Meet Sandy, a smart, attractive, successful woman in her thirties. She’s an public relations guru, has tons of friends, a warm, supportive partner whom she loves and likewise adores her, two rehabilitated shelter cats, a Sedaris sharp sense of humor, time to volunteer and work on her novel, and to top it all off, a loft in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In short, many would say, she “has it all.” Yet every once in a while, she’ll call me in hysterics having talked herself into a panic over something in her life that’s not perfect. These blips, as I call them, can be small and relatively harmless: the phone company has overcharged her for text messages, or large and unyielding: the sister she never got along with is on another rampage. We all know women like Sandy, women with fabulous lives that never quite fulfill their expectations of perfection.
For years, women have had to confront harrowing archetypes that limit the scope of their experiences, desires, and ambitions. The good girl/bad girl dichotomy remains a steadfast way for our culture, and women themselves, to classify not only wants and behaviors, but entire lives. However, as perfection striving becomes more and more common among women living up to impossible standards, a new dichotomy has emerged, which I’m calling the “good girl/best girl.”
This is great news for a slew of industries that market the language of perfection to women. Our culture teaches us to look cruelly upon ourselves and our bodies, mostly in order to sell us things.
But more than a miracle product or service, our culture is selling the mentality of perfection – and like any ideal, it’s truly unattainable. Case in point: It’s normal for a woman to be unhappy with how she looks, how she finds love, how she has sex. There’s even a term for this: it’s called normative discontent. 
Of course the flip side to this is equally damaging. If a woman is happy with her looks, she’s vain. If she owns her sexuality, she’s promiscuous. This stuff is Women’s Studies 101. Where the good girl/best girl dichotomy comes in is when our culture asks the nagging question of women, are you trying hard enough? From finding the perfect mate/job/home to the perfect little black dress, from achieving a perfect complexion/hairdo/butt, to the perfect orgasm, the search for perfection is ubiquitous in our consumer-driven culture. True indeed that the quest to be the best is a hallmark of the capitalist objective. But why are women particularly susceptible to perfection striving, and why do smart, successful women fall prey to this so-called language of perfection? Why must we internalize it so?
In mulling over these ideas, I cannot help but think about the work of a Second Wave feminist, popular a half-a-century ago. In 1963, Betty Freidan made headlines with her book The Feminine Mystique, a pioneering examination of the “problem that has no name.” She was writing about the dilemma of women in Postwar America who felt a burning yet unnamable inertia and dissatisfaction with their lives. Freidan interviewed hundreds of suburban women —the original real housewives (before they became a billion-dollar franchise)— who were beat down by a culture that had taken femininity to absurd extremes. As a result, these women described their lives as empty and worthless. This mystique, writes Freidan, “Has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive.” The trouble was, women didn’t know how to talk about the “unnamable problem.” They weren’t listening to themselves or each other. Because they were the second sex, they had no voice and because they had no voice, they were the second sex.
If today’s women are being buried alive by the unattainable notion of perfection, why aren’t we talking and listening to each other? Part of the problem is that the good girl/best girl dichotomy relies on competition among women. In Freidan’s time, women were isolated by preposterous notions of femininity that created a figurative (and literal) picket fence around their lives. While today’s women have made strides to dismantle the picket fence —we’re out and about in the social world and no longer prisoners of domesticity— competition among women serves as an isolating force.
What’s worse is that this “catfight” syndrome almost always seems to be over some such relic of patriarchy.
In other words, the insecurity we feel about having the perfect career, the perfect marriage, the perfect mortgage payment or being the perfect mother, the perfect best friend, the perfect feminist, hinges on ideals that patriarchical institutions and industries tell us are important, most likely disguised as women’s wants. What do we really want for ourselves? That’s a question we have to ask, even if it means putting things/identities/ambitions society tells us are important by the wayside.
The funny thing about perfection, when you think about it, isn’t it all relative? My notion of the perfect body/job/friend changes as circumstances in my life evolve. Change is anathema to perfection. Perfection insists upon an absolute. Still, I find myself envious over people living “the perfect life.” And this is silly, because even as I write this I understand that perfection is an illusion. Even this has become a cliché.
So, I try not to buy into the perfection myth. And I suggest you do the same. Women are completely capable of destroying the good girl/best girl construct, but we have to work against powerful forces pestering us at every turn. We don’t have to buy tabloids that exploit other women’s imperfections. We don’t have to listen to self-criticism all the time. We don’t have to use compliments as a way to get other women to like us; we can compliment women we admire and really mean it. Taking a cue from Friedan, we can dialog with women about the problems and joys in our lives, but in a nuanced way that supports rather than destroys the bonds women share with each other. I’m not going to lie. There will always be women (and men for that matter) who are better at some things than you are; have things you want; do things that make you jealous. Self-improvement is important. But let’s remember that we shouldn’t be tearing other women down to build ourselves up and we shouldn’t be evaluating ourselves based on others’ successes or failures. A cooperative model can help make women stronger and offer an antidote to the nasty plague of perfection.
Rodin, J., L. Silberstein, and R.S. Streigel-Moore. Psychology and Gender: Nebraska Symposium On Motivation. Women and Weight: A Normative Discontent. T.B. Sonderegger. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1965.