The Curse of the Good Girl

The Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons opens with this:

“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, nice, polite, modest, and selfless diminishes girl’s 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 lifespan stunting the growth of skills habits essential for becoming a strong woman.

“A survey was conducted in high schools of middle class America about how society expected a good girl to behave. These were the most commonly used adjectives:

blue eyes, little girl, perfect, quite, sheltered, good grades, studies, no opinions on things, well rounded, follower, preppy, has to do everything right, doesn’t show skin, high expectations, honorable, tons of friends, polite, enthusiastic, generous, kind, boyfriend, intelligent, conservative, popular, wealthy, athletic, natural hair, listens, honest, respectful, always busy, organized, flirtatious, skinny, speaks well, follows the rules, doesn’t get mad, healthy, Barbie, confident, perfect attendance, people pleaser.

“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, 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 modest, smart with no opinions on things, intelligent but a follower, popular but quiet, she would be something…but not too much.”

I don’t know about you, but I was raised to be a good girl. A very good girl. In addition to these ideas, my religious upbringing had a lot to add to the mix. It told me that most of all, to be good, you should be modest, chaste, and virginal. Good girls are virgins. Good girls are chaste. Good girls don’t show cleavage. Good girls only have sex within the confines of marriage. Good girls get married; they don’t stay single. Good girls believe in marriage. Good girls want to have children. Good girls wait until their wedding night. Good girls smile and shine in church callings. Good girls don’t get sexually frustrated. Good girls believe that all blessings they don’t have right now will be given to them in the afterlife. Good girls endure to the end.

According to this definition, I am no longer a good girl. I was, up until three years ago when I decided that I no longer wanted to be a “good” girl. Being a good girl was killing me. It was destroying me. It made me miserable. In fact, it wasn’t me at all. I was bad. I wanted sex. I didn’t want babies. I didn’t want marriage. I had other dreams. I liked showing my cleavage, I had opinions, I voiced my concerns, I decided I no longer wanted to be a people pleaser.

That was hard. That broke my mother’s heart. That threw my world into a whirlwind of strife and unsteadiness I had never known before. At the Counterpoint Conference last October, I was asked to speak on a panel titled,  “How Sex Impacts Mormon Women’s Lives.” That, however, didn’t sound quite right to me. Sex isn’t some live being out there waiting to pounce on Mormon women for good or for evil. I kept reading it, “How being a Mormon woman impacts my sexuality.” Because, for many of us, the idea of sex alone is something that opens up a whirlwind of emotions. We see so many portrayals of it. I think we all have a good idea, at least by Hollywood standards, what GOOD sex is supposed to look like, how often it is supposed to happen, and what positions are acceptable, and who we can do it with. That is sex. But what about sexuality? What is that? Our sexuality is the strongest drive after the need for food, and yet, I denied myself ANY part of that drive for thirty years. I never even allowed myself to ask certain questions or discover certain things. Who we are sexually is a large part of who we are as individuals, as human. Sexuality is not a dirty word. When we think of our sexuality, we should not immediately think of a list of what we can do and what we can’t do to remain sinless—like we do with sex. Discovering our sexuality should not be a sin.  But, do most LDS women believe that it is?

Stella

I’m an artist, writer, photographer, feminist, listener, lover, and a fighter. I believe that travel is fatal to prejudice, that skies are meant to be blue, and that the world is full of endless possibilities.

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40 Responses

  1. jks says:

    Discovering sexuality past a certain point is a sin unless you are married. I guess it is a benefit to earlier marriage. Marriage isn’t the end of finding yourself. Marriage opens up a world of finding yourself in many ways.
    I have read a lot of The Curse of the Good Girl. It mostly isn’t about sex. It suffers from what many books suffer from. It goes on and on and on and on. I am quite sure it could say it better in 1/3 the number of pages but they want to make it a whole book length so they take too long to make each point. A little frustrating.

  2. Stella says:

    So, if you don’t get married…then should part of yourself just never be found?

