Culture of perfection creates anguish-laden adolescents

The Japan News

Among a handful of friends I have made through tennis, I’ve grown particularly fond of Kelly. She was 8 years old and a complete beginner when I met her six years ago, awkwardly running after the ball with a racquet that seemed far too big for her. Now a bright and uncommonly mature teenager, she is coming into her own, with the skills and confidence that suggest a successful future as a serious athlete. She is also an exceptional student, who just finished junior high school with distinction. Back in June, she brought to the tennis court many awards she had received at graduation, happy and excited to share what she had achieved in her young life.

It’s mid-August and Kelly shows up on the court looking like a different person. She doesn’t have the usual spark of energy; she is dragging behind and looking miserable. High school is starting very soon, her mother shares, and Kelly is so worried that she’s getting hardly any sleep. Lack of sleep puts more stress on the heart, hence, her struggle during the training session.

This all started a few weeks ago when she faced the trials for the high school tennis team. She was painfully aware that, despite her powerful shot-making at the baseline, she was not yet a polished player that many other girls her age already are. She trained hard, did very well at the trials and made it onto the team. Her excitement lasted only briefly, as she started to worry whether she was going to make it to the varsity, and then, how she was going to balance athletic activities with more demanding academic work.

With the start of the new academic year approaching quickly, her fear of failure is about to become reality. She will do poorly on the team and probably get kicked out after the first season. In the meantime, she will have to train six days a week, and have less time to study. She won’t be able to make the perfect grades that she used to make in junior high school, which will block her path to the top-notch colleges she aspires to attend. It seems that she is buckling under the pressure even before the game begins.

Her mom does the best she can to cheer her up, and I must bite my tongue hard. I was an insecure and anxious teenager once. Being told that I would be fine didn’t make me feel better — in fact, it had quite the opposite effect, as I remember it. I don’t think I’m just projecting. I see Kelly turn to the side and wince every time she’s told to “just relax and have fun.”

The biggest source of anxiety in my teenage years was the infamous juken jigoku, or “examination hell” in English. In retrospect, however, I realize my situation was far less complicated than Kelly’s current predicament. Juken jigoku gave everyone a singular goal of pursuing academic success. As long as we were doing well academically, other things — sports, social activities, family obligation — could go by the wayside. Even if you are going to rebel against it as I did, we knew what we were up against.

Kelly doesn’t have such a singular purpose in her life. Instead, she is told — sometimes explicitly, but most often implicitly — that she must have nothing less than a perfect life in every way. She gets As all the time and volunteers for community service. She is learning to play tennis competitively, and still, she is expected to have an active social life and attend all the family events. There is no end to this pursuit of perfection; its demand will only become greater as she gets older.

I am reminded of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead’s well-known study of Samoan adolescence published almost a century ago. During her fieldwork, she observed that a more flexible social structure, straightforward system of values, and more relaxed attitude of society in general, made the transition into adulthood much smoother for Samoan girls than for their American counterparts. Then, she turned her critical gaze to her own society and concluded: “The stress is in our civilization.” Namely, girls growing up in the rapidly changing society of the early 20th century United States had to navigate the “endless possibilities,” or a confusing array of roles and ideals, which made it much more stressful to figure out how to grow up and become a socially accepted adult.

Fast forward to 2021, Kelly’s experience suggests that, in the age of social media and even more diverse values, the burden of endless possibilities is bearing down upon girls her age with greater force than ever. Instead of seeing possibilities simply as possibilities; they struggle mightily to meet all the demands and expectations all at once. Theirs is truly a mission impossible, a constant and endless push for perfection in every conceivable way. If you start running out of things to be perfect at, you can always open Instagram and find someone more perfect than yourself.

One of these days, I want to catch Kelly away from other adults, so I can tell her about a trailblazing anthropologist called Margaret Mead, who left the security of a perfect middle-class marriage and, instead, lived the unconventional and adventure-filled life she crafted for herself. And Margaret would never tell her to stop worrying, as she understands, deeply, that it is not her but society itself that needs to relax.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.