Thoughts On Helping Maggie Avoid “The Good Girl” Path

Something’s been on my mind lately and I wanted to share it here. It’s always helpful for me to use this as a space to connect with you, and to also better organize my thoughts around a topic by typing them out. You know when a theme keeps finding its way into your life and you feel like you need to pay attention to it and dig a little deeper with it? That’s what’s been going on for me.

Let’s rewind to a few days ago when I was listening to an episode of the Armchair Experts podcast (a great one, if you don’t listen yet) featuring Alanis Morisette. (Yes, THAT Alanis Morisette.) I realized during this episode that I knew virtually nothing about Alanis aside from the fact that a) she’s Canadian and b) her album Jagged Little Pill was a BIG deal for me in late elementary and middle school. She mentioned several interesting things, but one thing in particular stuck with me long after the podcast ended.

She talked about how, for her, music was an outlet to explore the feelings and themes she felt she couldn’t openly dig into in her real life. She said people who knew her were surprised when her album came out, because it was so…raw. So vulnerable and confident. But she described herself as a straight A student who worked hard to always be the good girl. And she mentioned that THOSE are the kids she worries about the most (and that we as a culture need to worry about, too). Those kids who often aren’t the cause of worry because they’re the “good kids,” the ones who have their lives together and are on the straight and narrow.

This really made me think, because I was this kind of kid, too. I’ve always been a people pleaser, and nothing makes me happier than feeling like I’m in favor with others. But the problem with that mindset is often it keeps us from developing fully, and it prevents us from really discovering who we are — not just who the world around us wants us to be. It took me a long time (A LONG TIME) to get okay with not always making those around me happy with my choices. But the first step — and this one was so hard, too — was getting to know myself. Who was I, and what did I want my choices to be? I was there, buried beneath this semi-formed version of myself I’d convinced everyone, including myself, was the real me, but it took some uncovering to get to know that true, fully dimensional person.

Then, a couple of days ago, I was watching the replay of a book club meeting with author Alisa Vitti. I loved her book In The Flo, which digs into cycle syncing and the power that comes with it, and so I jumped on the chance to be part of the three-part book club series she’s featuring to dig deeper into her book and all the great information packed in it. But again this theme of kids (girls, in this case) not being the true versions of themselves came up. Alisa shared this quote by Gloria Steinem that I found so powerful:

“Girls are taught to view their bodies as unending projects to work on, whereas boys from a young age are taught to view their bodies as tools to master their environment.” – Gloria Steinem

Whoa, right? As a woman, I can absolutely relate to this feeling about viewing my body as an unending project — one I scrutinize far too much to ever be fair. (Even though I’ve gotten so much better at that, too, it still rears its ugly head sometimes. Despite it feeling so limiting and unproductive, there it is — and I definitely indulge it more often than I’m proud to say.)

Alisa talked about how it’s this societally conditioned phenomenon, to view our bodies as at fault or, in the case of menstruation, gross and dirty, too. And girls and other women often just feed the negativity within this issue by perpetuating the idea that something on us always needs fixing or is shameful. I think about how many conversations I’ve had with other girls/women through the years where we talked negatively about our bodies to one another. I remember one especially influential middle school interaction at a friend’s house where there were lots of girls hanging out and one girl suggested we all go around and share at least one thing we hated about our bodies. And we did. How sad is that? Even sadder was how normal it felt at the time.

And THEN I thought back to a book I read as a late teen, Reviving Ophelia, which I’ve thought about so often since. It’s a powerful book (I actually just ordered a new copy on Amazon so I can re-read it) that explores what happens at this critical point of adolescence for girls. For many, it’s a turning point, and they go from being a vocal, confident kid into a quiet, insecure, body- and identity-conscious preteen. This is when you start seeing girls become hesitant to raise their hand in school even when they know the answer, because they don’t want to seem like know-it-alls or pushy, or draw unwanted attention to themselves. That absolutely happened to me, too.

