Chapter 1.
The Seductive Sirens of Perfectionism

I was waiting to board a flight to England, I was searching for a magazine to read, and I noticed a young woman standing alone in front of a whole wall of magazines—Vogue, Glamour, Shape, Elle, Cosmopolitan. One magazine cover proclaimed: "The Search for the Perfect Woman." I wondered what it must be like, as a woman, to be faced with such an onslaught of "perfect" models and celebrities with whom to compare one's face, body, clothes and hair. And as I browsed the magazine rack myself, 1 encountered Men's Health, GQ, Health and Fitness, Body Builder and "perfect abs" and huge biceps that made me feel like a wimp! I flipped through the pages of Gourmet, Town and Country, Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful; each was filled with glossy, beautiful advertisements. The ads highlighted the inadequacies and imperfections of my own life and made me long for a perfect body, a stylish, powerful car and a dream house. I wondered if women, at whom most of the advertisements are directed, would feel similar frustrations with their own lives and, at the same time, deep longings to have a better life and to remain as desirable and beautiful as the "perfect" models portrayed in those magazines.

Many fitness, diet and health magazines promise a wrinkle-free life as well as the latest on how to achieve the perfect weight or fatigue-free existence, how to defy aging and remain young and vibrant—Viagra for your sex life, Botox for facial beauty! Soon, if you do not succumb to the lure of cosmetic surgery, you may begin to feel ugly and old fashioned. In TV shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan women submit to nose jobs, brow lifts, chin augmentation, breast enlargement, liposuction, tummy tucks, skin peels, eye surgery and dental enhancement. They work out with a trainer in the gym and receive fashion advice, hair styling and psychotherapy to help with self-image. All this in the name of "turning the ordinary into the extraordinary," the ugly duckling into the swan! Movies often magnify the tension even more. Everything is larger than life, the colors radiant. Reality seems drab and boring by comparison.

Although I know that most of the photographs of models in magazines are airbrushed and computer-enhanced, something in me does not want to believe it. I want to be like them. And I want to believe that it is possible to be bright and good looking, in a world where brains and beauty are recognized and rewarded. Deep down a voice is telling me not to judge by appearances, but we live in a highly visual age where the vitally important values of character and integrity are very difficult to demonstrate with the same visual impact. Such inner values develop gradually and invisibly. They cannot be technologically accelerated and enhanced in the way that appearance and, to some degree, performance can. Many of our cultural heroes are admired more for their acting or athletic abilities or for their strength and beauty than for their character or ethical integrity.

The Triumph of Technology

We have to admit that technology gives us many wonderful things. We can expect instant and flawless communication from just about anywhere in the world. We have exquisite music reproduction in our homes. Cars, at least the ones advertised, are sleek, beautifully crafted pieces of engineering with stunning performance, not to mention the interior complete with a luxury sound system to make even commuting a sensual experience. Lexus, in its "relentless pursuit of perfection," offers the latest model for just $56,000! "The only thing car experts find to criticize," says the advertisement in the New York Times, is that it "is so smooth, quiet and perfect... it lacks soul."

In every area of life, technology has given us enormous benefits with greater speed, efficiency and remarkable artistic design. In our homes we have innumerable labor-saving devices. Doctors can do amazing things with the latest in laser surgery. Body scanning technology allows us to see into the body without surgical invasion. The secrets of the brain are beginning to be exposed by MRI, CAT and PET scans and other even more sophisticated imaging techniques. Surgical operations can be done by computer from four thousand miles away. Computer-aided special effects have brought us extraordinary scenes in movies such as The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix and Spider-Man. The pursuit of excellence in technology has certainly been rewarded in remarkable ways.

Designer babies. Technology also promises to overcome our weaknesses and flaws by transforming us into stronger, happier and more intelligent beings. Not only can we get rid of wrinkles and affect brain transmitters with chemicals to get rid of anxiety, depression or aggression, but all sorts of things, both good and bad, become possible with genetic engineering, stem cell research and cloning. Genetic engineering promises to produce "stronger bodies, sharper memories, greater intelligence and happier moods."

Some scientists believe we will be able to enhance the brain with neural implants, improving memory and cognitive ability. Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, is an enthusiastic supporter of modifying human beings early in their development. Though critical of Stock's vision of the future, Gina Maranto, author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings, says, "Individuals will be able to go into a clinic and, through a simple procedure, obtain embryos fitted with chromosomal modules that will slow aging, eliminate disease and enhance personality, temperament, intellect and beauty."

The era of designer babies is upon us. For the moment, in the search for the perfect baby, we use another often positive tool of technology, the ultrasound, to screen for imperfections in babies before birth. Abortion is offered and often advised. "You get questionable news [about a pregnancy] and you make the abortion decision," says Adrienne Asch, a Wellesley bioethicist. "Anything else you do is viewed as stupid by your educated friends, by your doctors, by your genetic counselors." The system, she says, offers too little support for parents who might want to keep an "imperfect" baby. In a future world envisioned in the movie Gattaca, embryos are screened for height, sex, IQ and vulnerability to diseases. Already, in our own time, human eggs and sperm are marketed with a high value on intelligence and good looks. In some areas of life this pursuit of perfection has led us to some very difficult ethical and philosophical problems. How much should we tinker with the mind, body and genes to attempt to create the "perfect" person and defy death?

