Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 01/6/2012

Finals and the Curse of the Perfect Girl

The number one question my high school friends always ask me whenever we chat now is, “So are you sick of being around all those girls yet?” Despite the fact that I have attempted to explain my decision to attend a women’s college a seemingly infinite amount of times, I always answer no – that being around women has been a really supportive experience, a nice change of pace and a really beneficial academic experience so far. Or at least that was my answer up until finals.

The thing is, I go to an extremely competitive, academically rigorous school. I don’t really care what the official rankings are, all I know is that I am surrounded by the most hyper-motivated, incredibly intelligent people I have ever encountered. This was something that I immediately loved about my school. As a giant nerd myself, I felt (and still do) feel at home in this environment, with these women. But then finals rolled around, and those girls striving for perfection, those girls I had related to, started to scare me.

My peers go hard for finals – in all senses. One girl I know practically OD’d on energy drinks (I guess the label on those drinks that advises against drinking more than a certain number over a certain period of time is less of a suggestion than it is a serious warning). One girl was thought to be missing until she was found in the library – which she hadn’t left in over two days. In fact, she wasn’t the anomaly: it suddenly became trendy to post pictures of yourself and your friends surrounded by stacks of books and snacks in the library at 3 am on Facebook. The overwhelming conversation in the dorm halls became an ongoing contest to see who had studied more hours and more subjects that day, each otherwise interesting girl conversationally confined to little more than a checklist of her academic duties. And, unsurprisingly, that hard-core studying was accompanied by some hard-core partying.

I realize the case could be made that this is the environment at any academically rigorous school, not just a women’s college. But somehow it felt different to me. I spent a lot of time during finals studying with a friend of mine who goes to an equally rigorous co-ed university in NYC and somehow having guys around made it different. It seems that while guys may take their studies seriously, they approach their work with less of a sense of cutthroat competition and perfectionism – they worry about themselves, know their own limits and are able to approach the whole thing with at least a little bit of humor.

Girls are used to trying to live up to impossible standards, to trying to tear each other down in seemingly mindless competition to get ahead in all other areas of our lives. Be it our bodies, popularity, competition for boyfriends – whatever the (admittedly stupid) thing may be, we’re constantly striving to be the best no matter what the cost. When put into an academic context, our goals and approaches are no different – if anything, they’re heightened. Guys, no matter how motivated or ambitious they may be, don’t seem to approach achieving their goals in the same cutthroat, intensely perfectionist way – at least not as overwhelmingly as girls do, and at least without detrimental repercussions for themselves. While girls don’t second guess harming themselves to get ahead (energy drink ODing, complete lack of sleep, etc) guys seem to at least try to protect themselves a little.

While I had always been aware of this reality, finals seemed to put it into a new, glaring context for me. I tried to keep up, tried to be the perfect girl that my peers were all striving to be, but I just ended up exhausted, angry and frustrated. I tried to play into the competition, tried to go to the library longer, tried to make more intense study guides, but somehow I always ended up back on the Hulu homepage. I realized that I’d rather keep my sanity than win some ridiculous competition to be the Perfect Girl, a decision that ultimately ended up working out just fine for me. I just wish some of my peers had reached the same conclusion.

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  • knitcrazybooknut @ at 11:29 am, January 6th, 2012

    The difference? Guys are studying to get a grade. Girls are studying to get love.

  • Hannah @ at 2:36 pm, January 6th, 2012

    I really, really resonated with this post. I go to a women’s college too! It’s. the. exact. same. thing. So cutthroat and the girls are very perfectionistic (myself included). You are the “cool girl” if you studied the most and had the most papers to write. It’s so sick! I’m glad you stayed out of it as best as you could – I did, too, and I’m so thankful I stayed sane! I think that while being at a women’s college is AWESOME, there is this pressure to be the smartest so that once you leave, you know how to deal with the very patriarchal society we are stuck with.

  • Alexa @ at 4:35 pm, January 6th, 2012

    I’m in high school, but as most of my friends are super nerdy, competitive girls, I know exactly what you mean. This also reminded me a tiny bit of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters by Courtney E. Martin (one of my favorite books) about the perfectionism girls feel compelled to reach in groups like this, especially in colleges.

  • Claire @ at 10:20 pm, January 7th, 2012

    I went to a co-ed University, but seriously considered attending a women’s only college. I visited a couple campuses and heard the same thing from the students – the ladies are cutthroat. Not to be messed with, and you best not get in the way of their education (or anything else, really).

    Some of my classes in college were predominantly female, and that type of competition was much more apparent in those courses. We are so competitive ladies, and that’s a good thing!

    Excellent article.

  • Nell @ at 5:51 pm, January 8th, 2012

    Oh man, this makes me nervous. I’m going to be attending a women’s college starting this fall (YAY!), but I hadn’t thought about the cut-throat perfectionism thing. I certainly experience it in high school, but I’d hoped it would wind down in college.
    Thanks for this post. Maybe I can start working on a healthy way to deal with finals stress before I head off to school.

  • Johannah @ at 10:18 pm, January 8th, 2012

    I go to a co-ed college, but I have noticed the same thing there. While my male friends were very motivated and hardworking people, it was me and my female friends who stressed ourselves into hysterical 4 AM fits. Guys were also more likely to say “yeah, I just gave up at 2 AM and got some sleep.” I never really stopped to consider why this is (and I am sure that there are exceptions), but I think Alexa above has a point; girls are very often held to extremely rigorous standards in everything they do, and oftentimes even by themselves.

  • Amadeus @ at 3:25 pm, May 11th, 2012

    Well, traditionally, a woman has been displayed as the perfect figure. Perhaps, that’s why they’re called the ‘better halves’. Years of such perception has probably been instilled into the minds of women, making them into such….Uh..Over-Achievers? Guys have always been shown as easy-going. Funny how these little things affect people so drastically in the psychological aspect. :o

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