It’s all so intertwined, this stuff we feel about our bodies which shapes the way we feel about ourselves, coupled with the intense need to feel validation — to fit in or to do the right thing. (It comes to life differently for different girls, but it’s often coming from the same place.) And all these things hinder us from getting to know ourselves — what WE really enjoy, who WE really are, what WE really want to do with our time and with our lives. So, if you’re like me, you hit your early 20s and realize you don’t know much about the person who inhabits your body. (You DO know you don’t like your body much at all, which of course has been part of the issue all along.) But who’s this person inside, and what in the world is her life going to look like?

In re-reading this post so far just now, I realize this sounds so sad. I also know it isn’t everyone’s experience. If you’re a woman reading this and can’t really relate, I’m so happy for you! I know many girls escape this trap, and are able to hang onto their true selves through this tumultuous adolescent season in a way I wasn’t able to. By doing so, they are much less stunted and much more confident on the other side.

Do I like the person I am today? I do. Do I feel like I know her? You know, I really do. I like her, too! All of this took work. Lots of it.

But the reason I’ve been thinking about this theme so much since hearing Alanis a few days ago is because I’m the mother to a daughter. In fact, this whole journey I experienced is what made me terrified to become the mother to a little girl. I was so scared she would experience what I had. I still am.

And I’m not entirely sure what to do with that worry. I was raised in a loving home where there was never any body shaming or comments made about weight. We were always told we, as girls, could do anything we wanted to do. There was some pressure to “be good,” which I think fed my already inherent push toward perfectionism. But mostly it had to have been cultural messages I received outside the home, combined with my wiring and the way I viewed the world around me and myself.

So the question is, how do you work to keep that from being your own child’s reality?

I already see a tendency in Maggie to want to do the right thing — the perfect thing — whenever possible. It’s so endearing and sweet, and yet sometimes when I witness it I feel a catch in my throat, because it feels so familiar and urgent. I KNOW that desire to get someone’s approval. To feel like the good girl.

And so one of my goals as a parent is to make sure she experiences an environment at home that’s not rooted in perfectionism, or about expectations that she look or be or act a certain way. Sure, we’ll have rules and it will be important to be polite and kind to others, but beyond that I want to give her lots of space to explore who she is. I want her to know that person WELL, and I want that relationship with herself to continue beyond her early years and elementary school and into middle school and beyond.

Will she struggle with things? She absolutely will. That’s part of being human, and that’s part of growing up. (And I’m sure she’ll struggle with things I never saw coming, because I’ll be so busy looking for this stuff! That’s a topic for another post…) But it’s my hope that those struggles can be more productive when it comes to discovering who she is, and feeling confident about that person.

If you have any thoughts or tips about this topic and also about parenting with this topic in mind, I am so very open to them! Like I said, I’m excited to re-read Reviving Ophelia as an adult, and know I’ll see things in that book differently from this perspective than when I was 17.

This parenting thing is hard, huh? One of the challenging things about it for me is how it brings up your own past and forces you to really face it head on. Of course, many of those memories from the past are good ones, so the reliving of those is fun and nostalgic. The struggles, though? Not so much. The best I can do is a) remember that all those struggles helped ultimately shape me into the person I am today, and I like her a lot and b) use those past experiences of mine to inform the way I parent. I’ll absolutely make mistakes, but I hope to be able to say I did my best in this role.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts On Helping Maggie Avoid “The Good Girl” Path

  1. Hey Anna
    I struggled with the same thing especially when Sarah’s grandmother would question what she was eating because she shouldn’t ruin her figure. That made me really angry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Sarah now at 22 has said that the best thing that Greg and I did as parents was to allow her to form her own opinion after providing her the facts (based on her age) and debated her point of view. She knew we didn’t always agree with her opinion but if she could give a reasonable reason or reasons why we respected her opinion. I have always told her that no matter what others say about her outside it is always what is on the inside and how she treats others that matters the most.

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