What is Perfectionism? Part 2: perfectionism and intersectionality

This is Part 2 of our series, What is Perfectionism?, about the systemic and intersectional implications of perfectionism. This series was written by Ma’yan intern, Barae Hirsch. Learn more about Barae from her bio at the end of her piece.

The insidious convictions of perfectionism seem likely to permeate modern culture beyond the frontier of rich white girls. Once viewed simply as an affliction of the privileged invented to fill the unavoidable human need for distress, perfectionism as a product of many cultural forces at work today — including racism, sexism, classism, sizeism, etc. — has diverse implications for many people. One of the most striking facets of modern perfectionism is the influence of the dominant, internalized mold of success: white, thin, Christian, privileged, accomplished, humble, driven. Many girls and young people will never be able to squeeze themselves into this template of a “perfect woman.” Despite this undeniable reality, girls from low income families, girls of color, and otherwise marginalized girls are not only expected to excel in a system that was clearly not built for them, but also to serve as representatives and ambassadors for their entire cohort. They are supposed to prove that people of their backgrounds are ‘just as good’ or capable as their privileged counterparts. These teenagers may feel responsible to achieve perfection even beyond their own, because any misstep could be skewed as an indicator for their entire marginalized identity.

As a white, middle class, young woman, it is essential that I (and other women of my demographic) expose the real and damaging consequences that result from a system in which making a mistake entails being a mistake.  Simultaneously, our confronting of this concern must include examining perfectionism in many of our peers without many of our privileges. Our responsibility to not only self-advocate but also to dismantle the narrow mainstream perceptions of perfectionism begins with regaining our own sense of self and cementing our self-worth. If we cannot realize and accept nuances in our own expectations for ourselves, it becomes exponentially more difficult to do so with others.      

One of the reasons many people become trapped in perfectionism is the promise that a certain way of being guarantees happiness. We believe that if we follow specific guidelines and adhere to a mold that society has deemed “right,” then we will be happy. In addition to the pervasive depiction of perfection as white, wealthy, and fitting into hegemonic Christian culture, women’s bodies are highly scrutinized and play an influential role in determining status, respect, achievement, and self-image. The general consequence is that women become ashamed, subservient, and preoccupied with their diets and bodies.

The concepts of body positivity, fat acceptance, and Health at Every Size are absolute game changers when it comes to self-confidence and individuality. These movements offer alternatives to the sanctified thin ideal, exposing the “perfect body” as a largely unattainable social construct. Allowing for and teaching body diversity can serve as a gateway to countless opportunities for individual and community exploration.

Barae Hirsch grew up in Alaska in the cities of Anchorage and Homer. She is a recent graduate of West Anchorage High School, and is involved in journalism, environmental activism, civic engagement, and many forms of youth empowerment and advocacy. Barae loves hiking, writing, coffee, laughing, and getting fired up about social justice issues. You can find out more about her and see her work at baraehirsch.com    

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