I’ve written often about the Martha Complex and young women’s perfectionism. And I’m not the only one: since Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters hit the shelves four years ago, many other books and articles have looked at this same phenomenon. In too many instances, however (and I plead partly guilty to this) our capacity to illustrate the problem exceeds our ability to propose a workable solution to the perfectionism crisis. We see the wrong more clearly than we see the right.
One new book does offer a more promising road map for women stuck on the ceaseless treadmill: Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career-and Life-That’s Right for You. Written by the mother-daughter team of Barbara and Shannon Kelley and published by the feminist Seal Press, Undecided is a helpful, funny, winsome guide to navigating through both perfectionism and its close cousin, “analysis paralysis.”
The Kelleys recognize that for the relatively privileged young women who are the target audience of their book, the sheer number of available choices (for careers, relationships, cities) can seem overwhelming. But they offer this helpful reminder:
The choices that paralyse us now were earned — not so long ago — by women who were dismayed (and often infuriated) by how few choices they and their sisters had. And a certain measure of our difficult in navigating these choices has to do with the fact that they’re just so new.
This generation of Millenials is caught between an “Already and a Not Yet” that fuels and exacerbates the perfectionism/choice surplus crisis. For at least a great many young American women (not enough, as poverty statistics continue to make clear) we’ve already created unprecedented opportunities for autonomy and agency. But we have not yet broken the powerful cultural stranglehold of older ways of thinking that condition young women not only to be people-pleasers, but to be terrified of failure. What we have not yet done is give young women sufficient permission to fuck-up; the “one mistake can ruin your life” narrative still holds sway.
Those expecting an easy how-to guide to gaining both certainty and confidence will be disappointed. Undecided makes the case that young women need to return to doing the vital, indispensable work of finding their own inner voice. That inward journey may sound like “self-involved psychobabble”, as Elizabeth, one of the Kelley’s interviewees puts it, but as she herself concedes, “unless you do that work (going inward) it’s not going to happen.”
“It” in this case means release from nagging self-doubt and uncertainty.
It’s easier, as the Kelleys remind us, for women to avoid this inner journey:
External circumstances just seem more real. So we move, we quit, we cut our bangs, we go on diets. But this dance is a little melancholy, if only for its familiarity. We know how it ends. We catch whatever we’re chasing — the proverbial carrot on the proverbial stick — only to find (as we suspected deep inside) that we weren’t hungry for carrots after all. It’s just so much easier to focus on the carrots, rather than working to discover what’s in need of nourishment.
I’ve watched many young women chase those carrots (I’ve run after some myself). And I’ve watched as some sought an end to the chase in the siren song of fundamentalism or cults with their promises of a living water that can quench thirst forever. I’ve watched others grow cynical and frustrated. But I’ve also seen, happily enough, a great many women do exactly the kind of work the Kelleys advocate. And sometimes accompanied by a break-up or a hairstyle change or a cross-country move (and sometimes by none of these), they get to the place where they can say, “my best right now is good enough.” It’s a fine thing to be able to witness. And Undecided offers us plenty to witness.
In reflecting on perfectionism, it does seem quite clearly to have gotten worse for women in recent decades. At the same time, after nearly 20 years teaching gender studies, I’ve noticed something else, something that gives me a lot of hope: women are getting that “click” moment earlier. My classes have always been filled with vibrant, passionate, confident women in their 30s, 40s,and 50s who finally “got it” and let go of the crushing expectations that defined them in their childhoods, teenage years, and twenties. They have always been able to offer my younger students the “it gets better” story we need to repeat.
But I’m seeing younger and younger women getting that “click”, not just of feminism but of self-acceptance. As perfectionism and physical puberty arrive earlier and earlier, there is at least some anecdotal evidence that confidence, certainty, and self-knowledge is also coming earlier, at least for some. In other words, if you do your work, not only does “it get better”… but it gets better sooner.
I enthusiastically recommend Undecided.