  3. ESO says:

    Do you suppose anyone ever “finds” all of themselves? I agree that, without marriage, part of you will never be found. I am not talking about sex, either. Without the opportunity to parent, part of you will never be found. Without mastering an instrument (or all instruments), part of you will never be found. Without joining a convent, part of you will never be found. Without learning another language (heck, all other languages), part of you will never be found. Without flying a plane, part of you will never be found. Without perfecting the chocolate chip cookie, part of you will never be found. Without skinny dipping, part of you will never be found. Without walking the equator, part of you will never be found.

    No one who ever lived or ever will will experience everything there is to experience, so no one will “find” all of themselves. Big whoop. That’s life. Prioritize and decide which parts of yourself you can’t live without and make sure you find all of those parts.

  4. jks says:

    Yes. And if you don’t become a mother another part of yourself is never explored either.
    Sex is about marriage and creating a family. Outside of marriage it is wrong, according to the beliefs of my church and I believe that too.
    Our society sells sex as something that it shouldn’t be and really isn’t.

    • Stella says:

      jks, the point of this article is that there IS a major difference between sex and a person’s sexuality. I think it would be awesome to develop ways that we can satisfy our sexuality within the guidelines of religion (and it’s my church too, by the way).

      The fact that so many women want to chalk all of this up as sin when it can be as easy as taking a dance class or learning how to open your chakras is beyond me and shows me that this discussion is more than needed, it is necessary.

  5. Stella says:

    But what about Sexuality? I mean, I was hoping we could get deeper than simple sex and masturbation talks here. I think that these have been done and we each have our own ideas about what constitutes a sin in those categories…

    BUT WHAT ABOUT SEXUALITY? What is that, how do you find it, how do you develop it? These are the parts of our culture (and not just religious culture) that I think are lacking.

    I’d love some ideas about how each of you define your sexuality.

  6. Heather says:

    One of the biggest problems I have with feminism is that it places all the blame for a woman’s psyche on outside sources. Which, in my opinion, is a very low opinion to have of women. Are women so weak that their existence is completely controlled by forces outside of who she is? Why not stand up, square your shoulders and say that a woman’s existence is her own creation? Why not believe that we each have control over what affects us? Why not believe that we make our own ways in the world?

    I have never felt pressured to be anything other than what I am. I’ve never felt some covert force in society trying to shut me up. When I point this out I get the retort, “Well, others are not as bull-headed as you are.” My response to that is in that case those women and girls are STILL creating their own lives. They are choosing to let other people have control over who they become instead of taking control of their own existences.

    Instead of bemoaning the messages that are supposedly sent to us from the world, why not focus on taking responsibility for our own existence?

    • Stella says:

      I think we absolutely reach that point (hopefully!) in our twenties. But, as a high school teacher, I see many girls who fit this mold exactly. How can we help younger girls be more like you?

      • Heather says:

        Honestly, I don’t think there is anything to be done. I think when people are young they are impressionable and susceptible to outside influence. (Just like you said, we grow out of it.) For some reason this fact about girls gets special attention while it’s completely ignored in regard to boys. Just as many messages are fed to boys about what they should be. Which is exactly the point. Feminists insist that girls are somehow victims of their environment. Based upon the reasoning that take feminists to conclusions like the ones on this blog, are not boys also victims? Perhaps it’s not a matter of young people being victims — either males or females. Perhaps it’s just the universal story of adolescence and not some problem in our culture that must be “solved”.

      • Starfoxy says:

        Heather, boys and girls both are victims of damaging things shoved down their throats in childhood. The things fed to boys, however, are somewhat less damaging and more conducive to becoming a self-actualizing adult.
        That you accuse feminists of ignoring the negative messages fed to boys makes me think you have gotten most of your information about feminists from anti-feminist sources.

