Curse of the Good Girl: Interview with Rachel Simmons

curseAugust 29, 2009 “Aw, mom, it sounds boring, why do I have to hear some ‘expert’ talk about stuff I already know…Are any of MY friends going to be there?”

Those were my ten year old daughter’s words back in 2005 when Rachel Simmons author of “Odd Girl Out” spoke to a sold-out crowd  giving us insights on girl culture, relational aggression, and coping tips for navigating preteen puberty angst.

Yes, I ‘made her’ go, as Rachel Simmons was in San Mateo hosted by our local hospital and Bay Area Parent magazine and I’d already seen enough of those ‘Can I sit with you?’ (Stormy Social Seas of the Schoolyard) moments on my weekly lunch shift at the elementary school where I was doing recon for my documentary, Body Blitz: Media, Shaping Youth.

Circumspect media gal that I am, I always take a ‘wait and see’ approach to ‘experts’ and parenting pundits, no matter how many credentialed letters follow their name. (or research chops and Rhodes scholar accolades like Rachel Simmons’ bio)

When we arrived that night of the “Odd Girl Out” anti-bullying talk we weren’t sure what to expect, our eyeballs scanned the room for ‘frenemies’ and ‘mean girls’ in a tense, silent assessment of the audience…as if to say, “who will show up here, the bullied or the bullies?” The mother-daughter synergy was palpable.

Rachel Simmons grabbed the girls’ attention from the get-go like a ‘BFF’ who’d ‘been there, done that’ so it gave us all an exhale that this was going to be a night of raw and real candor,  not a bunch of platitudes. We listened, we learned, we laughed and we squirmed…And I recall the irony of feeling outnumbered by the predominance of “power moms,” my own living evidence that ‘girl culture’ extends far beyond adolescence.

The room was thick with leaders and PTA muckymucks and caring, concerned adults, yet there was a pervasive vibe that was giving me the heebeejeebies that I couldn’t quite tap into…Now…Rachel Simmons’ newest book, “The Curse of the Good Girl” nails it.

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Rachel Simmons takes the sharks and minnows sociology of her prior books and deep dives to a new level of the psyche with another decade of research under her belt, describing how girls are taught to accept an artificial and very limited version of selfhood that’s “unerringly polite, nice, modest, selfless;” diminishing girls’ potential, and so narrowly defined it’s unachievable.

That pretty much describes the sense of hollow perfection I was witnessing  in the auditorium.

It wasn’t a falseness in the Desperate Housewives meets Gossip Girl superficial type of drama, it was more of a disquieting undercurrent of ‘too many good girls’ under one roof.

As I mentioned in this piece on overachieving SuperGirls, I too am recovering from “The Curse of the Good Girl” where self-esteem gets tied to perfection, squelching the ability to express and manage a full range of feelings.

If you don’t address the tamped down ‘good girl’ stuff early on, you could end up in a midlife mania rebel yell for authenticity and truth that upends anyone in the blast zone…better to gain self-awareness from the get go or find yourself marching on a well worn path to perfection that just keeps getting steeper.

Like that old Gloria Steinem quote, “A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.”

Anyway, as we heal our own scars and try to shepherd children through today’s complex media maelstrom of girl culture fraught with new stresses of instantaneous techno reverb, ‘kids getting older younger,’ and pressures of societal cues, heighten your awareness around the ‘curse of the good girl.’

Here’s Rachel Simmons with media and marketing’s role in it all, and how we can lead our own girls toward a path of being REAL, whole, healthy, human beings, as my silver Shakespeare bracelet I’m wearing says, “to thine own self be true.”

Thanks, Rachel, for helping each of us interpret what ‘true’ means for ourselves…

Amy Jussel: Odd Girl out was published in 2002; tell us what’s shifted in close to a decade of your research trying to break “The Curse of the Good Girl”

How has the conversation changed, and what role has media played?

oddRachel Simmons: So much has changed since Odd Girl Out – for better and for worse.

My book, along with Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes, ignited national conversation and action around girl bullying.

Money poured into academia for research, and schools began taking girls’ aggression seriously. It’s no longer acceptable to write off girls’ behavior as “girls being girls.” That’s big progress.

At the same time, media depictions of the stereotypical “mean girl” have exploded. Whole series are built around it: to wit, see Gossip Girl.

In the last ten years, cruelty has become entertainment; American Idol auditions are thinly veiled bullying scenes that give viewers permission to mercilessly mock and judge others. All this has loosened social restrictions around nastiness, making it just another way to be funny or connect with others. It’s also cut girls down to size on the big and small screens, promoting just a few unhealthy versions of how to be a girl.

