How Julia Child Taught Me to Stop Being Perfect

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By Pia Guerrero, Founder/Co-Editor; cross-posted with permission at SheHeroes

“When women were supposedly acceptable on television only if they were young, pert, beautiful, thin and without an accent, Julia ousted everyone even though she was lanky, with a voice that bellowed its New England regionalism, and didn’t begin her video career until she was past 50. It wasn’t that she could do no wrong; rather, she made doing wrong so right.”

~ Phyllis Richman, Washington Post

 

Julia Child

Last week would marked Julia Child’s 102nd birthday (if she were still alive). In addition to receiving numerous awards, including an Emmy, Child was the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame—and, for the record, my grandmother’s cousin. Growing up in my home I learned a lot about Julia, although less about her as a relative and more about her public persona as a ground-breaking chef, author and TV personality. Universally recognized as an American shehero, she transformed our culture, not only making French cuisine and an appreciation for finer food something everyday women could make and share in their homes, but paving the way for the likes of Martha Stewart and the the whole TV cooking industry.

My mom often referenced Julia’s bold and goofy TV performances. I was a “perfect” child and my mother tried to conjure up the image of Julia’s TV personality whenever she thought I was being too hard on myself. In reaction to a rather chaotic childhood, I chose to not make waves and stay under the radar. On the whole did what I was told, got good grades, won “perfect” attendance awards in elementary school, danced ballet and was a remarkable artist for my age and drew very realistically. By 5th grade my ability to excel turned into a need to be perfect and the stress of that began to show. I was constantly worried and strongly felt the need to control my environment. That year, I was in Mrs. Delassi’s class, where hyper-perfectionism among the students was the norm. All of us in our small class were urged to do everything exactly same: write cursive flawlessly, draw inside the lines, make no mistakes. When report cards came out, Mrs. Delassi made a comment that has stuck with me ever since,

“Pia is not living up to her potential.”

After that, anxiety crept into the night and overcame me. I couldn’t sleep. And then, I became terrified of the night. I didn’t want to go to school and began to hate ballet class. I felt no joy as my perfectionism became a social and emotional problem. I believed I only had two options, to either be perfect or a complete failure. I was headed down a dark path, for in addition to sleeplessness, I began to feel different body pains that allowed me to sit out of my activities. (Luckily I didn’t develop an eating disorder, which according to psychologist Dr. Sylvia Ramm, is quite common with perfectionists, like myself, that need counseling).

When perfectionism interferes with school work, extra curricular activities, or a healthy social life, children definitely need counseling. If perfectionists exhibit symptoms of anxiety such as sleeplessness, avoidance of activities, eating disorders, or continuous headaches or stomach aches, they are likely to need counseling. Sometimes the symptoms aren’t obvious, so parents and teachers must listen and observe carefully. – See more at: http://www.sengifted.org/archives/articles/sylvia-rimm-on-perfectionism-in-the-gifted-an-interview-by-sengs-editor-in-chief-michael-shaughnessy#sthash.HG3ITKdX.dpuf

Therapy was the only thing that allowed me to transcend this harsh dichotomy. My mom pulled me out of the school I was in and worked hard to let me know that it was OK to not be perfect. She would have little stories she’d tell me to ensure I knew it was OK to mess up. For example, while I never met Julia Child, in an effort to remind me that there is joy in imperfection my mom recalled the time on TV when Julia dropped a pancake during a live taping of her show. Julia, looking right at the camera as if it was a close friend said, “You just scoop it back into the pan. Remember, you are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you.”

This served as a valuable life lesson for me. It reminded me that we all make mistakes. That’s how we learn–and if you don’t have fun in the process what’s the point? What I loved then and still do about Julia Child was that she always seemed to be having good time. While an accomplished professional and one of our nation’s most celebrated female “firsts” she fumbled, joked, and laughed at herself. Essentially, she didn’t take herself too seriously, winning the hearts of Americans with her authenticity.

Dan Akroyd as Julia Child on Saturday Nite Live (a bit that supposedly Child thought was hilarious.)

Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child on Saturday Nite Live (a bit that supposedly Child thought was hilarious.)

 

I admire my mom for her efforts to share a flawed role-model with me. For it’s so important to find a balance when encouraging achievement and excellence in our children. Being a perfectionist only bred an overwhelming fear of failure in me. And yet, the lesson in that kind of thinking is that if we listen to our fear, we are more likely to flop. Julia Child knew this, and wasn’t afraid to goof-up on live TV. It’s so important to have role models like Julia Child that are perfectly imperfect and proud of it. We have to remember that with every single success story comes dozens of stories of failure.

Countless famous women have failed before they achieved career success. For example, before becoming the first woman to run a major TV studio and the most successful comedienne of her time, Lucille Ball tried her hand at film and failed. Oprah was demoted at one of her first jobs before becoming the queen of media. And, J.K. Rowling received countless rejection letters from publishers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before it reached the pinnacle of success. There is a lesson for us all in these stories of success. These ground-breaking women, like Julia Child, had the courage to continue doing what they loved…even in the wake of a major failure.

Julia Child said it best, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure…you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

 

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