Updated: Mar 9, 2022
This is an extract from the unfinished first draft of the book I’m writing. Working title: Enough! Recovering from patriarchy’s curse of too much and not enough. Rest, Recover, Rise.
“There’s the pressure to be perfect all the time. The perfect picture, the perfect place…”- Screened Out documentary, Netflix
Living under patriarchy is tiring for so many reasons. Womxn around the world face and fight injustice and marginalisation from those in power, while living with patriarchy’s unspoken yet visceral maxim that we are too much but will never be enough. The curse of too much and not enough lies in wait in our exterior and interior worlds making the possibility of a frazzled nervous system a very real one. While we are tired, we find ourselves in a race, chasing an invisible prize which once achieved, can only be satiate for fleeting moments. A prize so rarely won, yet the competition for it can be compulsive. I have been unwell because of the pursuit of this prize, have wasted hours of my life comparing myself with people both in real life, in magazines and on screen and this was when I was growing up in the early 2000s while The Facebook was still a glimmer in Zuckerburg’s eye. The pressure for womxn to attain and maintain the prize of perfection can feel all-encompassing. I have a sinking feeling that for generations younger than myself the exhausting, obsessive quest for the perfection prize is getting worse.
When we are duped by the curse of too much and not enough the ego tries to protect us from the consequences of being judged as under par from society’s expectations. Striving for perfection can become a bind which keeps us stricken, doing more damage rather than fulfilling the ego's plan of keeping out of harm’s way. Researcher and Academic Brene Brown perfectly sums up the human drive for perfectionism; “Perfectionism is a 20 ton shield we lug around thinking it will protect us, when in fact it is preventing us from taking flight”.
Brown's observation hits the nail on its perfect little head. In the past I wanted to be perfect so I would be validated and accepted by others, to be popular, but perfectionism was a lonely and tiring road because never I felt good enough. Since Humans began to walk around on two legs thousands of years ago, we have needed to be seen and approved of as a matter of survival. Early humans evolved as pack creatures which lived in family groups within larger tribes. Being accepted by the tribe was a matter of survival. Not so easy to survive alone with sabre toothed tigers roaming around, then within the relative safety of a group. We are wired with a desire to belong and this desire remains, although modern living fiercely promotes the values of individualism, being the best and standing out from the crowd in the glory of being perfect. With the explosion of social media people build their individual brands on Instagram showing them living the #bestlife, enjoying the #perfectsunday and planning the #perfectwedding all while deploying the right amount of wholesome sass to influence their followers. The pressure for womxn to appear perfect in all aspects of life is nerve jinglingly unbearable, but I am not pretending that other genders do not experience the press for online perfection too. If you have used any social media and you are not made of stone, you will have been influenced by the glossy lives and personal branding, everybody’s mind is vulnerable to idealised images of bodies and brunches. Pre- Instagram, early humans learned skills which would keep them alive; tracking prey, distinguishing which berries and plants were safe to eat and of course the essential skill of making fire. It was a matter of life or death to hone these skills to avoid being served up for the sabre toothed tiger’s tea. In modern Western life there are still reasons to hone skills and without people perfecting their skills we would not have lifesaving medicine, specialist Human Rights lawyers or bomb disposal experts. I am very glad that people in those professions have continued to hone their skills! Let’s be real though, it is not a matter of life or death if an exam is failed, a presentation goes to shit, a promotion is missed, social events fail to meet expectations or the perfect eyeliner flick has not been achieved for posting online.
Except in patriarchal society which hammers home the curse of too much and not enough, the pressure to succeed in daily life can be an emotional minefield. Unfortunately, exam failures, presentations going tits up, imperfect social occasions, being passed over for promotion and struggling to get one’s make up selfie perfect can feel like a matter of sheer survival. I don’t care if that sounds too dramatic. There is something about being a woman that means something extra is demanded from us, that women must compensate for living on a sliding scale which labels us as too much or not enough. When I was growing up, rooting around in the dark for what it means to be a human woman I always believed that there would be a woman who was better than me, more deserving of life, so I must be the best version of myself no matter what. Life seemed to reinforce this belief. I had a Saturday job in a café when I was fifteen. I enjoyed chatting with customers, serving people what I used to call posh coffees. The owners chose Motown, Funk and Disco for the stereo which added to the laid-back vibe of this busy café placed in the high end area called The Prom in Cheltenham. On the outside I was a confident teenager but inside the voices of not good enough played on a loop in my mind. My café job helped me to feel that I was something, that I was useful, and I belonged. I used to people-watch the shiny twenty and thirty women who poked at salads and sipped skinny cappuccinos. I presumed these women definitely had their lives together and were mega successful. I hoped to be like them when I reached my twenties. Looking back, I am pretty sure these women did not have their lives together because who really does in their twenties and who gets to say what a ‘together’ type of life looks like any way? One Saturday, one of the other waitresses came in to start her shift, she was a couple of minutes late and in her rush to tie her apron on, did not say her usually breezy hello to the owners as she arrived. The couple that ran the café were pretty jolly when it came to chatting up the customers but did not think twice about publicly berating their staff. “You need to sort yourself out and start turning up on time and don’t just ignore me and Garry when you arrive”, barked one of the owners to the late waitress. “I’ve got girls queueing up to work here you know!”.
The owner shamed the late waitress loudly for staff and customers to hear. In her opinion her girls, which was what she called us as if we belonged to her, were lucky to be serving coffee in her establishment and we were a commodity, easily replaceable at her whim. It was both warning and life advice for the young girls working there which for me translated to: fix up, show you are worthy because there are plenty more where you came from. This moment imprinted my body and mind with an unquestionable belief that there is always somebody to on the periphery, just out of reach but as if I can feel them, who is better than me because I am not enough. On reflection and through working with my excellent, patient therapist I know that around so much of my life has been lived in fear of imperfection and rejection, silently terrified of falling under par of what I perceived life expected from me.
Perfectionism is a by product of patriarchy’s curse, inexorably tied to the myths that womxn are too much and/or not enough. Being perfect becomes a way to cheat The System and avoid being revealed as an apparent fraud who is not worthy of the career, job, success, partner, family, love, time, attention, space on the planet. The nasty truth is that striving for perfection is The System. It is the continued effort to prove that we are OK well behaved, enough, worthy of inclusion and acceptance unlike Eve and Lilleth ostracised for stepping out of role, too much for their partners but not enough to deserve respect or equality.
I think I would be remiss not to say that there is zero wrong with having huge dreams of a perfect life, being an alpha woman, ambitious, goal focussed and working hard to achieve one’s dreams and then giving one self a huge pat on the back for pulling off something brilliant. What is of interest to me is the felt experience of the driving force behind these goals, is it a nourishing or draining one? How about the possibility of exploring life by setting your own standards, not following the notions of perfection which are peddled to us by all kinds of media 24/7. If being perfect lights you up, even just some of the time then crack on and keep chasing perfect. It might be helpful to explore whether your goals are fed by striving to prove you are enough or even perfect. What if womxn chased their dreams from a baseline level of enoughness, knowing we are enough without the outer trappings of so called instagrammable perfection. I am finding that I feel increasingly fulfilled, stable and healthy when I do not share images that paint a perfect picture of myself (or any images for that matter). Humans are not built for endless perusing of social media feeds. It is unhealthy for our brains to soak up the falsities of fleeting moments of so called perfection from other people’s lives. I do not want to fuel the social media cycle which predominantly only shows the best bits of life, the ‘perfect bits’.