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Debora Spar: Q&A With Barnard College President

Do you have a daughter who strives to be perfect in all ways—academics, extracurriculars, and everything else. She may be caught up in the “quest for perfection” that Dr. Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, tackles head on in her latest book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. Your Teen asked Julie Zeilinger, founder of the feminist blog F-Bomb and a member of the Barnard College class of 2015, to sit down with Spar and find out how we can help.

Interview with Debora Spar

Q: How is the quest for “perfection” impacting young women today?

Zeilinger: Sadly, girls start to grapple with perfectionism at frighteningly young ages. You see an emphasis on looking good and being popular starting as early as middle school and reaching fever pitch during high school. While not all girls fall prey to these pressures, many find themselves trying to excel in far too many categories: looks, schoolwork, sports, friends, taking care of family, and so forth.

Q: How can parents help change this?

Zeilinger: They can model good behavior—which frequently means making clear that no one is good, much less perfect, all the time and at all things. Parents should push their daughters to work hard, of course, and to strive for things that matter to them, but they shouldn’t push girls to excel across the board. If your daughter isn’t a good athlete, or is an average one, let her play for fun, but without pressure to make the travel team. If she loves to sing but doesn’t have a spectacular voice, cheer her on in chorus, but don’t prod her to go out for the high school musical lead.

Q: The college admissions process seems to exacerbate this quest for perfection because that’s what many teenagers believe it takes to get into a top college. Are they right?

Zeilinger: Colleges—even the most selective ones— don’t look for perfect students. We look for good students, interesting students, students with a demonstrated intellectual curiosity and a drive to learn more. So, yes, doing well in school does matter. But no kid has to be perfect to get into a great college, and they certainly don’t need to spend endless hours doing all sorts of extracurricular activities just to impress a college admissions board. Do extracurricular activities because you enjoy them. Play sports because you love the game. Volunteer for causes that matter to you. But don’t do any of these things just because you presume they’re a ticket to college admission.

Q: What’s your advice for young women?

Zeilinger: Don’t try to do everything; instead sample the buffet and find two things you really like doing. Say “no” instead of “maybe,” because once you say, “maybe”—whether it’s “Maybe I’ll come by the party” or “Maybe I’ll stop by for brunch tomorrow or “Maybe I’ll join the Bollywood dance troop” —then you’ll feel guilty if you don’t do it. You’ll spend too much energy worrying about “Oh I can’t do that, but I’ll let Susie down if I don’t do it.” Whereas if you just say, “no” upfront—I’d love to do the Bollywood dance troop, but I just can’t—sans explanation, it’s so much safer.

Julie Zeilinger is the author of College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year.

Susan Borison

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.