The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

Tara wrote a post about pressure to be perfect a few days back. This collided somewhat weirdly with this month's Rolling Stone piece on Duke (cashing in on the lacrosse scandal), which includes a few serious issues among a bunch of credulous stuff about sex:

In 2003, Duke launched a yearlong study, known as the ''Duke Women's Initiative,'' to look at the social attitudes and concerns of women on campus. What they found was alarming, says Donna Lisker, director of Duke University's women's center. The kind of hyperactivity Allison describes is typical among female undergraduates, whom, Lisker says, feel tremendous pressure ''to excel both academically -- get the right grades, the right internships, move your life in the right path -- but then you also need to excel physically, if you will,'' with perfect hair, skin, clothes, makeup and a size-four body. Women interviewed for the study spoke of the immense effort they had to put in to create this illusion of ''effortless perfection.''

That phrase resonates with Allison and her friends, who tell me the Duke ''ideal'' is to be smart, studious, goal-oriented -- and also cute, toned, fashionably dressed, dedicated to the gym ''and fun,'' as Allison notes.

Happily, I'm not the only one who thought this-- I got the link to the Rolling Stone piece out of Tara's comments...

The Rolling Stone article is sort of amusingly salacious, and as a Maryland fan, I always get a kick out of bad press for Duke (more from the schadenfreude files: J.J. Redick busted for DUI), but it's also pretty stupid in a lot of respects. The chief problem seems to be a failure to recognize two important facts (after the cut):

1) Everybody lies about sex.

2) College students lie about everything.

Large chunks of the material read exactly like the sort of inflated bullshit I expect from college students asked about their sex lives. You can sort of see the outlines of a realistic picture, underneath the styrofoam tits, but it's also obvious that elements of the social scene are being exaggerated in a direction that will make the reporter more interested in the story.

One other element worth commenting on is the perceived difference between pressures on the sexes:

Boys at Duke don't seem to feel that pressure. ''The guys are always hanging out, playing video games -- why don't girls do that?'' Kasey looks at her friends. The others shrug. ''Girls will either be at the gym or doing something productive. They work so much harder -- spending two hours at the gym trying to look good, and eating salmon.''

Obviously, I can't really speak for what happens at Duke (having only been there a couple of times in the early 1990's), but my first reaction is that they're misunderstanding the effects of a different sort of social pressure. It's not so much that guys are always hanging around playing video games, as that guys are supposed to look like they're always hanging around playing video games.

That's how it was back in the day, anyway-- if male students talked about school work at all, it was usually to belittle it. People would trade off stories about how much they were blowing off their class work ("Yeah, I have a 20-page paper due Friday, and I haven't started it"), and then politely pretend not to see each other spending six hours at the library that same night... Which isn't to say that we didn't spend a fair amount of time hanging out playing video games (a good chunk of my junior year was eaten by Super Tecmo Bowl (yes, I'm dating myself)), but we lied about how much time we spent hanging out and playing video games (see point 2 above).

(Those of us who made it through, anyway. I knew one or two guys who failed out, and I always thought their mistake was believing the lies the rest of us told...)

Then again, given that the reporter only talked to approximately six people, it's possible that the guys they know are all scholarship athletes, and really don't do anything academic. Tough to say, really.


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You have a good point, the image of guys "hanging around doing nothing" is over blown, as is girls "always being productive". I think the real answer lies somewhere in between, that yes there are larger pressures on women to look good then on men, but it's not as large as the story would make you think. Of course no one likes a story that doesn't have extremes.

At Cornell there are girls that look like they spend lots of time at the gym and preening. However there are very few of these girls in engineering or the hard sciences, most of them seem to be hotellies or business majors and such. Such girls are (atleast in my circle of friends) refered to as sorostatutes.

This is not to say that there arn't good looking girls in engineering and the sciences, they just look real and non-plastic.

By a cornellian (not verified) on 15 Jun 2006 #permalink