Perfectionism and eating disorders: Part 1

As I teased to yesterday, today’s blog post is about perfectionism, which relates to eating disorders in that the drive to be (or appear) perfect can trigger disordered eating patterns at various points along the spectrum, from occasional emotional/stress/comfort eating on one end to full-fledged eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder on the other.

One of the keynote speakers at last weekend’s Renfrew Conference was Deborah Spar, president of Barnard College and author of several books, most recently Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.
In her talk, Spar called herself a reluctant feminist, “not because I thought feminism was bad, but because I thought it was over. I didn’t think we needed it anymore.”
Spar was a professor and assistant dean at Harvard Business School before being named president of Barnard College. As one of the only women faculty members at HBS, she was asked to fix the “women’s problem” the school was having (another good article on the issue here). She says this forced her to look at the “women’s problem” and the role of feminism in her own life and in the larger world.

“Why have we gotten stuck?”

Spar found that despite the fact that her students at Harvard Business School were extremely intelligent, extremely ambitious and quite capable of putting in long hours at future jobs, professional success was the norm for male graduates, while being the anomaly for female graduates. In fact, in almost every field, the number of women in leadership positions hovers around 16 percent (lower in the tech sector).

“Why have we gotten stuck?” she asked. She said it’s not a pipeline issue, as was once argued. “We’ve been filling the pipeline since the 1980s.”
“Girls are outperforming boys in almost every metric,” she said. In high school, girls are far more likely to be valedictorian, student body president and editor of the newspaper. More women go to college than men. More women apply to Ivy League schools. Women make up 50 percent of medical students and 44 percent of law students. Women earn 50 percent of the PhDs in the natural sciences. 
“It’s not a pipeline problem,” Spar reiterated. “What’s happening is that women are falling out of the pipeline before they reach leadership positions.”

Co-opting feminism

Born in 1963, Spar said that women of her generation were still children during the dramatic societal changes that happened between 1963, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and 1978. These include the passage of Roe vs. Wade and Title IX, as well as increased access to birth control.

Her generation took for granted that they could be whatever they wanted to be, because they were the first generation of women to be told that. They were also influenced by advertising and media images that depicted career women as having it all. Of special note are the two Charlies: Charlie perfume (see video below if you need a refresher) and “Charlie’s Angels.”

Spar said her generation made two crucial mistakes about feminism.
  1. “We privatized feminism…we made it about our personal pursuit of perfection…that’s never what feminism was about.” 
  2. “We actually ratcheted up the kinds and level of expectations that we placed on women and young girls.” 

Disclosures: I participate in the Amazon Affiliate program, which means that if you buy one of the items mentioned in this post after clicking on an embedded link, I may earn a commission. This fact does not influence what books or products I mention on my blog. My opinions and recommendations are always 100 percent my own.

As a blogger/writer, my registration fee for this conference was waived, but I paid for my own airfare and hotel. What, where or how much I chose to write about the conference was left to my discretion.