      • Heather says:

        Actually, no, Starfoxy, I haven’t. I don’t even know what anti-feminist information might be out there because I haven’t gone looking for it. My reactions to (modern) feminism are my own. I found myself interested in what goes on with feminists because I have issues with some things that go on in church. For example, I chose to forgo temple marriage because of the implications of polygamy and having to vow to obey, etc. Originally I thought I’d find a home in the feminist camp. But I didn’t.

        Why is it so impossible for (modern) feminists to accept women who don’t agree with them? The few times I’ve voiced my dissenting opinion on these LDS feminist blogs I’m told that I’m ignorant, happy in my gilded cage, or being fed lies by outside sources. It’s yet another example of how (modern) feminists view women as some sort of empty vessel that is filled with things from the outside rather than sentient human beings who think for themselves and make their own choices.

        I, on the other hand, don’t have such negative opinions of women. I don’t think they’re victims. I don’t think they get their opinions from someone else or somewhere else. I don’t automatically assume that if a woman does something it’s in response to some sort of outside stimuli.

        I have a lot of respect for what I see as real feminism — ie the fight of people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Also, I was so incredibly moved by the movie Iron Jawed Angels that I sought out and devoured information about women like Alice Paul.

        But I have never identified with modern feminism. I rarely read things on these LDS feminist websites that I agree with. For the most part, it seems to me that modern feminism is not much more than women assuming a victim mentality. Here is a perfect example: when wards started banning food in Sacrament Meeting, feminists started screaming that it was a message that, to those awful chicken patriarchs, child-rearing (and thus motherhood and women) are dirty and should be shunned. When, to me, it seemed more like a message that people are disrespectful and irresponsible slobs who have left the church in such a shambles that something had to be done. Instead of taking responsibility, feminists claimed victim-hood.

        I also see a lot of derogatory &/or dismissive treatment of masculinity on the LDS feminist blogs. Fatherhood is only spoken of positively when it’s done they way THEY want it done. Any natural male tendency toward confidence or leadership seen in young boys is castigated as oppression in the making. Any natural differences between men and women are disregarded as cultural constructs. Boys are being trained up to oppress and girls are being trained up to accept it. I don’t see it. I never have. I DO see certain behaviors that differ between males and females and I have my own explanations for them that are based on my education in biology, my experiences in life, and interesting philosophical debates I have with friends and family.

        To sum up my extremely long-winded response: No, I haven’t been imbibing anti-feminist rhetoric, but it doesn’t surprise me that you would assume so.

    • Alisa says:

      I hear you, Heather, but I disagree we’re not covering the topics you think we should.

      I recently posted about how being a feminist makes me deeply concerned for messages we send to boys: http://www.the-exponent.com/2010/05/13/as-a-mother-i-question-male-spiritual-disadvantages/

      And as for feminists taking more responsibility for our lives and communities, Caroline published this excellent piece yesterday: http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/We-Are-Responsible-for-Asking-the-Questions.html

  7. SilverRain says:

    I think the biggest problem with the “good girl” image is the “no opinion” aspect, followed closely by perfectionism. Opinions make up far more of who I am than what I eat or my sexuality.

  8. Janna says:

    Stella, I want to just weep reading your paragraph ending in, “Good girls endure to the end.” That says it all for me, and it’s really painful. Thanks for putting words to it.

    Will get back with another comment about sexuality later.

  9. Rebecca says:

    I have mixed feelings about how the so-called good girl is defined. I find descriptors like quiet, follower, compliant, agreeable, no opinion to be disturbing. On the other hand, I like the idea of girls who are confident, smart, kind, honorable, have high expectations, are academically successful, honest, friendly, and enthusiastic. I suppose I’ll hope to raise a daughter who defines her goodness by descriptors along the lines of the second list, with an emphasis on kindness and integrity.

