We live in the age of the fiercely successful “amazing girl.” Girls 1)outnumber boys in college and graduate school. They graduate at higher rates. In high school, girls pursue more leadership roles and 2)extracurricular activities than boys do, and they are significantly more likely to see themselves as leaders.
But if their college applications are3)stamped with twenty-first-century girl power, girls’ psychological résumés 4)lag generations behind. The Curse of the Good Girl 5)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 6)modesty, depriving girls of permission to commit to their strengths and goal. 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 7)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 study by Girls, Inc., 74 percent of girls said they were under a lot of pressure to please everyone. Nearly half the girls surveyed said that “girls are told not to 8)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.
The Bad Girl was the picture of female failure, a 9)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 10)outspoken (speaks her mind) and self-possessed (proud), a risk taker (rule breaker), and a 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 11)outcast, an example to Good Girls of what happened when you 12)strayed from the program. Being Bad was social suicide: a big, red F in Girl.
Being Good is a richly rewarded pursuit. Good Girls enjoy social 13)largesse, holding 14)center court in cafeterias and dominating leadership positions at school. Yet many of these overachieving girls learn to succeed by 15)sequestering the most genuine parts of their developing selves. Mia was fourteen, overbooked, and under slept: 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 16)spike in stress levels and psychological crises among girls who, she writes, are “17)prone to becoming 18)estranged from their inner lives...[They] are so busy living up to others’ expectations that they either don’t develop or eventually 19)relinquish their own goals. They are so focused on achieving external 20)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 is 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, 21)circumscribing a girl’s ability to know, express, and accept her most challenging feelings.
Placed 22)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, 23)ruminating self-destructively. Others become explosive, able to 24)articulate little more than anger and frustration. The psychological muscles a girl uses to manage difficult feelings begin to 25)atrophy. Emotional intelligence is compromised, 26)stunting healthy self-expression: the more Good girls try to be, the more they must 27)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 28)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 29)rigged: Good Girls are doomed to fail.