I don’t know where I got the idea that I had to be perfect. Not really.
Maybe I was born with it. Perhaps it was my upbringing? In our home, tasks were to be performed meticulously, lest we had to do them over. And over – and over until the specifications were met.
Or maybe it’s just middle child syndrome. Growing up, it seemed like my brothers had the spotlight by virtue of their very existence, whereas in order to be noticed I felt I had to jump through hoops.
I remember listening as my university roommate repeatedly smashed her head against the wall. It was obvious that she was crying, her keening louder with each reverberation.
Jesus, I thought. Does she know I’m here? The door to my room was closed and none of my other roommates were around. I wondered if I should go out there – or was this episode meant to be private? What the hell.
I began to worry that she would either knock herself out, or put her head through the drywall. What kind of psychology major would I be if I just left her out there? I opened the door and took a step into the hallway. Bang, bang, BANG. I eased around the corner and said her name. That was all it took for her to launch into my arms, weeping fat tears into the crook of my neck.
I did my best to quell her jagged sobs. At last, I was able to discern the issue at hand – she had not received the mark she sought on a final exam; she did not get an A+. When I finally returned to my room, I couldn’t help but think of my own situation. What was I going to do?
I was half way through my second year, and although my GPA was consistently high, I was having a hard time achieving perfect grades. I’d breezed through high school with distinction, but university was definitely, you know – harder. And it was stressful too, trying to strike a balance in the strange ludic space between childhood and adult life.
You might think my roommate’s reaction histrionic, but I could empathise. Competition in university was extremely fierce. In my program, if your end game was to obtain your Masters, you had to find a professor willing to supervise your thesis work. To do that you had to graduate with honours – you had to perform at the top of your class, and you needed research hours in the bank. There were maybe a handful of spots that hundreds of students were vying for.
How was I going to get there?
When I returned to school after Christmas break, I realized that I wasn’t. My situation had become psychosomatic. What I mean is – I broke out in full-body hives. From stress. Did you know that could happen? I was having panic attacks regularly, and my sleeping patterns had become erratic. Trying to maintain a perfect grade point average was turning me into a hot mess.
For a select few, the so-called crème de la crème, it seemed easy; while others ended up hitting their heads against a wall – literally. I knew of a girl who pulled out most of her hair as a result of the pressure. The irony of potentially saying good-bye to my sanity over a psychology degree was not lost on me.
In the end I consciously uncoupled with my ambitions for perfect grades, deciding that a solid B+ average would have to do. As it turned out, I was not a supergenius. I liked having hair.
When I graduated from university I knew I was going to save the world. I was going to help women, rescue children – it’s what I was all about. If being a clinician wasn’t for me, then I would help people from the front lines.
It didn’t take long for me to find a position, a research job. Take that academia, I thought. I’d log some research hours after all. My primary role as a novice researcher was to conduct interviews with clients who had used the program’s services.
The program itself was an early intervention collaborative designed to facilitate support for new mothers in at-risk situations. At risk, I remember thinking. I was fine with that, I’d seen some things. I knew that the world was a hard place.
When a client couldn’t speak English or didn’t have a phone, I went to their home to conduct the interview face to face, using an interpreter when necessary. This was all well and good, until my small town, middle-class perspective was shattered.
I witnessed poverty and social isolation on a level I never had before. I heard tale after tale of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, medical crises; no food or money for diapers and formula. Scarcity of resources, desperation and fear ran rampant in apartment towers and cul-de-sacs in every corner of the city.
In these situations it was commonplace for newborns to be apprehended from their mothers. On more than one occasion my interpreter and I had to leave because our safety was in jeopardy. Once the authorities were alerted and I was a safe distance away, I’d sit shaking and crying in my car. It was becoming clear that I didn’t have the thick skin required to be on the front-line.
After six months I was offered a promotion, which came with an office. Happily, I accepted and immersed myself in databases and reports; things that made sense. Sure, my office was still in a sketchy part of town, pass-coded and separated from the outside world with bullet-proof glass – but I went to work every day for four years, clinging to the story of hope that the numbers told me.
I was not a superhero after all.
Speaking of people who make an impact – do you remember Terry Schiavo? Though she and I never met, Terry saved me from continuing down a dangerous path. She spent fifteen years on life support, in a permanent vegetative state. You may recall the decade-long legal battle over her fate; her husband’s insistence that she would not want to be kept alive in such a manner, met with her parents’ equally vehement argument to the contrary.
Her feeding tube was repeatedly removed and reinserted with each legal turnover until it was finally taken out for good on March 18th, 2005. She died on March 31st.
For many years Terry had been restricting her diet to mostly fluids, in an effort to control her weight. As a result, she suffered from hypokalemia – low potassium levels. The thing about potassium, is that you need it for your heart to function; a serious consequence of not having enough can be heart rhythm abnormalities, including – in layman’s terms – your heart stops beating.
Did you get that? Your heart can actually stop due to overzealous restrictive eating habits. As in – you can drop dead. In effect, Terry unintentionally put the die in diet, but when she went into cardiac arrest, she was resuscitated a touch too late. She spent weeks in a coma before it was determined that she had undergone massive and irreversible brain damage.
