Seeking a False Perfection

September 20th, 2011 by The Responsibility Project

Reevaluating our pursuit of perfection in the face of unattainable standards.

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In our celeb-saturated culture, physical perfection is a standard to which many of us, however unrealistically, hold ourselves. As Jennifer Howard, a licensed psychotherapist, writes for The Huffington Post, “When we feel we aren't enough physically, we're compelled to diet, exercise, wax, pluck and tuck in an attempt to achieve the ‘perfect’ look. Somewhere along the line we've equated the perfect butt with the perfect life.” She asks, “How do we balance those external expectations with the reality of our humanity?”

In her new book, Addiction to Perfection, Marion Woodman warns against this pursuit of perfection. She writes, “To move toward perfection is to move out of life, or what is worse, never to enter it. A problem arises when our external focus inhibits our ability to focus within, to develop our spiritual, mental and psychological selves.”

What’s worse, the image of perfection that drives this “addiction” is gleaned from airbrushed photos and surgically enhanced body parts: our concept of reality is unfortunately informed by reality television. When a noticeably thinner, seemingly photoshopped version of pop singer Kelly Clarkson appeared on the cover of Self a while back, many fans wondered if the popular American Idol was friend or faux. But Self’s editor argued the alteration was made to help Clarkson “look her personal best.” She continued, “A snapshot is different than a cover. A cover’s a poster. And the thing about a poster is you want it to capture the essence of you at your best."

The perfection-as-responsibility equation hasn’t been limited to cover girls. After Jennifer Hudson delivered a flawless Super Bowl performance of the national anthem a few years ago — her first major singing appearance since the deaths of her mother and brother — her producer let slip that her crooning was perfect because her performance was canned. “That’s the right way to do it,” the producer insisted about the use of pre-recorded Hudson vocals. “There’s too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist to go live because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance.”

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman faked their performance at President Obama’s inauguration, pretending to play in a quartet, while the audience — and the world — was treated to a recording instead. Mr. Ma soaped his bow so it would slide soundlessly across the strings. “It would have been a disaster if we had done it any other way,” said Mr. Perlman, explaining the virtue of the virtual performance. “This occasion’s got to be perfect. You can’t have any slip-ups.”

And yet even if the perfection we crave is based in edited images and soaped bows, it’s now in our nature to strive for it. What’s your take on being perfect? In your experience, does “perfected” appearance truly drive success? Or, in most cases, is it only the false image of perfection anyway?

(A portion of this story was previously published as Faking It: the New Responsibilityon The Responsibility Project on 9/25/09)