This originally appeared on The Daily Life. Republished here with permission.
Every time I praise my daughter for being a “good girl,” I cringe inside. It falls out of my mouth without thinking, as if it’s the highest praise that can be bestowed upon a girl.
But it’s not. It’s a curse and it has the potential to follow her throughout her life.
Good girls live by the unwritten expectation that they must be compliant and self-sacrificing to be of value—especially if they’re not hot enough to provide the world with eye candy.
Good girls grow up believing that their needs, feelings, and goals are secondary to those of others. They’re compliant, modest, non-confrontational, people-pleasing perfectionists.
All too often they grow into good wives who carry the burden of domestic work without complaint, good employees who don’t speak up in meetings for fear of offending that loudmouth guy from sales, and good mothers who can’t attend to their own needs without feelings of guilt and self-recrimination.
The curse of the Good Girl is a standard of behavior that is only applied to women.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for empathy, generosity, and kindness. But being a Good Girl isn’t about basic human decency.
It’s about inauthenticity and inequality. It’s about forcing girls and women into a mold of sweetness and light where they must repress their needs and bite their tongues in order to be perpetually “nice.”
Around about now, the apologists for the Good Girl Curse are saying that it’s all individual choice: If serving others makes you feel good, then you should do it. “Don’t listen to those nasty men-hating feminist-types,” they’ll say. “They just want to turn all women into loud-mouthed bitches who use #destroythejoint in their tweets.”
But how much of a choice is it when the Good Girl Curse is reinforced from every aspect of our culture? Take, for example the seemingly harmless kids book, The Very Cranky Bear by Australian author Nick Bland.
It’s a story of four animal friends who try to cheer up a grumpy bear. When all else fails, the sheep—a girl who is described several times in the story as being “plain”—shaves off some of her wool to make a pillow so the bear can have a comfortable sleep.
The story concludes with everybody being happy—the bear, because it can sleep, and the four friends who no longer have to deal with the bear’s bad temper.
The Very Cranky Bear is a kind of manual for becoming a Good Girl. Not only is the male bear allowed to be angry, his anger is also indulged and appeased. And it’s a girl—in the form of the sheep—who gives up a part of herself to make the bear happy and is rewarded for her sacrifice by becoming the hero of the story.
On first reading, it comes across as a charming children’s book because the good girl has become so natural in our culture that we barely notice it.
This is exactly how the curse of the Good Girl is perpetuated. Just like the sheep, girls—and women—are praised for their selflessness, which in turn reinforces their compliance.
Girls who fail to comply are routinely labeled bitches, sluts, selfish, rude, loud, boastful, and unfeminine.
But the price of compliance with the Good Girl code may be even higher than the social rejection from noncompliance.
As author Kate Figes notes in the Sydney Morning Herald, “girls are still socialized to be good and enabling of others, rather than competitive and capable of achieving their own dreams.”
Figes continues: “The distress of young girls is clearly visible in the rising rates of mental health problems, binge drinking, eating disorders, and the rampant growth of bullying in our schools.”
As author and co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, Rachel Simmons says we need to exorcise the Good Girl curse and its opposite—”Bad Girls”—along with it and allow our girls to be “Real Girls.” Girls need to be encouraged to value their own needs and feelings and unlearn the belief that it is their role in life to make sure everybody else is happy.
“Plain” sheep do not have to give up the wool off their own backs to be valued, and angry bears can sort their own shit out.
Kasey Edwards is a writer based in Australia and author of 30-Something And Over It. You can follow her on Twitter here.