves and fat and shape.  I am real.

I am not nor will I ever be, perfect.  And I never will be.

Neither will you. Neither will any of us

And while I often try to be inclusive in my language, today I specifically mean us as women.

This isn’t revolutionary news to you.  We know that we will never be perfect, and, in large part, we present ourselves that way, especially in the blogworld.  Through a community of women, we can acknowledge that we have flaws, that we struggle, that we are delightfully imperfect.

But society still tells us otherwise.  Through advertisements, media, weight loss videos, “healthy” living tips, and more, we are constantly subjected to an ideal woman who has perfect skin, a thigh gap, great hair, toned abs, always looks presentable, never wears pjs to the grocery store, and is often of a certain age and ethnicity.  Those images create an ideal of woman that requires perfection, and while we might know it is impossible and unrealistic (in fact, we have seen how the use of digital manipulation shows that the images we see are not even real), those images are pervasive.

As women, we constantly subject ourselves to self-surveillance, ask ourselves, “how do we look?” and measure that against how we think we should look.  Our definition of perfection is defined by the most recent advertisement, news article and yes, even blog post.  We have dandruff, dry skin, acne, wrinkles – HUGE problems.  This is capitalism, yes, because we are told that we must buy a product to fix that, but this also goes much deeper.  In defining perfection as something that someone else has but we lack, we also become of aware of ourselves in a new, critical way. Suddenly, something that was a part of our body that we may not have given much attention to before becomes a problem.  And it is hard to move away from that even if you reject the commercial or recognize the “ideal” woman advertising the product as unrealistic.

I’ll provide a more tangible and personal example. Eight years ago now, before the Lululemon hullabaloo about thighs touching, I had no idea this was a bad, “imperfect” thing.  But even though I recognized how wrong it was to measure myself to an ideal (as defined by one person or groups of persons), I became aware of the gap between my thighs.  And even now, over five years later, I am uncomfortable in my body when I feel my thighs touch.  Rationally, I know that I am the same person, runner, scholar, worker, sister, daughter, blogger, etc regardless of what my thighs are doing.  But I can’t turn off the subconscious feeling that it is wrong, it is an imperfection, and society tells us that we must work to fix our imperfections.

This is clearly something that I struggle with, with roots that go deeper than lululemon leggings.  But the feeling that we are imperfect and must continually strive for perfection is a feeling that I think we, women, all women, can identify with.  It goes deeper than appearance too – we are told that we should have it all – motherhood, career, wonderful marriage, etc.  But first, we must look a certain way to even make those things possible.  If we want to be successful in our career, we are taught through magazines, commercials and even at the institutions themselves, that we must look a certain way.  How we look is suddenly so much more than our appearance.  As women, it is our ticket to be successful on every front.  We are told that our appearance must be our first priority – and until we reach perfect, we must try every avenue, buy every product, focus on every last detail of our body, just to get there.  Just thinking about it is exhausting.  Imagine doing it.

Except that we already do it, at least to some degree or another.

This is problematic because it creates a cycle where we are constantly evaluating ourselves and finding ourselves lacking. This process continues as we learn new things that are imperfect, and it creates a never ending list of what needs to be fixed. As we do that, our self-hatred increases, and even when we somehow reach one goal, we find that, inexplicably, there are even more things we need to fix.  Perfection is unattainable no matter how hard we try, and instead our self-confidence and self-worth suffers. This is a cycle that affects each of us to some degree, and it is time-consuming, negative, and counter-productive.

I am not suggesting that wanting to look our best, to get healthy, to lose weight, wear make up, shave, is, in itself, inherently wrong.  But I hope that we can recognize how we are socialized by society to do those things – and make informed decisions about whether we choose to do them or not.  Maybe I don’t need to buy anti-wrinkle cream because wrinkles, a representation of the aging process, also represents my own personal progress and developing wisdom. Or, I want to lose weight so that I am [fill in the blank here] able to go up the stairs without being out of breath, swim with the Sharks, climb Everest, etc. but not to look like x.  Even more importantly, I think it is important that we consistently identify these discourses for ourselves and the other women in our lives. Celebrate and embrace the women we are right now. Dismantle, step by step, the impossible standard we’ve set for ourselves and replace it with a goal of what we want to accomplish and let that guide our personal standards.

Perfection is impossible.

And just imagine what we can do with our time when we stop, consciously or subconsciously, pursuing it.

20 thoughts on “The impossible quest for perfection Leave a comment

    • It is! Especially when we all have so much worth based outside of our appearance. But that goes unrecognized if the only thing we focus on is appearance.

