For as long as I can remember, I have been the stereotypical “good girl.” No matter where I go, this has been a title I have been nicknamed. Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment, but sometimes it’s meant as an insult. I’m not embarrassed by this; in fact, it’s something that I usually take pride in, however, it comes at a cost: an immense amount of pressure, most of it self-inflicted.
Rachel Simmons, psychologist and author, released a book a couple years ago called The Curse of the Good Girl. In her book, she conducted many surveys and interviews that would help her understand the young adult population’s perception of the stereotypical good girl. Simmons listed her results as following:
I began asking largely middle-class groups of girls to describe how society expected a Good Girl to look and act. Here is a sample response:
- Blue eyes
- Little girl
- Good grades
- No opinions on things
- Well rounded
- Has to do everything right
- Doesn’t show skin
- High expectations
- Tons of friends
- Natural hair
- Always busy
- Speaks well
- Follows the rules
- Doesn’t get mad
- Perfect attendance
- Façade never cracks
- People pleaser
I have been teased or labeled with almost every trait on this list. Some of these things don’t seem like a problem, but I have a confession to make: it comes with an immense amount of pressure.
Simmons goes on to describe this “good girl,” saying:
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), toed the line (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 quiet; smart with no opinions on things; intelligent but a follower; popular but quiet. She would be something, but not too much.
As a person who always strives to improve (mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, socially), I have often fallen into the trap of attempting perfection, which always ends in failure. I know that some of the image I have is self-inflicted. If I am typically happy, people will expect me to be happy when they see me. If I am typically enthusiastic (my frequent happy dancing assists this notion), people will expect me to be enthusiastic when they share news with me.
Even though some of these traits are positive, they are sometimes difficult to maintain on a daily basis. In order to make people happy, I sometimes face the pressure of painting on a happy face and a people pleaser attitude in order to stay consistent with the expectations connected to my image.
During my Christmas break last year, I woke up one morning and put on a sweatshirt and yoga pants rather than my usual dress or skirt; one of my family members asked me if I was feeling okay, and my dog, not recognizing me at first, barked at me. I found this to be comical, but it reinforced the concept of image consistency.
You see, no matter what image you have, people expect you to remain true to it. At the end of my internship this summer, the general manager at WOODTV summarized the idea of personal branding in a very clever way. She described our public image like our favorite meal at a restaurant; even though we could choose to try something different, we always order the same thing, because we find comfort in consistency–we always know what to expect, and this is comforting to us in a world that seems to be constantly shifting and changing.
When we break the expectations that others have for our behavior, people can become upset. One day, when I was sitting in my math class in high school, the boy to my left gasped; “Kelly! You have a piercing all the way up at the top of your ear?” he pointed at my cartilage piercing with shock and dismay. I laughed and shrugged, “Yeah, so?” He surveyed me curiously, “It’s just, you’re a good girl, good girls aren’t supposed to have piercings like that.” One of my other classmates stood up at his desk; “Don’t put her in a box!” I find this entire scenario to be incredibly comical, because it’s a pretty accurate description of my life. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that everyone around me is happy; sometimes when I break their expectations, they are thrown for a loop, and they don’t really know how to respond.
The pressure of expectations is never easy to juggle. Sometimes people want to see you fit the image they have of you, and other times, they want to see you shatter it. One day during high school, my teacher stepped out of the room for a few minutes, and one of my classmates called across the classroom, “Hey Kelly, are you going to start partying in college?” I looked at him, caught off-guard by the forward question. “No, I don’t really want to, so I don’t plan on it,” I smiled, trying to appear confident, but internally wishing I could borrow Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak (and not for the purpose of making a fashion statement!). “I don’t think so. I think you’re going to go crazy in college; that’s what happens to the good girls, they are good for too long, and then when they hit college, they finally snap—they turn into party animals.” I tried to hold my head high, but my face was becoming closer to the shade of a strawberry with every second that he stared at me. “I mean, that works for some people, but that’s not really my style. I’m just not interested.” If that wasn’t bad enough, he proceeded to ask the boys around me, “Who thinks that Kelly will turn into a party animal in college?”
