Saturday, December 19, 2009

Book Review: The Curse of the Good Girl, by Rachel Simmons

The Curse of the Good Girl, by Rachel Simmons

I got turned down for a job this week.

One that was oh-so-close within my grasp, that I would have liked, that I would have been damn good at, and one that would have cut my commute to 40 minutes each way instead of an hour and 40 minutes each way. I even had a dream, several weeks before I saw the position announcement, where I had to change offices ... and the office in my dream was literally, exactly, the office I would have had. It was meant to be. This job was mine.

Or ...not. As a result, this week I've grown a little older, grown a little sadder, and grown a little colder. And because I am my own worst critic, the running monologue in my head has sounded something like this:

"I'll never get a job in this state. I'm obviously doing something wrong. I should probably consider a career change, because I clearly know nothing about this profession [the same one that I've spent 18 years in]. They probably picked someone younger, with better teeth, who remembered to paint their fucking nails before the interview, who was better connected, who isn't so obviously cursed."

Cursed. In a sense, that I am.

I don't normally have such mental beratings (or, as author Rachel Simmons calls it in The Curse of the Good Girl, the CFOV - the "Crazy Freak Out Voice") in my head. I'm usually a very confident, self-assured type of person. I know that I am good at what I do. (I'm not perfect, I don't know everything, but I do know this profession.) I know I did my best in all three interviews for this job.

But reading Rachel Simmons' The Curse of the Good Girl this week, with this experience as a backdrop, has given me a different perspective. Is it possible that that former Good Girl still lurks dormant? That even though we may have overcome the middle school mentalities of old it doesn't take much for self-bashing monologues like mine to bubble to the surface and overflow within, selling our accomplishments and abilities short?

That would be a yes.

In The Curse of the Good Girl, which I found incredibly well-written, informative and enlightening, Rachel Simmons draws from her experience as founder of the Girls Leadership Institute and her extensive work with tween and teenage girls. In explaining this phenomenon, she writes that

"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." (pg. 3)
It begins with society's perception of what a good girl is - a little blue eyed girl who is quiet, has no opinions on things (but speaks well), does everything right, is popular and wealthy, organized and intelligent, has a boyfriend and tons of friends, a Barbie with natural hair who doesn't show any skin. (This is from a list of qualities of a Good Girl, as listed on pg. 2.)

By striving for these impossible and unrealistic qualities, girls fall into life-long patterns of behavior where they begin to do things like end their sentences with questions? Because they aren't confident of their thoughts and ideas?

The first part of The Curse of the Good Girl examines how these thought patterns come to fruition and how they impact girls in school, with their relationships among peers, and their interactions with teachers and coaches.

"It's a story that needs telling: when girls can't handle criticism, it affects how teachers and coaches talk to them. Fragile girls get less specific feedback, and more sugarcoating, so they get fewer chances to improve their performance. Skin stays thin. Discomfort with criticism is, by extension, discomfort with being wrong, which can lead girls to play it safe, avoiding situations where risk is required and failure is possible. Girls may shy away from situations that aren't a sure thing, hewing carefully to the areas where they know they can do well." (pg. 76)
As parents, we want to make things perfect for our kids, to fix their problems. We see this with parents who have their kids' teachers on speed dial, and don't hesitate to come to the defense whenever a child has, in their perception, been wronged. But in doing so, Simmons states that we are doing our children a disservice, and in fact, changing our responses can be the best gift we can give our girls. On page 90, she writes:

