Avoid the ‘Effortless Perfection’ Trap, Duke Alumna Advises College Women

Caralena Peterson draws on her experiences as a Duke undergraduate for her new book, “The Effortless Perfection Myth”

Caralena Peterson hopes to empower today's female undergraduates. Video by Emily Frachtling

It’s a feeling she first noticed as a college student – the intense pressure to accomplish it all but seem as if it took no effort. And it’s a feeling Caralena Peterson ‘15 wants other female undergraduates to cast aside.

During her time at Duke, Peterson learned about a term that captured her feeling: “effortless perfection,” a phrase used by Duke students that caught national attention after it was cited in the 2003 Duke Women’s Initiative Report.

The report, commissioned by former Duke president Nannerl O. Keohane, aimed to understand and improve campus culture for women. The findings pointed to a social environment with unreasonable expectations for women: “that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort.”

Six women stand in a row, smiling in front of a grand bookshelf

“Effortless perfection is definitely not just a Duke thing; it plagues college students in any high-intensity/high-expectation environment,” Peterson writes in her book, The Effortless Perfection Myth,” published on Sept. 20 by Ingram Spark.

The resulting effect on young women isn’t just superficial, argues Peterson. Through her research and peer interviews for the book, she demonstrates how the idea of effortless perfection diminishes self-esteem, leads to eating disorders and mental illness, and distorts relationships with others. 

“I really wanted to write the book that I wish I’d had in college,” Peterson says. “I think there are a lot of individuals who are like, if someone had just told me X or Y before I took my first step on campus, I would have been so much more prepared.”

Caralena (center, in cap and gown) poses with her family on graduation day in front of the Duke Chapel.

In her book – with advice that comes from her experiences but holds true for contemporary times with examples from social media and today’s expectations – Peterson outlines tactics to help other women break away from the myth. Here are a few of the tips she offers:

 

Identify Counter-Narratives

“The first step to pushing back against the dominant narrative of effortless perfection on college campuses is by identifying counter-narratives,” Peterson writes.

Counter-narratives show honesty over pretense. In her book, Peterson discusses the #halfthestory campaign on Instagram, started by Vanderbilt student Larissa May, where individuals share experiences beyond what’s considered the curated norm on social media.

Authentic stories, Peterson says, can help others realize they’re not alone in their struggles and more easily recognize unreasonable standards (see Peterson’s chapter, “Is There Any Right Way for a Woman To Be Assertive?”).

“It’s the thought of, I'm the broken one, that really makes you freak out,” Peterson says. “And it's the isolation and alienation when you're struggling that makes it become so much worse than it needs to be.”

 

Learn Positive Ways to Get Motivated

Failure stings but avoiding it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Become pulled by your passions and not pushed by fear or anxiety, Peterson advises.

“I think what's really important for college students and people who struggle with these kinds of pressures is to ask themselves, ‘Where are my motivations coming from?’” Peterson says.

View of white table from above. Cup of coffee in lower left. rose-colored laptop with women's empowerment symbol decal in center, hands holding manuscript and pen making updates, in lower right.

During her interviews for the book, Peterson asked when her peers first felt as if they truly failed. She found that for many of them, it wasn’t until college.

“When they had that experience, it was totally debilitating,” Peterson says. “It felt like a moment where they had lost their identity as a successful type-A, effortlessly perfect student.”

Don’t build your sense of identity on never failing, Peterson says. “I get it, because I've done it, but it’s not healthy in the long run.” She advises more gradual exposure to failure, beginning with small risks.

 

Find A Place to Be Honest

For Peterson, finding other students she could be herself around made all the difference, such as the Duke Authenticity Project and Me Too Monologues and other groups that encourage honest discussions.

Students can also take advantage of access to mental health professionals.

“There are resources that are available to you on Duke’s campus,” Peterson says. “When I had my first anxiety attack, I walked myself over to CAPS.”

It’s important to spend some time acknowledging how you’re feeling, Peterson says.

“Journal, meditate and have your check-in person, Peterson says. “Because it's really easy to run from these feelings and emotions.”

Learn more about “The Effortless Perfection Myth.”

 

Fall 2022 Wellness & Resilience Series Presented by Duke Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

 

Duke Gender Violence Intervention Services 

For confidential therapy services and clinical case management needed because of violence, students can walk-in/call-in to *CAPS M-T 9-6 and W-F 9-4. Students may also contact the coordinator directly,  GVICoordinator@duke.edu or 984-569-0592 

Students seeking services after hours have three options for support:  

  1. Confidential support: leave a voice mail with the GVI Coordinator (984-569-0592) or email GVICoordinator@duke.edu. Students will be contacted within 24 hours or sooner if necessary.
  2. Non-confidential support and reporting through the Dean On-Call 984-287-0300 or DUPD 919-684-2444. (Seeking support from a non-confidential resource will result in outreach from Duke University.)

  3. Students may also access local resources through Durham Crisis Response Center. Students can also utilize the help line at 919-403-6562.