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Classmates seemed to have it all together. Every morning, the administration sent out an email blast highlighting faculty and student accomplishments. Some women attended class wearing full makeup. Ms. DeWitt had acne. They talked about their fantastic internships. She was still focused on the week’s homework. Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious.
In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.
“Nobody wants to be the one who is struggling while everyone else is doing great,” said KahaariKenyatta, a Penn senior who once worked as an orientation counselor. “Despite whatever’s going on — if you’re stressed, a bit depressed, if you’re overwhelmed — you want to put up this positive front.”
Citing a “perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, cocurricular and social endeavor,” the task force report described how students feel enormous pressure that “can manifest as demoralization, alienation or conditions like anxiety or depression.”
In the era of social media, such comparisons take place on a screen with carefully curated depictions that don’t provide the full picture. Mobile devices escalate the comparisons from occasional to nearly constant.