How We Sabotage Young Girls
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:
Tons of friends
Follows the rules
No opinions on things
Doesn’t get mad
Has to do everything right
Doesn’t show skin
Façade never cracks
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.
In a 2008 study by the Girl Scouts, girls aged eight to seventeen worried that leadership positions would make them seem “bossy” and lead to negative attention from peers.
Another study found girls significantly less likely than boys to want to be the boss or in charge of others.
Our culture’s mixed feelings about girl power emerge most clearly in girls’ descriptions of “Bad Girls”:
Doesn’t care about her body
Doesn’t plan long-term
Doesn’t care what people think
Speaks her mind
No respect for self or others
Center of attention
The Bad Girl was the picture of female failure, a reckless rejection of femininity, everything a girl was told not to be. She was the odd girl out with a bad reputation, low to no status, and few friends.
Yet she was also independent and authentic. The Bad Girl was outspoken (speaks her mind) and self-possessed (proud), a risk taker (rule breaker) and critical thinker (artistic, rebel, doesn’t care what people think). She was comfortable being in charge (center of attention). But she was nothing if not an outcast, an example to Good Girls of what happened when you strayed from the program. Being Bad was social suicide: a big, red F in Girl.
So despite the age of girl power, attitudes are slow to change. Go on, we seem to be telling girls, but not too far, and at your own risk. Buckle down, but don’t speak up. Debate your peers in class, but be “nice” about it. Be something, but not too much.
Being Good is a richly rewarded pursuit. Good Girls enjoy social largesse, holding center court in cafeterias and dominating leadership positions at school. Yet many of these overachieving girls learn to succeed by sequestering the most genuine parts of their developing selves. Mia was fourteen, overbooked, and underslept: a golfer, avid volunteer, and staff writer for the school newspaper. But, she told me,
when I’d go to school, a switch went on. Time to be Mia that everyone wants to be friends with . . . like everyone loves me, I don’t do bad things, I’m just Miss Perfect. My parents love me. I do all the activities that everyone wants to do. If my teachers ask me to do something, I’ll do it. One of those pleasing people.
Good Girl pressure threw a “switch” and split Mia’s personality. It was as if, she told me, “I had two identities.” To be Good, Mia had to project a false self to the world, acting one way in public and another way in private. She would behave one way to someone’s face and another way behind her back; one way in person, another way online.
Psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler observed a spike in stress levels and psychological crises among girls who, she writes, are
prone to becoming estranged from their inner lives. . . . [They] are so busy living up to others’ expectations that they either don’t develop or eventually relinquish their own goals. They are so focused on achieving external emblems of success that they don’t get the chance to figure out what really excites them and gives them pleasure. They barely know who they are or who they want to become.
At what price success? Many of the most accomplished girls are disconnecting from the truest parts of themselves, sacrificing essential self-knowledge to the pressure of who they think they ought to be.
The curse is not confined to overachievers or to girls’ external pursuits. The pressure to be Good runs deep into the core of the self, circumscribing a girl’s ability to know, express, and accept her most challenging feelings. Told to be “quiet,” “perfect,” “shy,” and “enthusiastic,” to have “no opinions on things” and never “get mad,” Good Girl pressure places girls on strict emotional diets, telling them that certain feelings are better than others. Just as a girl might say, I shouldn’t eat this because it will make me fat, girls often tell themselves, I shouldn’t feel this. I’m making too big a deal out of it. I shouldn’t say this: it will make me a bitch, a drama queen, an outcast.
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.
The Curse of the Good Girl thus diminishes girls’ resilience, or ability to cope with stress. Being Good is a fundamentally self-limiting experience: the need to be “perfect” and “do everything right” leaves many girls uncomfortable with feedback and failure, making it difficult to push through a challenge. The need to be nice or right at all costs leaves these girls on the sidelines as they avoid the situations that aren’t sure things: moments of self-assertion that require healthy risk-taking and which might lead to failure, disappointment, or another person’s unhappiness. The Curse of the Good Girl is both a warning not to try and a setup to fail when you do.
The cost of the curse emerges initially as a relational phenomenon. In my first book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, the curse played a leading role in the drama of girls’ aggression. The need to be nice forced girls to hide their true feelings, go behind each other’s backs, and explode in uncontrolled anger and cruelty.
