Perfectionism is an ideology that has always had a negative impact on our culture and society.
Previous beliefs and assumptions of what “perfection” looked like was limited to what people witnessed in their immediate environment and consumed through television and print media.
While, even then, the pressure to achieve a certain body and appearance ideal was more prevalent than was helpful, the advent of smartphones and social media has worsened the impact.
Now, what constitutes an accepted, worthy, or “perfect” body or appearance is changes each second and avoiding these shifts or not being inundated by them constantly throughout the day is almost impossible.
It is unsurprising that, in a society and economy that thrives off of the things people will do, and buy, to fulfill expectations, disordered body image, eating, and exercise flourishes.
To explore this relationship, it is helpful to consider how concepts of appearance “perfection” impact first body beliefs and body image as well as psychological understandings of appearance-related worth.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism as an ideology is commonly understood to mean the belief that one must be perfect in all areas of life.
This is often related to the belief that achieving this perfection will lead to happiness, success, and love.
Perfectionism as a personality trait is not always “negative,” as it often pushes individuals to pursue growth and progress.
For this reason, it is helpful to consider perfectionism as either adaptive or maladaptive.
Adaptive perfectionism can “characterized by setting high goals but being satisfied with one’s performance .”
On the flip-side, maladaptive perfectionism is “setting unrealistically high goals and resulting dissatisfaction .”
Looking at the two sides of perfectionism, it is clear perfectionist traits or beliefs can be used as an asset or liability.
Perfectionism & the Body
Perfectionism related to the body often stems from the beliefs that one has about what is an “appropriate,” “desirable,” or “acceptable” appearance.
For many, these beliefs are gathered from and limited to societal beauty standards, which rarely consider the average body and instead emphasize unrealistic and unattainable body ideals.
This results in many individuals engaging in dangerous disordered eating and exercising behaviors in attempts to achieve the “perfect” body which is just not possible.
This creates a “discrepancy between ideal body image and an individual’s actual body image satisfaction” and leads to distress for the individual that views their own body as “unacceptable.”
Perfectionism & the Mind
Perfectionist beliefs about the body go beyond attaining the “perfect” body and are also related to the perception of what one believes achieving perfection will bring them.
Many believe that appearing perfect outwardly will lead to actually being perfect and then result in all of the successes we perceive perfection provides.
Perfectionist beliefs related to the body involve, yes, those beliefs on what is a “desirable” body but also go deeper to what one believes that body says about them.
Many fear that not having the “perfect” body will make them look as if they have “let themselves go,” that they are lazy, or that they have no discipline or self-respect.
These are all stigmas that we unfairly place on individuals living in larger bodies due to internalizing cognitive beliefs that “thinness” equates to goodness, success, discipline, control, and motivation, to name a few.
Perfectionist beliefs also go beyond body appearance entirely to encapsulate people’s views that they must “have it all together” and be the walking epitome of societally accepted values in order to be worthy.
Sadly, too many are imprisoned by the belief that imperfection (whether physical, cognitive, emotional, or personal) makes them unworthy.
Perfectionism & Eating Disorders
With all of the perceptions of self, worth, and success that are associated with perfection, it is unsurprising that one’s pursuit of perfection becomes desperate and often leads to disordered behaviors.
Simply summarized, “research consistently shows perfectionism to be elevated in people with eating disorders and people recovering from eating disorders .”
Perfectionism is so strongly linked to eating disorder behaviors and beliefs that many in the field “assert that clinical perfectionism is one of four core mechanisms that maintain eating disorder pathology .”
Not only that, “in the cognitive-interpersonal model of anorexia nervosa, perfectionism/cognitive rigidity is one of the four postulated maintaining factors .”
Perfectionist beliefs are clearly correlated with eating disorders.
Beyond this, body image concerns specifically are “positively associated with both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism .”
This is not only true for anorexia nervosa, as “high perfectionism, high body dissatisfaction, and low self-esteem” have proven to be factors that maintain bulimia nervosa behaviors.
A helpful take-away from all of this is that the consequences of perfectionist beliefs about body, appearance, success, and worth are clear.
Once that is accepted, the question becomes how to combat the perfectionist ideology to live a life free from eating disorder beliefs and behaviors.
While this is an extensive topic, a good place to start is by practicing self-compassion, as research indicates that “self-compassion is negatively associated with neurotic perfectionism and has been found to inhibit the effects of negative body image and perfectionism .”
Practice compassion for your unique, imperfect, and growing self and remind yourself that you are enough and do not need to be perfect as many times as you need.
References Barnett, M. D., Sharp, K.J. (2016). Maladaptive perfectionism, body image satisfaction, and disordered eating behaviors among U.S. college women: the meditating role of self-compassion. Personality and Individual DIfferences, 99.  Wade, T.D., Tiggeman, M. (2013). The role of perfectionism in body disatisfaction. Journal of Eating Disorders, 1:2.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published June 9, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on June 9, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC