I started teaching college kids when I was pretty young. So me and the students? We got each other. All of my references made sense to them – they had grown up in the same time frame as me, so I could tell a joke and they would DEFINITELY get it. And now, I am old. I didn’t realize it until this semester. I mean, I had felt it creeping up on me… like last semester when I said “Let’s talk about sex (long pause) baby. Let’s talk about you and me” when I was introducing our Sexualities section and they all looked at me like I had three heads. But, this semester I am now positive that I am an elderly woman. Forget not knowing “Let’s Talk About Sex”, these students don’t even know The Real World when it was good.
There is a huge generation gap between adults who are currently in their early 20s and adults who are currently in their late 20s. And I am consistently surprised at just how big this gap is. Here’s my latest example.
I just read Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and thought it would be a great piece to discuss with my students when we talked about bodies. Martin elucidates this dichotomy that exists in every woman – that of the perfect girl and the starving daughter – pretty well and in a way that really hit home for me. She writes:
“A starving daughter lies at the center of each perfect girl. The face we show to the world is one of beauty, maturity, determination, strength, willpower, and ultimately, accomplishment. But beneath the facade is a starving daughter who annoys us, slows us down, embarrasses us. She is the one who doubts our ability to handle a full-time job and full-time school. [...] Young women struggle with this duality. The perfect girl in each drives forward, the starving daughter digs in her heels. The perfect girl wants excellence, the starving daughter calm and nurturance. The perfect girl takes on the world, the starving daughter shrinks from it. It is a power struggle between two forces, and at the cent, almost every time, is an innocent body.”
I read this excerpt to my students, excited to talk about the pressures they feel to be perfect and where these pressures come from. I was sure we’d have a lot to talk about because I look at my generation of women and see this dichotomy everywhere. I am surrounded by women with advanced degrees who are climbing to the tops of their fields, women who balance work and family seemingly with ease, who work out at 4 a.m. to get to work by 7 a.m., who coordinate their heels and their handbags while breastfeeding their babies, who see a problem as a challenge and face it head on, who change their careers as seamlessly as they change their hair colors and who just do it all.
I was positive they’d share the fears of the starving daughter with me because I see her all the time. Like when I’m with my friends in my living room when we’re drunk on red wine and talking about nonsense just to hear about something other than “it all“. I see her in the women dancing in the middle of a humid dance floor – eyes closed, pretending that their cell phones aren’t full of emails, their voicemails aren’t full of “I needs” and their minds aren’t racing with thoughts of what needs to get done before they go to sleep.
But they didn’t. They basically told me that this Martin woman is cray cray.
“Why is she trying so hard?” they asked.
“Why doesn’t she just take a nap?” they implored.
I looked at them, dumbfounded, wondering how they weren’t connecting with Martin.
“But don’t you want to be perfect?” I asked them.
And they laughed at me. “Silly woman. No one can be perfect!”
Hmm. No one can be perfect? That flies in the face of everything I believe. Sure, my parents were nurturing and supportive and amazing and never told me I needed to be perfect. In fact, they pretty often told me to just do my best and be happy and that would make them happy. But for some reason (cough, society, cough) I heard “your best needs to be perfection, happiness will come when things are perfect”. We can always do better, be better, achieve more.
“Not so!” shout my students. “Calm it down, lady.”
We tried to get to the bottom of this huge chasm of difference in our ways of thinking in class. I mean, I teach at the college I went to. I have students in my class who have led pretty much the same exact life as me – same elementary school, same middle school, same high school, now same college. But we have radically different life views.
So, we looked at our age gap. We’re between 7-10 years apart. We compared the world during my childhood and adolescence to the world during their childhood and adolescence. And we got to the bottom of it.
I grew up in the 90′s. We had the dot com boom, a super fast economic “recovery” following a recession (read: we used our credit cards like maniacs), Blossom, Clarissa, Dana, DJ, and Daria taught us to be tough can-do chicks, and things were pretty rad.
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These kids grew up in the 00′s. They saw the dot com bust, a rapidly failing economy, an endless war in the Middle East, and Teen Moms, Degrassi Girls, and Zoey101 teaching them that girls have issues. Things have been pretty sucktacular for them.
Sure, we were all told “you can do anything” by our parents. But their society is telling them “no matter what you do, you might fail.” Many have watched their hardworking parents lose their jobs for no reason. They watch us, the women who think we have to do everything, struggle and fight for things and feel exhausted. They have grown up in a time where fate deals heavy and often totally random blows.
The other day, before our analysis of why we think so differently, I asked my students what they do in their free time. They told me they napped.
And there’s the difference. We Perfect Girls/Starving Daughters watch the shit hit the fan and think we can fix it, even if it’s actually impossible to fix. So we stress out and try too hard and breakdown when we can’t fix it. Them? The No One’s Perfect/I’m Exhausteds? They watch the shit hit the fan and think no one can fix it, it’s impossible. So they take a nap.
Neither identity works. But how do we step outside of these roles? How do we stop society from creating our identities? And for you perfect girls out there – when does “almost perfect, but not quite” end?