The problem with wanting to seem perfect

The news of celebrated designer Kate Spade’s death by suicide last week was shocking.

The “Kate Spade brand” was known for its cheery, sweet, sunshiny colors and ease, and whenever Spade was out in public, whether alone or with her husband and business partner, Andy, she projected that same image. Buoyant, smiling, impeccably put together, perfect.

“She made us feel that the perfect life was eminently achievable,” Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman writes.

Who doesn’t want to have a perfect life?

Perhaps we should reconsider.

Now, of course, we heartachingly know that Spade’s life was anything but perfect. Her husband admits that they had been living apart for the past 10 months, and that she had been battling mental illness and anxiety for the past few years; her older sister says Spade was “definitely worried about what people would say if they found out” about her struggles.

So she kept them to herself. Cue the perfection.

Spade had evidently been deeply affected by the suicide of Marin’s Robin Williams in 2014. Williams, too, we find out from Dave Itzkoff’s new biography, “Robin,” kept much of his struggles to himself.

By all appearances, Spade was a woman who had it all, a life many of us would consider enviable — balancing a successful family-friendly business with being a wife and mom, and a loving, supportive equal partner. But appearances are deceptive.

Just look on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, where many of us are guilty of presenting a super-curated image of our lives that generally just shows our best moments, never the full spectrum of what’s going on — the joys, the pains, the hardships, the ambivalence, the fears and the grief along with the transcendent moments.

Researchers say it’s taking a toll on all of us. A recent study found that, between 1989 to 2016, there’s been a huge jump in perfectionism among recent undergraduates here and abroad, as well as an increasing need to “measure up” to peers and more harsh judgments of them — a trend the researchers called “worrying.”

It is worrisome. A friend’s 30-something daughter, a mom of two, shared that some of her friends can’t be on Instagram on Mother’s Day because they’ll compare their “special day” to how other moms spent it or the gifts they got, causing spousal conflict, envy and sadness instead of feeling joy for their friends’ good fortunes.

Perfectionistic leanings have been linked to a veritable laundry list of health problems, from depression to anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder to eating disorders to suicide. At a QA after a recent San Rafael screening of “Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety,” a documentary co-produced by Marin filmmaker Karin Gornick that features numerous Marin kids living with anxiety disorders, Gornick said many teens in the audience said they wished their parents knew just how much pressure they feel to be “perfect.”

That’s OK, kids; your parents are feeling the same pressure.

There’s a veneer of perfectionism in Marin — the perfect kids, the perfect homes, the perfect bodies, the perfect car, the perfect stuff. “There is kind of a self-delusional myth that I find that people have here, that everything is perfect and everything’s great and they live in a bubble,” Rebecca Foust, Marin’s former poet laureate told me when she published her award-winning book “Paradise Drive.” Foust had been rattled by the suicides of three Marin women, one of whom she knew, within a short span. “It’s very easy to live in a bubble and not see the rest of the world. I wanted to puncture that bubble and set it straight.”

Just a few days after Spade’s death came the suicide of celebrated chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain, a man who was transparent about his flaws and demons, but who seemingly had a insatiable lust for life. So many of us wanted his adventurous, high-energy life; it seemed so perfect.

No life is perfect. Puncturing the bubble sounds about right.

Vicki Larson’s So It Goes runs every other week. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter at OMG Chronicles