Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: "Good Girls" vs. "Real Girls"

Since I recently started working with the young women in my church, I thought Rachel Simmons's The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence might help me know some of the pressures they're facing from society and give me some tools to combat them.  What I didn't expect was that I would see so much of myself in Ms. Simmons's book.

I spent a good deal of my growing up years, well into college, inordinately concerned with how I was perceived by others.  I often buried my own thoughts and opinions, avoiding confrontation and difficult truths in favor of keeping others happy.  Any criticism I received was a huge blow to my self-esteem.  I was terrified of failing, so I rarely took big risks or tried anything new that I didn't already know I'd be good at.  And on the outside, I appeared to be very successful.  I was active in my church, valedictorian of my high school class, president of the National Honor Society, recipient of the Hunter presidential scholarship to BYU, etc.  But I was so insecure that I made some not-so-great choices in my personal life to bolster my "popularity" and to try to ensure that people would like me or, perhaps more accurately, envy me.  And I kept my "bad" emotions so in check everywhere else that I would explode at my family for every little thing, damaging my relationships there.  I was hooked on "soap opera"-like drama in my friendships and relationships, because it made me feel tragic and important.

And this book helped to explain why.

Ms. Simmons starts out explaining what the Good Girl culture is, and how it manifests itself in girls' behavior, speech patterns, and internal psychology.  The second part of the book provides tools and keys to breaking the cycle and helping these young women develop into "Real Girls" instead of the caricatures of "Good Girl" or "Bad Girl."

"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."  Bingo.  I was a "Good Girl" who was always trying to be who I thought I ought to be, but I wasn't a particularly happy one.  In fact, I was pretty miserable a lot of the time, and I didn't always make good choices.  But I didn't see "authenticity" as a true option for me, whether it was from societal pressures or messages picked up subconsciously from my church culture or whatever.  My self-worth was inextricably tied to what others thought of me - or rather, what I thought others thought of me - and projecting a "perfect" version of myself, since I was sure the "Real" me was not good enough.  To be a "Good Girl" I had to parrot back the "right" answer to the question, be "better" than others, make sure I presented the "right" image to the world.  Who I really was, what I really wanted, far too often got lost in that persona.

Ms. Simmons explains, "Assumptions are a cash crop of Good Girl culture.  When girls are trained to avoid direct confrontation and keep the peace, they do not learn how to reflect about others' behavior and feelings, or to actively investigate why people might feel or act the way they do.  Lacking the tools to get real answers, they simply guess instead...Declining self-esteem greases the wheels of assumptions: if you're insecure, it's easy to fantasize that people don't like you. Adolescence, a time of extreme self-consciousness, also plays a role...The belief that others should know how you feel without your telling them is another destructive by-product of the Good Girl curse.  According to the Good Girl rules, being direct about your bad feelings is selfish, a conscious choice to put your own feelings ahead of someone else's."  Reading this book, I so wished for a time machine, so I could go back and shake my teenaged self.  Having feelings is not selfish!  Acknowledging and communicating those feelings is not selfish!  It's healthy!!  Argh!!!

The section on Shame made a great deal of sense to me, having just read Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. (You can check out that review here.) "To live a Good Girl life is to walk an internal tightrope.  With one's self-esteem tied up in wildly unrealistic expectations, mistakes become emotional free falls, leading girls to question their fundamental self-worth."  And that is a stressful way to live, let me tell you. "True freedom of the self is permission to make a mistake without feeling obliterated by it.  This sort of internal balance is central to developing self-confidence.  A young person can reach her full potential only when she feels the agency to take the risks that can result in great triumphs, but that may also backfire along the way."  Yes!  This was what I was missing!  I was so terrified of making a mistake that I didn't allow myself that option, which sounds great in theory, but in practice just means that I closed myself off from many opportunities.  Or I faked it really well.  Going on, Ms. Simmons says, "Success is built on a paradox: the more concerned about failing we become, the less we are able to achieve.  Good Girl perfection is success with a ceiling.  Its pursuit offers little room for the risk and adventure that yield exhilarating leaps in growth.

