Fixing the Flaws in Perfection
I have come across many girls in my life who seem to be blessed with every gift imaginable. They are kind and honest. They are beautiful and funny. They are somehow talented at anything they try their hand at and they are clever. They shine so bright, no one can hold a candle to them.
I know that these girls are just girls. I know they are struggling with a lot of the same stuff I struggle with, but even if their outer personalities are just façades, these people are the sorts of girls that society would deem “perfect.” These girls are the ideal we are taught to aspire to. They are the finish line after a million steps of self-improvement. But despite the necessity to work to be better, working hard is not an aspect of the “perfect girl.” They should be effortless in their appearance. Graceful with every step. They should be—they need to be—perfect.
However, the one attribute I have consistently noticed in “perfect girls” is that they are also humble, quiet. Every “perfect girl” I have ever met has been so humble, that they can turn a compliment into self-deprecation. It is so unbearably heartbreaking to me that these girls who are so marvelous all don’t know how marvelous they are. But the truly terrifying truth is that their humility and self-consciousness seem to be an essential part of being the “perfect girl.”
Self-consciousness and shyness have turned into attractive traits. This necessity to be so humble that you don’t even know objective truths about yourself pervades throughout all of modern media:
Songs like What makes you beautiful talk about a beautiful girl, but it’s her ignorance of her beauty that makes her beautiful. The song is not an attempt to raise her self-confidence, it is a praise of her lack thereof.
Movies like She’s All That talk about a teenage girl who is bright and talented, clever and funny. But she doesn’t know she is “all that” until the male lead takes her glasses off and tells her just how great she is.
And if a girl does acknowledge her accomplishments, it is often seen as being narcissistic or arrogant. Rachel from Friends is proud of her actions, but whenever she compliments herself it is meant to illustrate the absurdity of her narcissism. Whenever she talks about her own objective beauty, it is a punchline, because no normal woman would actually admit that she is beautiful. Rachel’s self-confidence is seen as overconfidence and as one of the major flaws in her personality. Being proud is considered a problem; girls are supposed to apologize for loving who they are and in doing so, apologize for being who they are.
This message didn’t start with current pop-culture, though. There is a Jewish poem, traditionally sung on Friday night called A Woman of Valor. Originally from the Book of Proverbs, A Woman of Valor describes the perfect woman. The poem begins: “A woman of valor who can find, for her price is beyond pearls” and then it goes on to list her many good qualities. She provides for her household, is skilled at sewing, can plant a vineyard, etc.…
The final lines of the poem say, “Her children rise and call her fortunate; [also] her husband, and praises her… Charm is false and beauty is futile; a God-fearing woman is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and her deeds will praise her in the gates.”
What the poem never says is that she should praise herself or that she should feel pride for her actions. In fact, the poem never once mentions that the woman should feel any emotions regarding her actions. And maybe this is the problem. The “perfect girl” is one who brings joy and entertainment to others, not to herself. She is not meant to feel pride because she is not meant to feel. She is kind and beautiful, smart and talented, honest and funny, but all of those traits are only meant benefit the people around her.
The “perfect girl” is an idea that a girl should provide for others with no want for herself. Then all of the praise she receives, all the acknowledgement for her actions, is contingent on the people around her. This “perfect girl” is taught to find others to love her, because she is not allowed to love herself.
Teaching that philosophy to little girls is very dangerous. The ideal we are taught to strive for is the “perfect girl” and that girl cannot acknowledge that she deserves to be happy with herself. If even a “perfect girl” cannot accept herself, then how are other girls supposed to interpret that? We aren’t good enough? We will never be good enough? There is no perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try?
There is a reason women apologize more than men: they see more of their flaws as offenses, meaning that when they do not meet their own expectations, it is something they believe they need to apologize for. Anything less than perfection means that that girl, as a person, is failing at being a “perfect girl.” When women cannot meet these unrealistic standards, they begin to feel like they are less than they are meant to be. They start to feel self-conscious and unworthy of the love a “perfect girl” gets.
This toxic culture is sadly prominent today. Comedians have been pointing out this problem with female empowerment for years. CollegeHumor wrote a sketch about this need to feel embarrassed for speaking, and eating, and breathing. Amy Schumer has a video about women refusing to accept compliments, and instead insulting themselves. When one woman at the end of the video dares to accept a compliment, the rest of the women implode, literally. In comedy, there is an exaggerated truth. When women are complimented, they often have trouble accepting the praise. When women speak, they often need to apologize for interjecting into the conversation. To be the “perfect girl” means to be humble, but humble has been expanded into being afraid to love yourself. How can women be equal, when we are told the best version of ourselves cannot find internal support? How can we accept love and support from others without accepting our own love? We strive to fix ourselves, but the “perfect girl” is broken.
This all probably seems immensely dark; however, there is a way to change this situation. Women and girls don’t have to be taught to be perfect, they just need to be taught to be people. Girls need to learn that they can brag about themselves without being absolutely flawless and that bragging won’t make them worse people. To fix the “perfect girl” we need to fix the culture. Movies and songs, books and magazines, parents and friends all need to start supporting a new culture of self-promotion. The next generation of girls should grow up in a society predicated on the ideals of self-empowerment and honest, objective truth. When we can accept what is right in front of us, we can walk forward.
But to fix the “perfect girl,” we don’t only need to make large scale changes. We can take steps towards progress today. If you are really good at math, shout it from the rooftop. If you won an award, write it in the sky. Go up to the next person you see, or if you can’t wait that long find a mirror, then tell the person looking back at you:
“I am incredible. I deserve to be happy. I work hard and I try my best. I don’t have to apologize for who I am. There is nothing to apologize for. I am proud of who I am. I am proud of what I have done. You should be proud too.”
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.