You see, some people want to see you break the image you have, so there is a pressure to remain true to who you are, while staying genuine. Sometimes it is hard for me to know how to be a genuine person when I don’t always feel like acting on the values or behaviors that I believe in. Sometimes I smile at my professor and accept a grade I am unhappy with when I would rather rip my paper in half. Sometimes I let people borrow my mugs even though I would really rather that they don’t touch them. Why? Because I want people to be happy, and I want them to like me.
I feel unable to argue with others, or voice my opinion about something, even when I am uncomfortable, because I don’t want to break the harmony or create controversy, so instead, I back away and avoid any form of confrontation, hoping that eventually things will fall back into place. Sometimes I’m like one of those kindergarteners playing hide-and-go-seek; thinking that maybe, just maybe if they cover their eyes with their soft, pudgy hands, no one will find them. Maybe they will win the game if they cover their own eyes and internally shut out their opponents.
Being a “good girl” comes with a lot of pressure to be well-behaved, kind, generous, modest, enthusiastic, polite, and friendly at all times, and frankly, it’s very unrealistic. Why do I pursue this perfection?
Maybe it’s part of being the oldest; I want to be a good role model for my siblings, a good daughter for my parents, when in reality, there are many ways that they are far more talented and mature than I am. I struggle with the disorganization and lack of focus that comes along with ADD, while my brother is a D1 lineman at Northwestern, and one of the most morally upright, disciplined, and organized people I know. My sister is the most beautiful, spunky, hilarious, and intelligent girl I know. My youngest sibling has more social ease in his left pinky than I have in my whole body. The oldest kids are supposed to put the team on their backs, but often times, I feel like my younger siblings have more to offer than I do.
Or maybe the pressure for perfection is part of being a Christian; I want to live a life that matches the example of the one who died to give me life. I’m like a little girl following her dad in a blizzard, desperately trying to hop across the snow into his snowy footsteps, but never being able to leap the necessary strides to land in his prints.
However, this is not the life that God called me to live. I have been feeling a lot of this pressure quite recently; pressure to stay in shape, pressure to get good grades, pressure to be kind to those around me, pressure to dress well, pressure to have flourishing relationships, pressure fulfill expectations without disappointing those that I care about, pressure to get more internships, pressure to be well-liked and admired by my professors and peers. It seems as if the more pressure I put on myself to be perfect, the more I fall short. After all, the little girl who can’t jump far enough to land in her Father’s footsteps ends up with a face full of snow; a wake up call that will leave you cold both literally and metaphorically. Just this week, things started to pile up.
My room looked like it was hit by a tropical storm, a flurry of half-read books and half-written stories littered my floor. My homework was piling up. My attitude was negative, and I took my stress out on my family. My car was running on empty, and in a way, so was I. As I drove back to my duplex after an argument with a family member, a song filled my speakers:
Spent today in a conversation
In the mirror face to face with
somebody less than perfect
I wouldn’t choose me first if
I was looking for a champion
In fact I’d understand if
You picked everyone before me
But that’s just not my story
True to who You are
You saw my heart
Something out of nothing
I don’t need my name in lights
I’m famous in my Father’s eyes
Make no mistake
He knows my name
I’m not living for applause
I’m already so adored
It’s all His stage
He knows my name oh, oh,
He knows my name oh, oh
I’m not meant to just stay quiet
I’m meant to be a lion
I’ll roar beyond a song
With every moment that I’ve got
True to who You are
You saw my heart
Something out of nothing
I parked in the driveway in front of my duplex and listened to this song until it stopped playing, and I prayed. I prayed that I could escape the pressure of perfection. You see, when we attempt to live our lives as perfect people, we will only be disappointed by our flaws. I am a flawed being. I yell at my sister (one time, I even punched her in the face on Christmas, but that’s a different story for another time), I snap at my mom, I compare myself to others, I complain about people who irritate me; and yet, I am unconditionally loved by Jesus Christ.
The man who lived a life without a single flaw died a painful, brutal, awful death so that He could rescue me from my messy, broken ways. Perfection is an unattainable goal. No one has ever reached perfection except for our Savior. I have come to accept that I will never be perfect, but I worship a Savior who is, and for that, I am eternally grateful.