You know the girl. The one who walks into your 8:40 with an iced soy latte in hand, the perfect blowout sans pesky flyaways, and an impeccable outfit—the one that, unlike yours, definitely wasn't sitting in the bottom of the hamper earlier that morning. You see her strutting down College Walk with her (equally Instammagrable) squad all the time and you can't help but wonder, "How does she do it?" She's the kind of woman who appears to be everything you aren't and to have something figured out that you just don't. To you, she seems infallible.
But here's the catch: She isn't real; she's just a construct.
This girl—the "Columbia betch," as I like to fondly call her—must have an internship heavily endorsed on her LinkedIn—preferably at a fashion publication, a large investment bank, or the like—take a course load of 18 credits, and be seen at Sig Ep on any given Thursday through Sunday evenings, all while never breaking a nail. But this overwhelming pressure to maintain an ideal image is self-imposed, and ultimately unrealistic and overwhelming.
I should add that I do not want to promote a cisnormative perspective on this issue. I'm purely speaking from my own experiences, and cannot speak to the journeys of others on this campus—especially since the idea of perfection may differ from person to person.
College is supposed to be a time to find yourself. Columbia, however, is often an environment that simply promotes the idea that you should already know your life goal and cultivate that purpose into a Snapchat aesthetic. The inherent competition at this school starts with the cutthroat nature of its admissions process, one that eliminates both the procrastinator and the passionless. So, in an environment as competitive and exhausting as Columbia, is it any surprise that maintaining a perfect social image feels more difficult than any economics problem set?
The pressure to become the proverbial woman who "has it all"—the great career, family, and personal self-image—should not commence at the age of 18. The pressure on women to act a certain, perfect way while wearing 5-inch stilettos is detrimental to their mental and physical health. The "Columbia betch" requires an unrealistic amount of maintenance, and the pressure to become her needs to be discouraged in our community. Forcing women to have it all not only hides deeper issues but also traps women into a singular idea of success that, in turn, paralyzes them.
Still, while walking through Columbia's campus, even I can't help but see seemingly infallible women. Most women would agree that there's no such thing as a perfect woman, yet so many of us still strive to become one.
So, if all of us know that these infallible women aren't real, why do we still try to attain this impossible sense of perfection? As a Columbia community, we need to realize that there is no reason to compare yourself to anyone else, especially to an ideal of perfection that doesn't even exist.
As a Barnard student, this pressure is all the more disappointing and irrational. Part of Barnard's mission is "to address issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency, and to help students achieve the personal strength that will enable them to meet the challenges they will encounter throughout their lives." At a women's college in the greater Columbia bubble whose main goal is to promote the advancement and achievement of women, the pressure to become a perfect woman is contradictory.
The university environment should cultivate camaraderie among students. It should not be the means to tear someone down. Additionally, Barnard cannot strive to promote the advancement of women while supporting a gendered, sexist ideal that holds women to such a high standard that they are forced to work hard in Butler, play hard at Mel's, and look like a Hoot Mag cover star.
Even Barnard's own beloved (though occasionally problematic) President Debora Spar dedicated her last book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, to this topic. As Spar discusses in her book, women are expected to have the powerful career and the fulfilling marriage while never experiencing the aging effects of gravity. All the while, they should pass down these shining genes to their children, who should be fluent in three languages by the tender age of eight. More recently, Spar published an op-ed in the New York Times about the pressure on women engaged in a professional setting to resort to plastic surgery in order to compete with these supposed ideals of how a women needs to look in order to be taken seriously.
What Spar recognizes, and what the rest of us need to remember, is that the source of the pressure to reach perfection is largely rooted in the inherent sexism of our society. Many women feel they have to compensate for their inability to conform to unrealistic standards of femininity by excelling in every other aspect of their lives. They may also fear being perceived as emotional creatures ruled by their menstruation cycle and desire for chocolate.
So, to avoid this, they do it all and keep their emotions at bay.
The underlying truth, though, is that the curated outfits, the general appearance of looking as if they stepped out of a Pantene commercial, and the five perfect internships are all part of an act. Columbians need to collectively recognize that there is truly no way to really understand what a person is going through. There is no way to truly understand someone else's exact perspective and experiences.
An external image may not represent the internal feelings. As such, we should never aspire to be those women who "have it all."
As my 85-year-old grandmother tells me nearly every time I speak with her (if we forgo her requests as to whether I have a boyfriend yet), "We are all on our own personal journey. Just because it may be different from someone else's doesn't make it any less important."
The author is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in American studies.
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