    In my own life, I have to say that thinking of myself as a good girl tended to be more of a positive. Most of my close friends in high school were sexually active. My mom and I had some frank discussions about it and she always reinforced the fact that I had set high goals for my education and teenage pregnancy could derail that. She told me I was “too smart to get into that kind of situation” and I internalized it. Those high expectations protected me more than any Mormon guilt. I was popular in high school and ran with a fairly fast crowd. My reputation as a good girl was a protection more than anything else.

    Stella – I know you are trying to address how the good girl idea can effect adult women and their image of themselves as a sexual being. I’m not sure I can add a lot there. I suppose I still think of myself as a good girl who doesn’t flirt with married men, who is loyal to my friends, who tries to do what’s right even though I sometimes fail. I’m still trying to be a good girl. I think of women who are strong, intelligent, along with compassionate as my role models. The world could use more women like that. There is so much more to a woman’s character than her sexuality. I’d suspect that you are still a good girl by my definition. 🙂

    • Stella says:

      I was a good girl too, Rebecca. Absolutely. And I don’t regret it one bit. However, I do feel that it made me shun many things that could have helped me develop more confidence as a woman and in my sexuality. I think there is a way for girls to be good and not be the “good girl” that society forces upon them. I think the definition of “good girl” needs to open up and to change.

  10. jks says:

    I just looked at the book. I couldn’t find the mention of sexuality anywhere.
    I guess you were just wanting to go on a tangent based on the ideas in the book.
    So, I looked up a definition of sexuality because I am not sure what it is you are trying to talk about. Human sexuality is how people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. Well, I believe that when you are 13 like my daughter you can have crushes on the opposite sex but all interaction should be like friendship and close relationships aren’t appropriate. When you are 16 you can date and get to know boys and have closer emotional and physical relationships. When you are an adult your sexuality is about being romantically interested in men and wanting to find a life partner and think about starting a family.
    Not sure what else you mean.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Back to how this relates to adult women and sexuality, for me there are standards or rules of behavior that I will not cross. Since I’m married, adultery would be an example. The expression of my sexuality continues to be kept within certain boundaries. Perhaps to some, they would consider that “not really finding all the parts of myself” either.

    I have no idea what it would be like to be single into my 30’s. Still, there is a foundation for our morality. We get our ideas about “goodness” from our religious, cultural, and familial expectations and norms. If we abandon these ideas for some other path, then we are either adopting another moral code with it’s own definition of “goodness”, or choosing rebellion/hedonism and deciding that we will ignore or reject the morals we have been brought up with. Many people decide that they can’t, or no longer desire to, live up to the standards of their religion or family. I guess you just need to be honest with yourself about what path you are taking.

    None of us is “good” all the time. That just means we are human. We all rebel. That’s very different from saying that none of the rules apply to me (rationalization), or I am making my own rules, or I have adopted another definition of “goodness”, or I don’t believe in “goodness”. Complicated post. Lots to think about.

  12. Caroline says:

    I think we need to raise our girls to not be such pleasers.

    I was a total pleaser. Every project I did in school, every essay I wrote was geared to what I thought the teacher wanted. I bent over backwards to make my teachers happy and never once let my creativity flow or took an interesting approach to an assignment that was a better reflection of me. I rarely volunteered an opinion in class. I even chose my college major largely because I liked a particular prof and wanted to please her.

    Having taught high school for 6 years, I see this pleaser proclivity in both girls and boys, but if I had to generalize, I would say that more often the boys were able to break out of the mold, be outrageous, be creative, be confident, be bold. On average the boys were more sure of themselves. What can we do to help our girls break out of this? I don’t have the answer.

    • Stella says:

      Agreed. It’s the pleasing and stress that comes from that that can really hurt us in the long run….especially in our careers where we try too hard to please and not rock the boat and not stand up for what we should receive and deserve.

    • kmillecam says:

      This really resonates with me because I have always been such a pleaser too. I felt, and still feel, that way about almost anyone I see in an authority position. And then I fight it and it is usually cumbersome and awkward. Sigh. That’s what happens when I grow up being abused, and in a religious tradition that expects me to be a good girl, enduring to the end.

