Last year I attended an excellent but sad campus talk by Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College, who had just published a book called Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. In the book and the lecture, Spar spoke about how young women face an impossible set of expectations: Still expected to be mothers, they must squeeze in jobs as astronauts or CEOs as well. And they have to do it all without losing the smile or gaining weight.

Tomasz Walenta

That pursuit of “effortless perfection” — the term apparently originated in a 2003 Duke University report on the experiences and needs of Duke’s female students — is now a big topic at Princeton, where men also seem to face intense pressure to be perfect, and naturally (page 14). It’s a way of life that filters down to competitive high schools (my daughter is a junior), where students without more than three or four AP courses at a time, half a dozen after-school activities, and résumés studded with leadership positions see themselves as falling behind. Who needs sleep? 

Spar spoke with a New York Times interviewer around the time her book appeared. “They’re coming out of high school exhausted,” she said. “The pressure in high school is killing these kids.”

The interviewer responded: “So women in high school are experiencing a kind of miniaturization of what you describe in the book, relentless pressure to be perfect in every area.” Spar observed that the demands are so much greater than they were in the past. “I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve seen who have started their own NGOs before they’re 18,” she continued.

“Is there something almost obnoxious about that?” the reporter asked.

Yes, there was, Spar suggested: “It’s horrible!”

If that’s what college leaders really think, the message isn’t reaching high school students. At least not in Princeton, where the high-schoolers can walk a few blocks and find a campus full of students who seem so smart and confident — so perfect — but who are now, finally, talking about perfection and effortlessness being myths. Perhaps the younger ones will hear them.