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Perfect Women: Hidden Fears of Inadequacy and the Drive to Perform.

PERFECT WOMEN: Hidden Fears of Inadequacy and the Drive to Perform.

In 1981, Colette Dowling went to the heart of a problem that was handicapping millions of women in their search for fulfilling lives and created an international phenomenon with her best-selling book The Cinderella Complex, which gave a name to women's disabling fear of independence and showed the way for them to lead more self-determined lives. Now in 1988, her attention has turned to the question of why some today feel so driven to excel in their personal and professional lives, and why, with all their new opportunities and accomplishments, their lives feel so joyless and unsatisfying. "It's ironic that the opportunities of the last two decades have in some respects had a subverting effect on women's search for self," Dowling writes. "By providing new outlets for action, and thus new sources for outside approval, the postliberation ethic has supported the illusion that women will be fine, as long as we do enough well enough."

In Perfect Women, Colette Dowling explores why it is so rare to find a woman who admires herself, who values herself, and she examines why so many women get no pleasure from even their most extraordinary accomplishments but disparage them and compulsively press on, determined to do better next time, to be perfect.

Perfect Women is about the women we all know and recognize in our wives, mothers, sisters, daughters -- ourselves. They are: * The executive who works fourteen hour days, falls asleep with her papers next to her in bed, and brings her work with her on vacation * The exercise freak who runs five miles a day, lifts weights, and is mortified by the extra inch on her hips that only she can see * The homemaker whose house is always spotless, cooks a four-star meal every night, drives her kids to tennis practice, and volunteers for every committee * The fashion plate who never leaves the house without perfect make-up, every hair in place, and not one wrinkle in her perfectly coordinated outfit * The Harvard freshman, straight-A student, captain of her high school basketball team, merit scholar, who falls apart when she gets an 86 on her first college term paper * The compulsive shopper who is unable to leave a store without buying something * The eternal dieter who has memorized the calorie count of everything from breadsticks to each spoonful of chocolate fudge ice cream

These women are bright, attractive, talented, and driven. Behind their obvious competence lurks a discontent, a dissatisfaction and discomfort with themselves. For most women today, self-sufficiency is no longer an issue, but performance is -- "the drive to improve has become a modern-day religion," Dowling says. Interviewing women across the country, Colette Dowling discovered that their "relentless need to be busy, `productive,' had little to do with having too many roles to play. It seemed, instead, to have to do with inner feelings of emptiness." Their fear of not "measuring up," of being found inadequate and incomplete, sends them on a frenzied quest to become better, smarter, thinner, richer -- someone who is in control, admirable, perfect.

But where does this compulsive need to be perfect come from? When Colette Dowling's eldest daughter dropped out of Harvard after a semester, and her life changed from one of high achievement to one of uncertain shifting, Dowling came to realize that her daughter's problems stemmed from the impossibly high expectations she had embedded in her and from the fact that "her achievements became my achievements." Drawing upon current psychological research and revealing case studies, and through close examination of this crisis in her own life, Dowling traces the origins of obsessive self-improving behavior to an unconscious bond between mothers and daughters -- one in which mothers pass on their own desires and expectations, often leaving their daughters with a secondhand Self, a life agenda that is impossible to fulfill, and a sense that no matter what they do or have, it is never enough.

But Colette Dowling has discovered that this destructive cycle -- this legacy of self-doubt passed from mother to daughter -- can be broken. "The work on this book has helped me discover what I share with my mother and my daughters that has led us to a driven, `self-improving' existence; and to see the ways in which this impoverished state is shared by other women. What I have asked myself, over the last few years, is this: Is it possible to stop performing and finally come into one's own as a woman who's in touch with, and respects, her Self? I think it is."
COPYRIGHT 1989 Vegetus Publications
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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