Amy Jussel: Has the depiction of ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’ via media stereotypes (Gossip Girl, Mean Girls, etc.) ‘seeded’ relational aggression or is media ‘reflecting’ girls reality out there?

Rachel Simmons: I read a study a couple of years ago which found that girls watch ten times more relational aggression on television than they do in real life. So no – what we’re watching doesn’t reflect reality. Whether or not it’s causing relational aggression, I can’t say.

That said, I’ve seen incidents of cyberbullying that mimic Gossip Girl – signing nasty texts with “xoxo” as Gossip Girl does, and one girl who actually tried to become the Gossip Girl of her ninth grade class.

Amy Jussel: How is ‘the good girl curse’ impacting the dichotomy of young celeb figures like Miley Cyrus who seems to pendulum swing in a shell of a self-image amidst public judgment? Is there a ‘real’ Miley in there trying to find her voice & shout out?

Rachel Simmons: In a recent post on the Daily Beast, Marisa Meltzer (co-author, btw, of a terrific book on Sassy magazine) announced a new trend in Hollywood: Good Girls are in. Gone are the days when the reckless Bad Girl antics of Britney, Nicole and Lindsay were the titillating headlines. Today’s stars are cooing about their love for friends and family, attending ivy league schools, and wearing purity rings.

It’s the Curse of the Good Girl gone Hollywood, and it defines a very narrow identity for girls, no matter what their salary: be unfailingly kind, selfless and flawless. It’s an impossible goal, and it creates an all-or-nothing mentality.

A girl like Miley Cyrus is trying so hard to fit that mold, but the second she does anything that deviates, the alarm sounds. As Miley transitions into adolescence, she is entitled – as every teenager is – to  experiment with her sexuality and make stupid mistakes.

The trouble is that she’s becoming a woman in a society that defines girls in extremes. Either you’re Good or Bad. A slut or a prude. There’s not much room for Real in that. Miley’s challenge will be to hold on to herself and find the courage to resist those labels.

Amy Jussel: As founder of the Girls Leadership Institute you talk about giving girls the tools to “make her internal voice louder than the voice of others she worries about judging her” —which is FABULOUS…

How can kids learn to self-regulate that volume? Do you have any specific tips/exercises from GLI? (tell us more about GLI programs and such!)

Rachel Simmons: I would love to tell you more about the Girls Leadership Institute! Thought you’d never ask! It began as a labor of love when I was invited to work at a Sidwell Friends summer program while I was researching Odd Girl Out.

gliIt started with a simple goal: help girls have firmer handshakes (limp noodle handshakes have always bugged me), but it turned into something much more profound.

I began to see that girls could learn to shake hands firmly, but the bigger challenge was overcoming their anxiety about being powerful in the first place. That’s how GLI was born.

Helping girls find and own their authentic voice is no easy task. The reality is that every adolescent will struggle with fears of being judged; isn’t intense self-consciousness, especially the fear that everyone’s watching you, what being a teen is about (and what we all want to forget and never live through again?)? Still and yet, there’s much to be done to help a girl be her true self.

Here are two quick things girls can do:

Be silly. At GLI, we believe being silly is the best way to be yourself. We encourage girls, and their families, to find as many ways to dork out and dance like no one’s watching. Burp the alphabet. Really, go for it – and keep the friends around you who love that part of who you are.

Know your feelings. If you know what’s going on for you – whether it’s feeling peaceful or angry or hurt – you’ll be able to tell people what’s important to you and what you need. You’ll have an anchor to keep you strong in the face of what other people might say or think.

Amy Jussel: I remember seeing this study awhile back “Mean Girls Start in Preschool” which floored me that relational aggression was showing up in 4 & 5 year olds…Can you comment on how this fits in with your findings in either or all of your books? Or does it?

Rachel Simmons: Four and five year olds? Relational aggression shows up in girls as young as TWO, and before they can talk: girls can squeeze their eyes shut and cover their ears, communicating nonverbally that they don’t want to be with you anymore. This finding certainly speaks more to my first book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.

Teachers all over the world are desperate for resources to deal with the behavior at younger and younger ages. I had a blast working with six year olds in South Africa this year.

In some ways, this finding challenges my thesis in Odd Girl Out: that it’s how we socialize girls that influences their aggression. My experience working with South African girls (at The Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls and other schools) really brought home how biological some of this behavior may be.