"You have a tough choice when it comes to helping your child deal with misfortune. You can solve the problem of hard-to-hear feedback by fighting with the teacher or undermining the coach, giving you the immediate, short-term satisfaction of alleviating your child's pain. But you risk paying a long-term cost - raising a child who can't cope with criticism on her own. I won't make any bones about it: the alternative is much harder. Remaining compassionate while letting a child's pain run its course can be excruciating, especially if you're worried that a coach's benching her or a low grade will endanger her eligibility for a reward. But you collect your reward later in the form of a daughter who knows her limits and therfore understands, in a real, lived way, that mistakes do not define her potential or her self. Success is built on a paradox: the more concerned about failing we become, the less we are able to achieve." (pg. 90)
At first, I thought the second part of The Curse of the Good Girl - where Simmons discusses mothers' roles in all this - would be yet another mom-bashing diatribe, a slap in the face to us for causing our daughters to have such a complex. Refreshingly, it's not that at all. Instead, Simmons tells us that
"[m]others are constrained by rules similar to the ones that bind their daughters. Just as the terms of being a Good Girl undermine a girl's potential, the pressure to be a Good Mother can limit a woman's ability to set the right example for her daughter." (pg. 109)
Amen to that. Ever been in a conversation - at school, at a birthday party, during a playdate - with one of those Good Mothers? I sure as hell have, and it's probably (in fact, it is) the reason why I am always somewhat uncomfortable in social situations with other moms. I'm always feeling like the Misfit Toy, either because I work full-time and can't relate to the uber-volunteering school moms or because I refuse to shuffle and chauffeur my kids to sports and dance and karate and whatever else. Most likely, I'm failing my kids in some critical regard by not doing these things.
"Nearly every mother I meet want to know what she can do to empower her daughter. Almost all expect suggestions for their girls: join a team, volunteer, pursue a cause. But the best thing a mother can do for her daughter is be herself, with all the challenges that being real entails. Being real means taking up space and having needs; it means drawing the line and saying no. Being real means walking into every room as the same woman, whether you're in a conference room or a family room ..... Any kind of authenticity begins with self-awareness: to be yourself you have to know who that is. 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 the authority to live by her own." (pg. 123-124).
It begins with us, and our own emotional intelligence. I thought of this as I talked with Betty about my not getting the much-hoped for job. (Her Girl Scout troop is actually doing a project with the organization that didn't hire me, so she knew I was talking with them about working there.)

"You know, I didn't get that job," I told her.

In her characteristic dramatic way, she gasped.

"They didn't want you to work for them?"

"No, I guess not. But it's OK because I have a job, and I'm lucky that I have a job. I'll try again someplace else. It's a disappointment, but you know, Betty, you can't always get what you want."

She looked at me.

"Not everybody is always going to like you, and you know what? That's OK."

And you know what? It is.

Take that, Good Girl.

I read this book, which I got from the library, as part of my participation in the Women Unbound reading challenge. (Yay! My first book completed for that challenge!)

What Other Bloggers Had to Say:

A Striped Armchair
She is Too Fond of Books (which is where I first learned of this book ... thanks, Dawn!)


Zee said...

As someone who struggles with being a "Good Girl" I now want to go out and read this book right away. It sounds great. Thank you.

Susan said...

I'm so sorry you didn't get that job, Melissa. I know that would make life so much easier on so many counts, to work closer to home. I don't know how you've managed to go on so long at such a distance. You are an amazing woman, and mom :-). I'm glad you are my friend.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Every review I've read about this book is wonderful. And it has such an important message! I really have to get this one!

Jodie said...

This sounds fantastic. I read the other reviews you linked to and now I wonder if there might be a book out there with advice for those of us without kids who have these kind of traits.

Florinda said...

I'm sorry you didn't get the new job, Melissa...better luck next time. I've been there myself, and we never know exactly how these decisions are made - I have to remind myself that it was a choice FOR someone else, not necessarily AGAINST me.

And I'm thinking that I really should read this book. Congratulations on getting your Women Unbound Challenge reading underway!

Rachel Simmons said...

Hi Melissa, this was such an inspiring review for me to read. Thank you for taking the time to review the book. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing the work in action. I think you handled the job thing with your daughter pretty terrifically, and hearing those real life lesson from you - that you can't always get what you want, that not everyone will like you - is invaluable. Happy holidays!

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Rachel - it is such an honor to have you comment here! If you're seeing this, thank you so much. I'm so glad you were pleased with the review!

Zee - I think you'd like this one!

Susan - Thank you. As we've said (written :) before, things happen for a reason. And I am so glad you are my friend, too.

Rhapsody - You're right, the message is all too important. I think you will like this one, too.

Jodie - I think this is applicable to all women - with kids or without. Definitely give it a try!

Florinda - that's a good way of looking at the situation ... thank you!

All ... happy New Year!

K A B L O O E Y said...

Man, am I ever late to this party, but thanks for the link back to this review. I love Rachel Simmons' work and have to get this book. And how wonderful that she responded on your blog. Now, on to order that book...