The Pressure for Perfection

These seductive sirens of the advertising and Hollywood cultures that surround us stimulate our partially conscious fantasies and dreams of perfecting ourselves. They increase our dissatisfaction and discontent with who we are and what we possess. Advances in technology have only enhanced their power and influence. And it is complicated by the fact that the dangerous influences in the pursuit of perfection are, as we have seen, entwined with many good fruits.

Other areas of life are also affected by this dilemma. In the worlds of business, academia and athletics, for example, setting high standards and striving for excellence is greatly valued and highly productive. Miriam Elliott and Susan Meltsner describe the problem in The Perfectionist Predicament:

There's no denying that when you count up material comforts, remarkable achievements, and other outward signs of success, perfectionism will seem to have served you well—especially in this day and age. We have been going through an era in which setting high standards and devoting an inordinate amount of time and energy to attaining them is considered a prerequisite for success. More is better, we are told. Only the best is good enough. It's a jungle out there, and if you're going to survive, you need an edge, an advantage, an ace-in-the-hole. Perfectionism certainly looks like it will give you the winning hand and keep you one step ahead of your cutthroat competitors. But appearances can be deceiving.

Problems with Perfectionism

Not only will we find that some aspects of perfectionism prove to be unhealthy and destructive, but when we turn our eyes to other parts of our culture and our world, we see something very different from the affluent, glossy world portrayed by many commercials. Since the 1960s divorce and crime rates have risen dramatically. Recently the thin veneer of morality in the marketplace has cracked to expose fraud, deception and greed in high places as the optimistic bubble of the stock market popped. The gap between the rich and poor remains enormous in many countries. We have daily reminders of the dark side of human nature in news reports of civil wars and genocide. Despite our great advances in almost every field, it seems as if the human heart has not changed much. The Utopian dreams of a peaceful and prosperous earth are far from reality. The achievements of technology raise our hopes and aspirations, stimulate our desires and longings for perfection, but they often leave us frustrated and disappointed as we are constantly reminded that imperfect people do not behave like impersonal and ever-improving machines. The gap between dreams and reality, especially in the area of human relationships and personal fulfillment, does not get any smaller, and our hope of significant advance toward perfection begins to fade.

So we feel the call of the sirens, we know how imperfect we are, and most of us still strive to be better and to improve the quality of our lives. What should we aim for? Is there some objective goal of perfection toward which we should strive?

What Is Perfection Anyway?

We must start our exploration of this subject by looking at how people commonly define perfection and perfectionism. This may open up some questions that will hopefully find their answers later in the book. The word "perfect" derives from the Latin word perficere, meaning to make thorough, or complete. The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's Dictionary give several related uses of the word: complete in all respects; without defect or omission; flawless; in a condition of complete excellence; faultless; completely correct or accurate; exact; precise.

The Random House Dictionary defines perfection as

  1. The state or quality of being or becoming perfect.
  2. The highest degree of proficiency, skill, or excellence, as in some art.
  3. A quality, trait, or feature of the highest degree of excellence.

Human beings seem to understand technical perfection most easily. We can measure whether a machine such as a car or a plane is performing with maximum efficiency, but it is a little more difficult to define what maximum efficiency is for a human being unless it is in relation to a skill or proficiency in one area of life, such as performance of a piece of music or a surgical operation.

Another sort of perfection described by philosophers needs a little more explanation. "Teleological" perfection means becoming all that you are supposed to be and finding perfect satisfaction in that state. The Greek word teleios is commonly translated "perfect," with the connotation of working toward the telos, which means "end." But here we face a question. How are we to know what that "end" is supposed to be? Is that end or purpose defined by scientists, philosophers or theologians? Or is it set by prevailing cultural standards, by parents, by peers or by God?

Throughout history there have been many views on the nature of perfection and whether it is possible to achieve it in this life. In the appendix you will find more detail on the different views of perfectionism throughout history and in each major religion. It was not until the 1930s that the word perfectionist was commonly accepted as describing "a person who is only satisfied by the highest standards." Perfectionism is thus the desire to be unblemished and faultless in some or all areas of life. It is to this contemporary definition of perfectionism that we will turn for a more in-depth study, asking the practical question: is there anything wrong with trying to be the best that we could ever be, in every area of life?

Questions for Discussion

  1. How has your view of yourself and of your lifestyle been affected by magazines and advertisements?
  2. Do you think that technological advances contribute to the belief that we can perfect ourselves?
  3. How do you define perfection?
  4. What is a perfect human being?