Every year, thousands of American students go away to college for the first time… and 4 years later, they graduate with a greater understanding of not just the intellectual ideas that have shaped their society, but also of themselves - who they are, how they want to be viewed by their peers, and where they fit in. But these social lessons are not always empowering. Indeed, many young women at America's top universities are graduating with a sense of self that is destructive and debilitating.
Alison Perlberg, 18, is a first-year student at Duke University, one of the highest-rated colleges in the United States. She worked hard to graduate at the top of her high school class in Atlanta, Georgia, and she says she continues to study hard here at Duke. But, by her own admission, academics are not always the first thing on Alison Perlberg's mind when she heads off to class each day.
"Sometimes there's a lot of competition," she says. "You'll walk into your class in sweatpants and a t-shirt and look around and notice that some people are wearing make-up, and you think, 'Oh, no, should I have been wearing make-up? I didn't spend enough time getting ready this morning.'"
Alison Perlberg is one of 18 female students selected to be a part of Duke's new Baldwin Scholars program. The initiative was launched this year, after the university took a serious look at the status of women on its campus. It found that many of Duke's undergraduate women were entering the university with a great deal of self-confidence, but were graduating 4 years later with eating disorders, stress-related illnesses, and an overall sense of insecurity and self-doubt.
"One undergraduate woman, in striving to describe what the social climate for women was at Duke, came up with this beautiful phrase. She said that the expectation for women at Duke was 'effortless perfection,'" says Donna Lisker, director of the Duke Women's Center. "By that, she meant they had to be not only academically successful, but also successful by all the traditionally female markers -- thin, pretty, well-dressed, nice hair, nice nails. And, the real rub is you had to do it with no visible effort."
Donna Lisker says 'effortless perfection' is impossible to achieve - and that the quest for it leads only to feelings of inadequacy. She points to the concept as a sign that the age-old double standard between men and women is alive and well, even among the brightest, most enlightened and most privileged young people in America. "It distresses me as a feminist to be thinking about the fact that these women who are so good and so talented are spending more time worrying about the size of their thighs than what they're going to do with their future lives," she says.
So where is this unspoken expectation coming from? And more importantly, how is it being enforced? Donna Lisker says the expectation is derived from the images of female perfection that Americans see every day on television and in movies and magazines. As far as 'enforcement' is concerned, though - that is where things get interesting. Ms. Lisker says it is not just the men who are pushing young women to live up to these expectations - it is other women.
Especially when it comes to details. Ms. Lisker says most men don't know the difference between a designer shoe and any other shoe. "They're not necessarily that savvy about it," she says. "The women know the difference. So they're performing for one another - women are performing for one another. But the men also know in broad strokes whether the women are fitting into the role that they expect them to fit into."
The Baldwin Scholars program was created in an effort to get Duke's young women to start talking to one another about this issue. For the next 4 years, the 18 women will take classes together and participate in internship programs, where they will be challenged to confront the impossible and - some might say- woefully misguided standards that high-achieving women often hold themselves to.
Alison Perlberg says it is a rare opportunity - and the reason she applied for the program. "I don't feel like there are many opportunities for women to become allies for one another," she says. "There's a lot of competition between women, but I don't feel there's really a space where women can come together and discuss things honestly and be there for each other - especially in an academic setting."
But in the grand scheme of things, when there is so much going on in the world that is troubling and destructive, why should anyone care that a bunch of young, privileged women at an elite university like Duke are having their self-confidence stripped away by the expectation of effortless perfection? According to Megan Braley, 18, another member of the first class of Baldwin Scholars, people should care because places like Duke are where America's future leaders are made.
"And if women don't have the confidence that they need to enter top professions," she says, "we're losing out on half of the talent pool that could be benefiting everyone in the United States and everyone in the world. So it's important for women to feel equally as confident as men and have the impact that only females can have on our country and on our government and on our businesses."
Duke's Baldwin Scholars program is modeled after a program at the University of Richmond that has been in place for more than 20 years and - by all accounts -has been very successful. It is too soon to evaluate the program at Duke - the very first group of Baldwin Scholars, after all, has only been on campus for 6 months. But Women's Center director Donna Lisker says representatives from several other top universities have been in touch with her, looking for advice on how to deal with the problem of effortless perfection on their campuses.