It’s called The Curse of the Good Girl. When given the opportunity to discuss what they thought were traits of “good” girls, middle year students came out with a range of ideals ranging from obvious answers like good grades, confidence, honesty, and good listening skills. Stranger measurements of goodness: eye colour, money, and physical appearance.
Writes Rachel Simmons about this conflicted concept of goodness:
The Good Girl walked a treacherous line, balancing mixed messages about how far she should go and how strong she should be: she was to be enthusiastic while being quiet; smart with no opinions on things; intelligent but a follower; popular but quiet. She would be something, but not too much.
This ambition for some perfect goodness makes it hard to encourage girls to be themselves. The most improbable fear of being disliked for their ideas and hobbies means these girls are often pretending they have other interests or desires in the vague hope of fitting in with other girls that are likely doing the exact same crazy dance.
I know I used to do that. I always thought of myself as a bit of a chameleon or something. By myself I’d be into doing all kinds of strange things (only children make up weird imaginative games) but around others there was always that unspoken assumption that I had to be like everyone else. Like the same music, drool over the same actors, enjoy the same TV shows. So nobody knew that I liked jukebox hits and the Smurfs and Fraggle Rock. Then again, I got teased enough for other reasons. Why mock Fats Domino, too…
The Curse of the Good Girl erodes girls’ ability to know, say, and manage a complete range of feelings. It urges girls to be perfect, giving them a troubled relationship to integrity and failure. It expects girls to be selfless, limiting the expression of their needs. It demands modesty, depriving girls of permission to commit to their strengths and goals. It diminishes assertive body language, quieting voices and weakening handshakes. It reaches across all areas of girls’ lives: in their interactions with boys and other girls, at school, at home, and in extracurricular life. The Curse of the Good Girl cuts to the core of authentic selfhood, demanding that girls curb the strongest feelings and desires that form the patchwork of a person.
Tied into this is the perception of what makes a girl bad: dyed hair, artistic, pride, a need to be the center of attention and slutty behaviour, among other traits. Odd that being artistic would make the list. I wonder why. Pride I can see, but sometimes it’s not a bad thing to be proud of one’s achievements. That’s where real self-confidence and self-esteem build themselves. Pride when you’ve done nothing worth being proud of is the problem, but maybe some people find it hard to tell the difference. And a lot of “bad” comes from style of dress – the assumption that someone dressing punk is going to be a rotten kind of person not worth getting to know. Sure some are thieves and criminals but preppy looking kids can be shoplifters and commit break ins and everything else too. There’s way too much judgment on looks and so many wrong assumptions based upon them. Look too weird and you risk being an outcast, no matter how well or poorly you behave, how nice or polite or smart you are.
Then there’s the danger to emotional well being. Being constantly bombarded by the idea that only certain behaviours can be good behaviours, only certain actions or thoughts or deeds or feelings are right and proper, can stunt emotional growth.
Placed at odds with their most important feelings, many do not develop the skills to speak their minds when they need to, or the skin to endure the claims of someone else. Lacking a full emotional vocabulary or the permission to use it, some girls turn inward, ruminating self-destructively. Others become explosive, able to articulate little more than anger and frustration. The psychological muscles a girl uses to manage difficult feelings begin to atrophy. Emotional intelligence is compromised, stunting healthy self-expression: the more Good girls try to be, the more they must discredit themselves. These toxic lessons in relationship and conflict management follow many girls into adulthood.
To be absolutely kind and selfless is impossible, making Good a finish line girls never get to cross. As a result, girls who aspire to Goodness are ruthlessly hard on themselves. When the standards for selfhood are beyond reach, self-acceptance is futile. Girls become their own worst enemies. The terms of being an acceptable girl are rigged: Good Girls are doomed to fail.
Not to say being good and nice aren’t things to strive for, but be a lot more balanced in the pursuit of it. More focus on inner honesty, for example – like saying no when you really want to say no. No more saying yes to things and then feeling annoyed on the inside for caving.
Part of the trouble, though, is the perception others have about speaking one’s mind, getting angry, being persuasive or sticking to one’s proverbial guns. There’s still a social stigma toward girls when it comes to some behaviours. In a guy nobody would think a second thought. In a girl it all looks too aggressive. Too mean. Too bitchy. And it’s not just guys who think that way. Girls often deride those behaviours for the same reason and it’s not helping girls be true to their feelings and desires when they constantly fear criticism from all sides. The flip side, which Simmons also wrote a book about, is how the drive for outward niceness can also lead to aggressive behind-the-back bitchery. Girls who haven’t learned to be honest face to face resort to horrible behaviours against both friends and enemies.
I don’t know what the solution would be, but Rachel Simmons founded something called the Girls Leadership Institute where girls can learn better interpersonal skills and learn to feel comfortable with the idea of leadership and assertiveness in general. Her book, on which the orginal article is based, goes more into what that’s all about. It sounds like worthwhile reading.