All of these girls shared the same psychic DNA: they couldn’t speak their minds directly. When I asked why, I heard countless variations on a single answer: “If I tell her how I feel,” the girls said, “she won’t be my friend anymore. She’ll turn everyone against me.” Conflict would terminate their relationships. “The truth hurts,” an unforgettable fifth-grader told me. “That’s why I lie.”
But what emerges as a social phenomenon in relationships begins to limit individual strength and potential. At the Girls Leadership Institute, I watched thirteen-year-old Julia play rambunctiously with friends, while in classes her sentences trailed off like a volume dial being turned down. When I asked why, she said, “I feel like if I sound stupid or say the wrong thing, people won’t like me.”
Nina said little in class, and when I invited her privately to voice her views, she told me, “There’s no point in saying what I think. People at school always say I have crazy opinions. I’m taking the summer off from being told to lighten up.”
Shannon could not look anyone in the eye while she talked, and she sulked in the corner when anyone disagreed with her project ideas. Lottie commandeered a group project, refusing to ask peers for help because she feared angering them.
One afternoon at the Girls Leadership Institute, I watched Catherine struggle to complete an exercise in which she was asked to list her talents and strengths.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “You have a ton of stuff you’re good at.”
She hesitated. “I don’t want people to think I’m conceited,” she told the group. Some of the other girls looked down.
“And if they did?” I asked.
“They’d think I was a bitch.”
I began asking the girls how they felt about leadership. As I scrolled through a list of basic skills—public speaking, debating an opinion, and interviewing for a job—the girls’ comments remained constant. “Getting judged” was their worst fear. Take a risk and put yourself out there, the girls told me, and people might not like you. “Someone could shut you down,” Lottie said. “They could turn people against you.”
The girls were no longer talking about their friendships. They were talking about critical, individual skills for leadership and life. What these girls feared about being strong in relationships was what they now feared about being strong on their own. What made them nervous about standing tall in their personal lives was precisely what made distinction at school nerve-racking to them. Their fear of disappointing or angering others, their intense need to please, had spilled over into their skills and potential as individuals.
When the Good Girl mentality migrates into girls’ public venues— classrooms, extracurricular activities, and sports fields—girls learn many of the behaviors that will stunt their personal and professional success as adults. In 2007, high school students at Miss Hall’s School for Girls in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, developed a national survey on personal authority and leadership for over fifteen hundred teens. The survey asked respondents to address ten challenging “leadership problems.” Across a range of scenarios, the Curse of the Good Girl consistently diverted girls from doing the right thing. Overall, 60 percent of girls surveyed said they knew they should behave assertively in the conflicts, but only a quarter said they actually would. Many said they would defer to a friend’s choice, go along with the crowd to do the wrong thing, or avoid the conflict entirely. The study concluded that girls “appear to define leadership in terms of friendship, which means that they can often compromise doing what they know is right for the sake of maintaining relationships.” It found a significant “lack of alignment between what [girls] value and what they actually do.” To remain “Good,” the girls were splitting off from themselves, compromising their integrity, values, and authority.
Today, middle- and high-school girls indisputably outpace their male counterparts. Less than ten years from now, the statistics will reverse like a river’s tide. By college, the ranks of female leaders will have thinned. When they become lawyers, the amazing girls will make up barely a quarter of law-firm partners. Only one-third of business-school students will be amazing girls. Instead they will earn between 75 and 90 percent of degrees in “caring professions”: education, home economics, nursing, library science, social work, and psychology. They will earn less and ask for raises less often.
The abrupt decline in women’s career trajectories is hardly sudden, nor can it be blamed exclusively on men. Good Girls may enjoy success in high school, but as they enter college and move into the workplace, the rules of the game change. It is no longer enough to be smart and hardworking. The skills required to self-promote, negotiate, and absorb feedback are among the new criteria for success. Young women are ill prepared. Professional self-help books for women offer bleak inventories of these missing skills; the title of one of the bestsellers—Lois Frankel’s Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers—is no coincidence.
These books fill in the blanks of a girl’s education. They introduce young women to the real rules for success. But by the first day of her first job, it’s often too late. Good Girl habits are firmly in place. I will show you how to identify and address the Good Girl behaviors in your daughter right now.
At stake is far more than girls’ professional potential. In my workshops with mothers, women tell stories of sacrifice and silence, of automatic apologizing, of clipped tones used to hint at real feelings. They want a different future for their daughters.