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  1. Absolutely YES!

    I don’t consider it non-inclusive to focus on women in this regard … because treatment isn’t equal towards women. I hold no notion that as a middle-aged guy that I am treated very differently and my appearance assessed very differently.

    Not gonna lie – when I saw Maria Kang I was a little tweaked … despite ‘good intentions’, the impact of that infamous poster was very negative. I remember reaction posts like this (http://www.theinklingsoflife.com/2012/10/my-excuses-for-not-looking-like-maria.html). And that was what got me – instead of just a healthy looking person who is in running or yoga gear with her kids, the image is one of unattainable perfection in a bikini, rather obviously ‘smoothed’ digitally.

    It is sad that instead the follow-up wasn’t used (https://www.facebook.com/MariaMKang/photos/pb.284697751561187.-2207520000.1425746948./922422107788745/?type=3&theater), as that one is much more real of a fit mom who has all of the realities of childbirth.

    I always love the quote from Tina Fey on this:
    “But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful.

    Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

    She could have added ‘and a thigh gap’ in there. As a guy I find that whole thing rather bizarre. I mean, I love beautiful women, but what sense does it make that beauty is a checklist? I look at the bloggers I follow, and seeing you taking quirky selfies is beauty, Michele or Sara with their kids is beauty, the enthusiasm of Megan in her 2 minute foodie videos is beauty, and on and on. It is so easy to assess ourselves negatively … but it serves no good end.

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    • You make a great point – while I commend each woman on her body, when we call it a “new perfect” we just create an new impossible ideal. I think the “real” solution is a movement away from any focus on appearance at all.

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  2. It’s truly amazing how much we are inundated with information/advertisements/opinions about how we should or shouldn’t be (physically, mentally, or socially!). At one point several years ago, I was most definitely too thin due to excessive stress, and a man I knew told me that I was “skinny fat”…. I couldn’t believe my ears! I was underweight but because I was not muscular, this person considered me ‘fat’ because my muscle tissue was soft. It was infuriating. I wish there was an easy way for people to understand how beautiful our bodies are as is. The fact that our hearts beat without our help, our lungs breathe without us thinking about it, our digestive systems break our food down into fuel, is amazing. Whether or not we have thigh gaps or bodacious butts or beautiful hair, our bodies are amazing and complicated systems that do so much more than look good or bad, fit or soft. I think if we could learn to appreciate our bodies as beautiful gifts that are worth more than how they look, we could all treat our bodies better and be closer to health and joy.

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    • “Skinny fat” that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Now that I’m over 50 I’m going for healthy and calling it a day. Enough with the dieting/over-exercising to be skinny.

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    • Thank you for bringing your perspective on this – society likes to tell us that we should be thin but not “too thin.” It’s a crazy double standard that puts us in an impossible bind. One thing I have noticed is that people were way more likely to comment on my weight when I was underweight than when I was overweight, and it wasn’t helpful at all. I think the same thing applies to us as it does to comments on children’s art – don’t comment on the appearance (e.g., what it is, how it looks) but congratulate them on the work, the accomplishment. It’s a tough thing to do because we are socialized to give comments and compliments based on appearance, but maybe we can refocus things if we talk about what we are doing?

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      • I totally agree – especially when the way people who are perceived to be overweight are the ones who are judged and penalized based on their appearance (often passed over at work, in relationships, etc). It’s all based on appearance, and not okay

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  3. It’s definitely tough to embrace our imperfections when we see the media touting otherwise. I worry a lot about my daughter who’s 9 but is starting to notice her body versus other girls in her class.

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    • Oh my goodness, me too! I wasn’t a very nice version of me, and I wasn’t achieving my goals. Simply not worth it!

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  4. This morning I grabbed a pair of pants that I bought in the fall and they were….snug. And I immediately felt shame and was upset with my body. Just the few seconds of putting on a freaking pair of pants totally changed my outlook on my day.
    Have I gained weight? Yes. Am I doing the “right” things to be healthy? Yes. So, why is it that this can turn my day on it’s head?
    It’s frustrating adn something I’m working on.

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    • It’s something I’m working on too! This morning, I looked through pictures of myself when I was super-sick with Celiac’s (and way underweight) and felt myself wishing I still looked like that! Crazy! I’m in a much healthier place now, but somehow that stick-thin version of me looked more like the “ideal” we see in the media. I think (hope) that talking about it can help us to see that and feel better about ourselves!

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  5. I wrote a post today about accepting yourself, criticisms and all, you are you.
    I love your story. And the thighs touching is why I always wear tights or stockings when I wear skirts 🙂

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