Now, none of this is to say that I had a miserable childhood and it's all my parents' fault or anything.  I have great parents who did their level best to help me weather this - and every - storm I faced growing up.  But somehow I missed some fundamental, foundational truths about my intrinsic worth, the value of taking risks and making mistakes, and the pointlessness of caring about what others think.

And risks are so important.  And so are mistakes.  But between societal expectations and an incompletely communicated understanding of the gospel, I think LDS young women are particularly risk-averse, afraid of making mistakes, and therefore vulnerable to the Good Girl curse Ms. Simmons warns about.  This is fodder for a whole nother post, but too much of an emphasis on all the "do not"s can unintentionally focus girls on a Pharisaical hypervigilance regarding "the rules" that misses the whole point of the gospel and grace and the Atonement.

I'm still struggling with aspects of this today, though I'm a whole lot more grounded in my "Real Girl" self now than I was as a youth.  I really appreciated Ms. Simmons's section on "Good Mothers" vs. "Real Mothers" as that's the stage of life I'm in right now.  If anything, motherhood is the single major life change that yanked me out of "Good Girl" culture.  I'd never felt so inadequate and confronted with my mistakes and lack of ability in anything I'd ever undertaken before.  But as a survival mechanism, particularly after suffering from post-partum depression, I had to start letting some things go.  I'm not always in a good mood; I yell at my kids in the mornings when they aren't out of bed yet; I don't hand-sew their Halloween costumes; and I don't always have dinner planned more than twenty minutes ahead of when we should be eating.  It's quite gratifying to hear from Ms. Simmons that "at the end of the day, the best gift a mother can give is to take--that is, take the time to find herself, set a new example, and shatter the vise grip of the Good Wife/Bad Wife and Good Mother/Bad Mother labels.  When a mother's behavior breaks the rules, she gives her daughter [and son] the authority to live by her own."

My edit to that last quote brings up another point I'd like to make.  I'm the mother of three sons, no daughters.  And while I think the challenges that face boys and girls growing up today have some differences, I believe there are vast similarities too.  I want my sons to be "Real" rather than feel constrained by societal or religious or personal expectations don't allow them to be authentically themselves.

Ms. Simmons talks about helping girls accept their feelings by modeling using "emotion words," talking about feelings, affirming their emotions, using "I" statements.  She emphasizes the importance of recognizing when we are making assumptions and questioning them.  Simply observe and ask, she says, because "the antidote to assumptions is information."  Girls (and women) need to learn to accept criticism.  "Learning to accept criticism can help [us] live a happier life," so it's vital that girls learn not to take criticism personally or to allow a single incident to "label" them.  To encourage risk-taking, we need to develop the willingness to "embrac[e] a balanced approach to failure, and the ability to honor, even celebrate, being wrong."

Honesty is key in relationships, as well, and can be enhanced by controlling overreactions, excising the use of phrases like "just kidding" and "no offense", and accepting responsibility for your contribution to situations.  I loved her "Four Steps to Healthy Conflict"; I think most adults could use a primer on this as well:
1) Affirm the relationship
2) Use an "I" statement
3) Say your contribution
4) Ask how you can solve this together.

And her Three Rules of Relationship would have served me in good stead to have internalized young:
1) Not everyone is going to like you.
2) Friendship is one of many possible relationships in life.
3) When truth and friendship cannot coexist, get rid of the friendship.

So, to sum up this overly-long review, "Good Girl" isn't the opposite of "Bad Girl."  Those are both two-dimensional stereotypes that limit girls and women to being caricatures instead of their authentic selves.  And they are both the opposite of "Real Girls" who recognize that "being real means taking up space and having needs; it means drawing the line and saying no" and realizing that "to be yourself you have to know who that is."  I hope to help my sons, and the young women I work with, find that balance and with that, live happier lives.

[Edited 2/21/13 to add:
The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence
by Rachel Simmons
ISBN: 9781594202186
Buy it from Amazon (hardcover, paperback, ebook).
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Or go check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here!).]

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