We have become too focused on helping girls succeed by emphasizing the tangible items they can put on their résumé: a great GPA, a good education, and extracurricular and work experience. There is a less obvious but no less important inner résumé we must help girls develop, a set of skills that may prove most valuable for their success not just in the “real world” but in their day-to-day lives and relationships.
For nearly twenty years, we have lamented the loss of self-esteem in adolescent girls. The so-called Ophelia phenomenon has been only vaguely understood as a loss of voice and authenticity. Here I provide the first catalog of skills and core competencies that are not fully developing in girls. I offer you a map to girls’ crucial inner résumé and the strategies you will need to guide your daughter from Good Girl to Real Girl.
A Real Girl stays connected to a strong inner core of her thoughts, feelings, and desires. She is able not only to listen to who she is but to act on it. She maintains a critical balance: she can manage the needs of others without sacrificing the integrity of her own. A Real Girl can defend her interests in a relationship or advocate on her own behalf. Where a Good Girl might meet someone and automatically hope she is likable, a Real Girl will reflect on what she thinks and feels about the other person before deciding what to do next.
A Real Girl also maintains a balanced self-concept. Her aspirations unfold within a realistic awareness of personal limits. A Good Girl, whose identity is defined by appearances, tends to expect the unreasonable. She is often shattered by a mistake. Her investment in image curbs a taste for risk and adventure. A Real Girl, by contrast, can face her own blemishes, however painful; her limits and mistakes are as much a part of her as anything else. She has, quite literally, a sense of self.
A mother I met recently took issue with this approach. “I don’t see the problem with raising Good Girls,” she told me. “I’ve taught my daughter to be respectful and kind. She knows the difference between right and wrong.” That’s a good thing, I told her. But if we consider the Good Girl as only an ethical identity, we fail to see the other, less helpful lessons Good Girls learn. For instance, if a girl is too respectful or too kind, she may become a pleaser. A girl who never seems to do anything wrong might be choosing to make her mistakes in private, becoming secretive, ashamed, or self-destructive.
There is nothing wrong with being a nice person, nor is it my intent to undermine the unique sensibilities of women and girls. But girls need to have the tools to say no, to ask for what they need, and to say what they think. Too many girls and women walk away from conversations muttering to themselves about what they really wanted to say. When kindness comes at the expense of truth, it is not a kindness worth having. And when generosity leads to silence or abuse, it is not a generosity worth giving.
My findings are based on interviews and observations of Girls Leadership Institute participants and girls at a handful of public middle and high schools I visited on the East Coast. Their names and identifying details have been changed. Here I focus primarily on middle-class girls, for whom femininity is often most constraining. But the Curse of the Good Girl is not an affliction of the privileged. One out of five GLI participants receives financial aid or a full scholarship. Nearly one third are nonwhite. Femininity is defined differently among different racial, ethnic, and economic groups; African-American girls will create a different Good Girl list than will their Latina peers. Still, no matter where they grow up, girls live in a world that defines them as caregivers. As such, girls are expected to nurture others, especially male partners, at the expense of themselves. They consume media that positions them as passive, sexualized objects and which privileges the Good Girl in film, television, print, and online. These influences play out in Girl World, the powerful peer culture that circumscribes girls’ potential to be real with each other, and which every girl has to deal with despite the unique influences of her background.
Not all girls experience the Curse of the Good Girl identically. Some girls manage to avoid it altogether. Though I may use phrases like “Girl World” and “Good Girl,” I do not assume this is a predestined or essential way of being for girls. I am describing a pattern of behavior that has emerged in response to cultural messages about how to be a socially acceptable girl.
The Curse of the Good Girl is timeless. It not only predates current trends in girls’ disempowerment, it enables them. To break it we must give every girl the tools and permission to be herself, whoever that is. This book is a guide to helping girls reconnect with their true selves.
I believe that a girl may be smart and driven, get good grades and make all the right choices, and still learn habits of mind and speech that form her very own psychological glass ceiling. For while girls may be permitted to do what they want—to fly planes, go to war, and slam-dunk—they remain unable to be who they are. When girls can no longer agree upon the answer to the question “Who is a Good Girl?” we will know they are free to be themselves.
Click here for a copy of The Curse of the Good Girl