The glorified habit that upholds racism and hurts us all.
Please enjoy this month’s guest article by Angel Austin, ASDAH advocate and community leader and creator of Sacred Space for Fat Bodies, and previous #transparenttuesday author and This Is (Not) About Your Body podcast guest, below!
Perfectionism has long been touted as an admirable trait.
Everything deemed acceptable or desirable in our world (especially when it comes to media and advertising) has to be polished and edited until it's perfect. There’s a standard that’s become prevalent in our culture and it’s absolutely steeped in perfection.
It's important to understand, however, that even with all this said, perfectionism is far more than the need to be (or at least appear to be) perfect.
Perfectionism is based on the ideals and perception of those in power. Perfectionism is rooted in white supremacy— the belief that white people and their culture are superior to people of all other races and ethnicities. That means that perfectionism is, in and of itself, a part of the toxic and discriminatory ideology that perpetuates systemic racism.
We all suffer because of our cultural glorification of perfectionism… but it manifests for us in different ways, and has various effects, depending on the person’s intersection of identities.
As an Infinifat Black woman, I have been passed over and even fired from jobs because I didn’t “look” the part, was too fat, or simply wasn’t what the (white) higher-ups wanted their business partners and potential clients to see. Perfectionism is so deeply rooted in societal structures, institutions, and policies that it leads to systemic discrimination in various areas of life such as education, employment, and even housing.
This is the reason I deemed it necessary to use a white real estate agent ten years as a go-between, and stopped dealing with homeowners directly, when searching for housing. I'm not proud of this, but Black people often face difficulties and unequal treatment when trying to secure housing because there are ideal or “perfect tenants” and we don’t fit the bill. We’re financially penalized for it, too. This happens often in the real estate industry. Way too often.
Operating with a sense of or aspiration toward perfectionism has been a means of survival for me. I grew up being taught that as a Black woman, I would need to work three times as hard to get the pay and respect earned by my white counterparts. Even when I excelled in school or at work as an adult, aspersions were cast on everything I produced. I was accused of cheating or stealing the work of others, especially when what I’d done was actually of better quality.
This just made me work harder to be even more “perfect.”
I’m still working diligently to unlearn this way of thinking and existing in the world, and it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.
The constant pressure to be perfect began to cause a sort of internalized racism. My self-worth was diminished, and the need to conform to white standards of success and behavior made me feel inadequate. I struggled with self-doubt and low self-esteem, but what choice did I have? I needed to work. I needed to be perceived as capable and worthy. If I wanted to excel, I had to live up to the expectations of those in power.
Think this pattern doesn’t impact you though, just because you haven’t faced the same kind of discrimination I have? Think again.
Here are a few ways perfectionism is often exhibited among those living in privileged bodies (or at least with far fewer oppressed intersections):
Equating a person’s work with their worth.
Focusing on mistakes and imperfections, but never successes.
Moving the proverbial goalpost. (For example, if you don’t feel how you wanted to feel when you achieve a goal, you decide that the problem is that your goal wasn’t big enough.)
Glorifying the written word as the be-all, end-all.
Perpetuating and feeling pressure to adhere to toxic and unrealistic standards of beauty and “success”
Recognize yourself in any of these? Most people do!
These patterns aren’t just toxic for the person doing them, however. They reinforce white supremacy and make it difficult to foster diverse and truly collaborative environments.
The dominance of perfectionism in society often leads to a lack of representation of Black and other people of color in positions of power, media, and other spaces. This underrepresentation perpetuates the notion that white perspectives and achievements are the norm, marginalizing black voices and perpetuating a cycle of exclusion.
Perfectionism devalues, marginalizes, and exploits us.
Perfectionism upholds a Eurocentric worldview (and beauty ideal, for that matter!), and greatly diminishes the contribution of other cultures, thereby limiting the benefit of their inclusion.
Non-people of color suffer from the mental, physical, and emotional burnout that come with perfectionism, too! They also endure the effects of diet culture, weight stigma, and anti-fatness (even if to a lesser degree because of how they show up in the world).
Addressing the harmful effects of perfectionism requires setting the intention to abolish the systems that uphold racism and discrimination.
This will take deep investigation into the ways we show up in our personal and professional lives. We need to examine the things we deem respectable and acceptable. We need to examine the standards we set. Even Black people need to stamp out perfectionism in our own communities as it’s been used among us even to police and oppress each other.
When we get curious about our struggles with perfectionism and seek to begin the process of unlearning, we will promote inclusivity. We will amplify the voices and experiences of Black and other people of color. We will work more collaboratively to create equitable policies, challenge stereotypes, support Black-owned businesses and organizations (as well as those owned or run by other people of color), and perpetuate a culture of actual diversity and respect.