Effortless perfection: uncovering the facade

Claudia Chapman

I did it again. I know you’re probably wondering, You did what? I lied. I said those two phony words that we all say when our friends ask how we’re doing. I hadn’t seen him in a while and I knew he wasn’t really asking. So I said, “I’m good.” 

I’m trying to figure out if this is a lie or not. And I know that I can’t (shouldn’t) pour my heart out every time someone passively asks me how I’m doing. But it sure does feel wrong to lie. Because in reality, I’m not doing “good”.

I faintly remember reading an article as a junior in high school about effortless perfection and the toll it takes on college students at Duke, particularly women. I didn’t know what it meant at that time, or why it mattered. Until I got here.

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When I was 3 years old, I started dancing. When I was 11, I decided to give up all other sports and hone in on my dance training. When I was 16, I quit my dance studio and started training independently in New York City. The world of dance is an interesting one. It’s beautiful, in that dancers make up a supportive, loving, and accepting community. Yet, we are all working day after day to obtain an impossible perfection in an unrelenting state of competition.

As a young dancer, every day in the studio decides where you will be placed on stage, if you’ll be featured, and if you will be chosen to do a solo. A common adage in the dance world is: “every day is an audition.” We stare at ourselves in the mirror, tweaking every muscle that’s firing to achieve an aesthetic goal: a goal that most people’s bodies could never achieve. 

And the cruelest thing is that we’re supposed to make it look easy. Not only are we pushing our bodies to their limits, we are forced to hide the effort we’re putting in. We have to smile, wear makeup, wear costumes, and act as though a 15 minute dance leaves us feeling refreshed.

Dance is the definition of effortless perfection. So, the term didn’t seem inherently problematic to me. That’s what we do. We hide our pain. We stuff our bleeding toes into pointe shoes and cover our faces in makeup to hide our fatigue. We self-medicate to push through the pain. And we do everything possible to hide the hunger. Dance is aesthetic. It’s about the training, the body, and the face. Dance is about playing to your strengths and hiding your weaknesses. 

And yet, we spend hour after hour comparing ourselves to our company members, to our teammates, and to our peers. But with everyone hiding their flaws and projecting a falsified outward image, we’re comparing ourselves to fake versions of each other. We perpetuate an unforgiving cycle of perfection, and we compete, and we push, and eventually, we break.

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Duke is no different. We update our linkedin profiles, we brag about our interviews, we work for hours in our rooms on problem sets without telling anyone how difficult it was for us. We spend so much time studying or stressing to the point that we “forget to eat” from stress or workout incessantly as a way to “relieve that stress” and allow for us to drink the calories we burned. We dress up on the weekend and go out to prove that we don’t ever work too hard.

We claim to be “well-rounded” and “balanced” and always happy. We’re always “good.” I might be wrong in assuming that everyone feels the same way, but I can say from experience that I’m not good.

I’m crumbling from the pressure. I project a facade of poise. I act like I know what I want to do with my life. I’ve spent so long curating this person: this girl who is always doing too much, but manages. She’s an engineer, but social. She’s double majoring, but with an artistic minor that assuages her desire for an outlet. She eats healthy and works out, because she has discipline. And she balances it all gracefully, with a smile and a bubbly laugh.

Is that stuff true? Not fully. I mean, I do those things. But that rendition, that version doesn’t show the self-doubt. It leaves out the nights that I shove my face into my pillow so my roommate won’t hear my tears. It leaves out the frustration, the struggle, and the countless moments that I doubted whether or not I deserved to be here. And it doesn’t account for all the times I’ve looked in the mirror and hated myself. 

It’s crippling when your mental health deteriorates, and it’s even harder when people hold you to a certain standard. When your parents, your friends, your peers, your siblings, and your professors expect near perfection, you hide it even more. When people have applauded your successes your whole life, you don’t want people to see your failures. And so you bottle it up, until you just can’t anymore. I can’t anymore, and I am done telling this lie.

We can’t continue to foster an environment in which people can’t fail. Everybody at Duke deserves to be here, and everybody has days when they don’t have the answer. We fail and we cry and we make mistakes, because we’re human. We need to let ourselves do this, because lying doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help me, and it doesn’t help my friends who are likely going through the same thing, alone.”

So, let’s do this together. Let’s foster a community in which friendships are truthful and candid and where hard work and sacrifice is visible and praised. I’m deciding to drop the facade. I’m choosing to let you all in on my struggles, and I’m asking that you do the same. Because if you don’t, you’ll break too. Let’s be better.

Photo Credit: Lee Gumbs Photography