That Terry was sentenced to 15 years of being fed through a tube as a consequence of intentionally starving herself was, to me, painfully ironic. Too ironic. The end of her life marked an important turnaround in mine.
When Terry succumbed to passive euthanasia, it crystalized in my own mind that if I continued on the path I was on, I would die. One way or another, my obsession would kill me; or worse, I’d wind up putting my family through hell. Would I go on to have a career and pursue my ambitions? Did I want to have a family one day? Was building a life more important than being prisoner to an unhealthy fixation with my weight?
Sure, Terry’s case was extreme – but the point is that it can happen. It’s been a long road since that pivotal day in 2005, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still have difficult days. But I’m here, and I continue to fight the mainstream obsession with unrealistic and unhealthy ideals.
It’s shocking how thoroughly the media can negatively affect young girls, as though through psychological osmosis – it’s brainwashing. Irresponsible messages in the media bleed down into the grassroots of our society; they’re ingrained in us from the time we learn to walk and are reinforced in our daily lives everywhere we turn.
I call it the Supermodel Phenomenon. It is a very real and insidious problem. Soap operas, gossip rags and women’s magazines, Hollywood blockbusters and hit TV shows, commercials, entertainment programs, news broadcasts and ad campaigns all reinforce the point over and over and over again: you have to be thin to fit in.
But would you die to be just a little bit thinner? Would you want your daughter to?
A few months ago I was called to my own attention when my six year old asked me why I weighed myself every day. To me, it was a habit – something I did first thing in the morning without giving much thought as to why. As I attempted to formulate a response, I realized that a calibrated scrap of metal still had power over me.
I could see her impressionable young psyche mapping this practice as something normal, and was horrified at the thought of her checking her weight on a daily basis. This seemingly innocuous routine went against everything I had been trying so hard to instill in her. The scale had to go, and with it all the absurd notions of ever achieving anything even close to the ideal female physique.
I could be a good role model – but a supermodel I was not.
On to role models. The unspoken rule in today’s day and age is that women should be able to wear all hats. Oh, sorry – was I not supposed to say anything about that? Well, that cat’s out of the bag now.
Messages abound from all directions that women can and should do everything. Be everything. Handle anything. And make it look easy, dammit.
We have assumed what were traditionally our father’s roles, while at the same time maintaining those of our mothers. Women are supposed to be feminine and sexy, but physically strong and capable. We’re supposed to work a full-time job and still attend events at our child’s school across town in the middle of the workweek.
Keep a clean, well-organized home and balance the check book; be a hard-nosed business person at the office and Aphrodite in the boudoir. Have perfect nails and run in marathons and mow the lawn after we pick up groceries from the store. Be an amazing mom, a loyal and selfless friend, a loving daughter and doting wife; and don’t let yourself go in the process – tone that ass, so it looks dialed in yoga pants.
We’re supposed to be calm in the face of adversity; it’s our job to maintain a positive outlook and lift others up, be there for anyone and everyone in a moment’s notice. Be nurturing. But strong, too – no one wants to see a woman cry. Not today.
But, just hang on a minute. At the risk of exposing myself as a huge embarrassing failure – am I the only one who feels like they’re in over their head?
The moment I come up for air, I have to go back down again – with or without having taken a breath. By the time I’ve done enough of the things I need to do, I’m too exhausted to do anything I want to do. I can’t seem to get enough sleep. My body aches. I’m tense all the time, as though the adrenaline required to face a never-ending to do list has me permanently poised to spring into action.
My house is in a perpetual state of disarray. Paperwork spills over on the counter, shoes litter the entryway and the windows haven’t been washed since whoevenknows. The yard work is not done and the deck still needs refinishing. I can’t make it to the choir performance today, there’s just no way. I fell asleep last night when the boyfriend was mid-sentence. Sorry about that.
Several acrylic paintings lean unfinished against the armoire. I don’t know the last time I properly stretched. I’m going to freak out if I don’t squeeze in some time outdoors and I’ve been saying I’m going to take that trip by myself for eight years. What about the book I want to write? And a social life? What even is that?
Is this what life is about – always feeling under the gun and frustrated and burnt out and spent? Here I am, facing my latest reality check. But it’s something bigger than that.
I get it.
I’m not a supergenius or a superhero. I will never be a supermodel. I can’t do everything all the time – I’m not Superwoman. I’m not perfect. I concede.
What if instead of trying to be perfect all the time, I just be me? What if, instead of taking two steps forward and inevitably one step back – I take one step? How about half a step? What if I just stand here for a minute.
I’m not perfect – but that B+ average is actually really good. I can’t save the world, though I do my best to help people whenever I can. I’m no supermodel, but I’m learning to love who I am. And I’m not perfect.
If I need to get angry or cry or swear, I’m going to. My house is sometimes a disaster and my life can be a bit of a shit show. But it’s my life.
From now on I will admit when I can’t do something, without guilt or shame. I’m changing up my priorities to make my life more enjoyable. And I’m taking that trip.