  13. Janna says:

    What comes to my mind when you say, “sexuality” is a scene in the recent Julia Roberts movie Eat, Pray, Love (sorry, forgive me for being so cliche). The main character, Liz, is admiring a beautiful piece of lingerie, and her friend says, “You should get that.” Liz responds, “For whom?” Her friend wisely answers, “For you, Liz.”

    My sexuality is based in feeling sensual and feminine, and sometimes someone else has the privilege of witnessing and experiencing it.

    • Stella says:

      I love that scene. And that’s totally what I am talking about. This doesn’t have to be a heavy sin topic. I think it is as simple as that sometimes.

  14. Caroline says:

    You know what blog discussions of sexuality reinforce for me? That extra-marital sex is a line in the sand for most Mormons. Mormons can consider the Sabbath breaker a Mormon, the swearer, the R-Rated movie watcher, the coffee drinker, the smoker, the irresponsible parent a Mormon. But when it comes to extra-marital sex, if that person isn’t repentant, then there’s often an inclination to distance oneself.

    I read an article in Dialogue once about the Mormon church in Europe. As you can expect, Mormonism doesn’t do too well there. European Mormons were wondering why the church places so much weight on personal sexual behavior rather than other moral questions, like taking good care of the environment or issues of social justice. I think that’s an interesting thing to think about.

  15. Hydrangea says:

    Defining sexuality is tricky. Our definitions seem to alter as we enter each passing phase of life.
    As a youth it was the”beast that needed to be tamed.” In college it was the forbidden fruit that attracted potential mates. In the beginning of my marriage I defined my”sexuality” as my ability to please my partner. This was dangerous.
    Now after 6 years of marriage ‘sexuality’ is more like feeling comfortable with my own, naked, body. It’s appreciating my distinctly feminine features, the pleasure they bring the life they have brought into the world.

  16. bethany says:

    I hear what you’re saying loud and clear. Different women have different levels of sexuality and I think it’s easy for less-physically-sensual women to dismiss the emergence of this aspect of self as less important, or as less-defining. But for those of us with a strong sexual appetite, sexual repression stifles a lot of spiritual strength and energy and can induce depression, frustration, anger and madness! I think the demonization of the lower chakras is one of the most damaging influences of the church. Sex and sexuality are two different things and I think sexuality is a beautiful and powerful source of energy. We need to channel all kinds of energy in healthy ways and sexual energy is no different. Instead of trying to stifle those energies, I think they need healthy expression. Dancing (my favorite venue of expression), wearing lingerie, writing (this method worked for Stefanie Meyers), the way we move and talk are all ways to express sexuality. And biologically a little masterbation is healthy. Sexuality only gets dangerous when we need sexual validation from others.

    And if anyone wants to use church doctrine and the puritanical absolutes as reference. Go research the life of Joseph Smith and his secret polygamous marriages (his 14 year old nanny was his first) in the book “In Sacred Lonliness” before you decide that their spiritual “authority” comes from God.

    • Stella says:

      Bethany, you and I should be friends. This is EXACTLY what I am talking about. I was a little frustrated yesterday because I worried that the post came out as a big SEX post. Which it isn’t (though I don’t shy away from those as we know 🙂 ).

      However, the fact that many of us had to go and get an online definition about what sexuality means is a huge deal in my eyes. It means we don’t, as a majority, really know. I do many of the things you listed, from dance, from some clothes I wear, to writing, to some fantasizing–even the way I decorate my house—the colors I choose all enhance me as an individual, and my sexuality is apart of that.

      • Stella says:

        And I’ve read that book. It astounds me to this day how many LDS people actually believe in fairytales versions of church history instead of in facts. That book changed the way I looked at many of those early people who were excommunicated from the church, like Oliver Cowdrey, not because they had done anything wrong, but because they were able to speak clearly to the fact that Joseph was doing things that were wrong.

