College and the Pressure of Perfection

My heart sank at my friend’s response, Oh, I used to think you had it all together. I had just told her about some of my insecurities and doubts I had being at Bethel University. Like so many of my conversations with Bethel girls confessing our struggles, we realized we weren’t alone in the end. Even after a staggering amount of these “tell-all” conversations, I sometimes still felt alone in my unhappy phases because everyone around me seemed like they were thriving and happy. They put on a façade and I finally learned I was doing the same.

About half way through my freshman year I realized this need to be perfect, especially from the girls around me. There were ground rules I quickly learned: A girl needs to be assertive, but not too aggressive. Beautiful, but not too obsessed with her appearances. Always brag about how much you eat, but make sure to have a perfectly toned body. Curl your hair for class and make sure you are in at least two clubs. These were the basics.

I even felt pressure through signals I received from Bethel’s administration. After all, I was a freshman at their amazing school. There were clubs to join, events to attend and friends to be made, how could I not be happy? There was certainly no time for feeling a little uneasy about the whole process. Colleges often overstimulate their students to make them too busy to think about any struggles or doubts. For some students, this works. For others, it has the exact opposite effect and can plunge them into darkness.

A recent New York Times article hit at the heart of the pressures of perfection and suicide on college campuses. Scelfo reported on the enormous amount of pressure college students face to join clubs, become star athletes, get outstanding grades, land the perfect internship and secure a marriage proposal all within the short span of 4 years. The article explained the pressures at Penn State and the infamous “Penn Face,” an apothegm long used by students to describe the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed. The article highlights one of Penn’s most surprising suicides, Madison Holleran. Holleran seemed like she had it all, but ended her life at age 19 during her freshman year. After Holleran’s death, a Penn student wrote in a blog: What the hell, girl?! I was supposed to be the one who went first! You had so much to live for! This student thought Holleran had “so much to live for” largely based on her social media accounts.

ESPN featured an article on Holleran, which focused on the staggering difference between her pristine social media accounts and her suicidal jump off a parking garage. Holleran appeared to be a happy and thriving freshman at Penn – good friends, great grades and a star runner on the track team – at least that’s what her Instagram account portrayed. Inside, Holleran was battling depression and the feeling of not matching up against others. According to ESPN, Holleran once asked another struggling friend at Penn, What are you going to say when you go home to all your friends? I feel like all my friends are having so much fun at school.

College is a time of questioning. Classes encourage deep thinking and self-analysis, which can lead to unanswered questions. As Scelfo explained, the existential question “Why am I here?” is usually followed by the equally confounding “How am I doing?” Many of today’s college students gage how they are doing based on social media. They base their success on how many likes they get, how cool and exciting their lives appear, their achievements and their body image. No matter how silly it is to base your life on someone else’s edited version of theirs, most people still do it.

One day I was talking with a group my friends about a classmate’s impeccable Instagram feed when my roommate suddenly proclaimed, I am proud to say I unfollowed her! This stunned me. Yet at the same time, I totally understood her statement. We all felt the pressure to be perfect and by our third year we were utterly exhausted from trying to achieve this perfection. My roommate was sick of comparing herself to a perfectly filtered feed of an unrealistic life and I was proud of her. But why is it so hard to “unfollow”? Why is it so hard not to compare?

One reason is due to the promotion of the perfect life through social media. Fashion and beauty blogs are enormously popular among college females. posts blogs titled, “How to Take the Perfect Instagram.” Where readers can learn what the best filters are and how to crop a picture to ensure the best photo. I understand the fun and light-heartedness of social media, but there is a point where it becomes an unhealthy game of portraying everything but reality. It sends the message of, “This is what life is supposed to be like” and when the game ends, no one can match up.

This attitude is not just between females in specific colleges, but appears in variety of circumstances for males and females in all colleges. It’s extremely unhealthy – I don’t have a clear cut way to change it. We can start by not pretending our lives are perfect. By admitting we have bad days and understanding an extra pound on the scale or one bad grade isn’t the end of the world. Instead, it’s a chance to learn how to love yourself in all stages and realize perfection isn’t the goal.