Perfection and Her Sisters: Exploring the Voices of Southland University's Female Undergraduates

Andres, Alexis, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Deutsch, Nancy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Pusser, Brian, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Burbach, Harold, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Wilson, Eleanor, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

This study used a mixed-method design to address how an academically high-achieving group of undergraduate women experienced pressures for perfectionism, perfectionistic self-presentation, and effortless perfection during their college careers. Effortless perfection, identified by a campus climate study, revealed that women were feeling pressure to appear perfect without having to put any effort into achieving perfection. Perfectionistic self-presentation (PSP) and effortless behaviors, as well anxiety, depression, and risky eating behaviors, all psychological reactions with existing research links to female perfectionists, were measured via an online survey of 296 women. Since little qualitative research was available regarding PSP and effortless perfection, interview data were gathered from a purposefully selected sub-sample of 20 women representing four distinct profiles of effortless perfection (high PSP-high effortlessness, high PSP-low effortlessness, low PSP-high-effortlessness, low PSP-low effortlessness). Interview questions focused on a variety of issues regarding perfectionism and effortlessness, including the influence of environmental and cultural factors and the coping mechanisms these undergraduate women employed in response to daily stresses.

This study identifies the overall prevalence of depression, anxiety, reduced emotional expression, and difficulty forming relationships within the research sample. Behaviors associated with attempts to appear effortless were twice as likely to be present in women with PSP than women with low to no measurable PSP. Women with PSP were not found to have an increased propensity for risky eating behaviors compared to women with low or no levels of PSP. Interview data pertaining to self-image and self- presentation, resulted in the relabeling of “effortless perfection” as “effortless perfectionistic self-presentation.” Qualitative data reflected a diversity of stress responses, although women with high PSP-low effortlessness were the most likely to exhibit unhealthy coping responses. Implications of these findings regarding the study of perfectionism and addressing the needs of high-achieving female college students are discussed, and support services including intergenerational female mentoring and female-focused campus counseling centers are proposed.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
perfection, effortless perfection, female undergraduates, social comparison, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, perfectionistic self-presentation, mentoring
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