      • bethany says:

        consider us friends. 🙂

    • Corktree says:

      Great comment Bethany! I’ll admit, I was in the camp of not really understanding what Stella meant by “sexuality”. Thank you for giving me a new way of looking at it (or the correct way rather). I don’t do this very consciously and I think I would like to. I think it would actually help even in my marriage to embrace my sexuality. Some days I can’t understand how my husband finds me attractive, but when I really try to believe him and act as though I have appeal as a feminine woman, it opens up a whole new view for me, and not just of sex. I never really thought about it this way though or saw the connection.

      I think we all, married and single, need to find our sexuality and enjoy it more. Great discussion.

  17. Stella says:

    Agreed Corktree…and it’s a fine line. Because many girls might immediately think they have to wear make-up or high heels or tweeze and wax. For me, this is sometimes the case and sometimes it isn’t. These things help sometimes, and sometimes (like the last few months) I don’t want any make-up and it forces me to not rely on it to feel feminine or womanly or even sexy.

    • Corktree says:

      This is interesting too. What do we do as women to explore our sexuality outside of sex? Maybe it would make a good poll! 😉

      And I hear you on make up. I used to feel plain without it, but once allowing myself to believe that my husband liked me without it, I’ve come to feel attractive in more authentic, less processed ways.

      And in my other comment I didn’t mean to imply that your explanation wasn’t correct, just that I was dense and wasn’t considering the dictionary definition which I now see you implied. Sad indeed.

  18. Mydearuniverse says:

    I think the emphasis on “correct” sexuality is harmful. As other have mentioned here, different people will find sexual fulfillment in different ways. This discussion has veered in a direction where it sounds like the commenters are looking for the textbook version of sexuality. AND how do I get an “A”? But there is no answers key for sexuality or sex.

    Right now I am eight months pregnant and my libido is at an all time low. However, I will probably feel totally different a year from now. I don’t think there is anything wrong with “pleasing” your partner for the sake of his (or her) gratification as long as there is give and take. There are times when I feel the need for increased sexual attention, and I love it when my partner steps it up for my sake.

    Sex and sexuality isn’t something static or definable in my opinion. Sure I have limits on what I enjoy. But sometimes I’m not sure what I’ll enjoy until I try it. There is no one size fits all answer. Sexuality is not a hat.

    • Corktree says:

      I only meant correct in the context of how Stella was talking about it. Because I was confusing sex with sexuality. I did not mean to imply that there is a correct way to express or even define your own sexuality. Sorry if that came across.

  19. kmillecam says:

    Conflating sex with sexuality is second nature to good girls grown up. I had to think harder than I should have to see what Stella was saying. It’s not impossible to unlearn, it’s just frustrating to me sometimes.

  20. Geoff-A says:

    I think it must be harder for American girls to come to terms with their sexuality because of your cheerleader culture. Having lived in Europe you will have noticed that the only cheerleaders there are professional dancers, and that it is not something high school girls aspire to.

    Girls in most of the world can develop with more mature and less airheaded appearing role models, develop their own strengths and views on their self worth and sexuality.

    I was amazed to find cheerleaders in church colleges because it seemed so inapropriate to the modesty thing. Here are girls held in high esteem and which other girls aspire to emulate whose purpose is to look sexy, dress in short skirts, wear the big hair and jump up and spread their legs when a male achieves something. All done in front of a croud.

    I have 4 daughters and no sons. The first 3 seemed to come to terms with their sexuality quite well and are married. The fourth excels in a male dominated profession ( a senior bomb expert for the federal police with a team she’s trained under her). She treats males as equals, colleagues, buddies, mates. Until recently it was difficult to get her to dress in feminine ways. She is waiting for extreme male chemistry to sweep her away ( within the restriction of who is acceptable to her) I think.

    So yes different ways of dealing with sexuality.

  1. February 13, 2011

    […] are, regardless of whether they ever have or ever will have sexual relations. It has been discussed before the problems that arise when as women we believe that trying to explore or even understand our […]

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