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How We Sabotage Young Girls

Girls are encouraged to be nice, quiet, perfect, polite -- at the expense of their authenticity and sense of self.

Excerpted from The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence by Rachel Simmons. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) August, 2009.

Our culture is teaching girls to embrace a version of selfhood that sharply curtails their power and potential. In particular, the pressure to be “Good”—unerringly nice, polite, modest, and selfless—diminishes girls’ authenticity and personal authority.

The Curse of the Good Girl erects a psychological glass ceiling that begins its destructive sprawl in girlhood and extends across the female life span, stunting the growth of skills and habits essential to becoming a strong woman. This book traces the impact of the curse on girls’ development, and provides parents with the strategies to break its spell.

Almost ten years ago, I founded the Girls Leadership Institute, a summer enrichment program for middle- and high-school girls. I began asking largely middle-class groups of girls to describe how society expected a Good Girl to look and act. Here is a sample response:

Blue eyes
Little girl
Tons of friends
Always busy
Good grades
Speaks well
Follows the rules
No opinions on things
Doesn’t get mad
Well rounded
Has to do everything right
Natural hair
Perfect attendance
Doesn’t show skin
Façade never cracks
High expectations
People pleaser

The Good Girl was socially and academically successful, smart and driven, pretty and kind. But she was also an individual who aimed to please ( people pleaser ), toed the line ( no opinions on things ) and didn’t take risks ( follows the rules ). She repressed what she really thought ( doesn’t get mad ) and did not handle her mistakes with humor ( has to do everything right ).

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.

We live in the age of the fiercely successful “amazing girl.” Girls outnumber boys in college and graduate school. They graduate at higher rates. In high school, girls pursue more leadership roles and extracurricular activities than boys do, and they are significantly more likely to see themselves as leaders.

But if their college applications are stamped with twenty-first-century girl power, girls’ psychological résumés lag generations behind. 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.

The curse is the product of a culture that remains confused about gender equality. In Meeting at the Crossroads , Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan documented a crisis of connection in girls approaching adolescence. Girls withheld their true thoughts and feelings in an attempt to maintain “perfect” relationships. Nearly twenty years later, little has changed. In a 2006 study by Girls, Inc., 74 percent of girls said they were under a lot of pressure to please everyone, a nearly nine-point increase from 2000. Nearly half the girls surveyed said that “girls are told not to brag about the things they do well” and that the “smartest girls in my school are not popular.” A majority said they were expected to speak softly and not cause trouble.

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