Amy Jussel: The ‘j/k’ just kidding’ passive aggressive slam is a biggie for youth in texting, digital media & verbal circles… What’s a solid one-liner retort to spin a healthier message?

How can we help reframe peer culture so girls can ‘trust’ again?

Rachel Simmons: Kids are not just typing “jk” to be passive aggressive. Now, it’s “lol” “hahaha” and smiley face emoticons designed to make you feel confused about whether or not the person actually meant to insult you.

Here’s my suggestion for a retort:

Girl1:     Your house is so lame because your parents are always there. ;)
You:     Ouch
Girl2:    haha totally kidding.
You:     k

Or

Girl1:     Your house is so lame because your parents are always there. ;)
You:     Ouch
Girl2:    didn’t mean it that way!!
You:     k thanks

I think “ouch” is a good retort online when you want to signal that something wasn’t funny for you. Just like real life, you’ll probably get a reply like, “jk!” or “I didn’t mean it like that!” You can always say “k” or “k thanks.”

It’s not threatening, but it allows you to acknowledge that something uncomfortable happened – even if the other person did a lame job of explaining herself.

You’ll want to tack on a smiley face or “haha” to smooth it over. Try not to; it’ll help you seem more serious.

Amy Jussel: Let’s get to know the REAL Rachel Simmons! Hopefully you can join us again for a ‘part two’ after you take a break from your book tour! (My questions are in italics, Rachel’s responses are in normal typeface)

Rachel Simmons: Finally, some fun ones! Love these!

In my elementary school I was thought of as: a popular girl

In my middle school I was thought of as: a really good athlete

In my high school I was thought of as: the loud one But I was really the loud one

I felt I’d really broken the Curse of the Good Girl when: I overcame my fear and asked for a raise.

My favorite quote for living life out loud is: “Dance like nobody’s watching”

Organizations tackling some of this stuff you should know about are: Girls Leadership Institute, RosalindWiseman.com, Girls Inc, Girl Scouts, GENAustin, Girls Circle, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Strong Women Strong Girls, to name a few of many!

Who’s on your ‘wanna meet’ ‘bucket list’ of life? Kelly Clarkson, Meryl Streep, Gail Collins, Roz Chast, Diablo Cody, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Adrienne Rich

Amy Jussel: Thanks, Rachel, I look forward to seeing you at Gunn High School in Palo Alto on Sept. 24th

I’ll bring my daughter AGAIN, as she’s seen me struggle with the disease to please and the ‘curse of the good girl’ far too much in her short teen life, and I want to make sure she’s a cyclebreaker!

And readers…Shaping Youth will be ‘swapping content’ with Rosalind Wiseman’s site featuring Rachel Simmons, yours truly, and others interested in “Creating Cultures of Dignity.” I’m honored and delighted to team.

Rachel Simmons’ Curse of the Good Girl Book Tour 2009

Interested in Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence?

Here’s a quick glance to see if Rachel is coming to a city near you.

National Coalition of Girls Schools and Shaping Youth pal Nancy Gruver’s organization New Moon Media serve as national sponsors of Rachel Simmons’ tour events. (update on New Moon’s online girls’ community and safe chat forthcoming on Shaping Youth in September!)

Meet Rachel in bookstores in New York City, Washington, DC, Corte Madera, CA, and Portland, OR. Come to a back-to-school empowerment workshop for girls and adults in Boulder, Denver, Seattle, Palo Alto and Boston. Participants will learn how to help girls:

* Manage interpersonal conflict
* Stay true to herself in friendships
* Deal gracefully with constructive criticism
* Express her thoughts and feelings

September 10
New York, NY
Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Triangle
7:30 pm

September 16
Boulder, CO
Platt Middle School
6:30 pm
Sponsored by the Parent Engagement Network
Download flier here.

September 17
Englewood, CO (Denver metro area)
St. Mary’s Academy

7:00 pm
Host Sponsor: St. Mary’s Academy
Community Partners: Girl Scouts of Colorado and Regis Jesuit High School

September 22
Portland, OR
Powell’s Bookstore
7:30 pm

September 23
Seattle, WA
Town Hall
7:00 pm
Media Sponsor: Parent Map

Co-Sponsors: Billings Middle School, The Bush School, Eastside Preparatory School, Explorer West Middle School, The Evergreen School, Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, Jewish Day School, Lake Washington Girls Middle School, Mercer Island School District, The Northwest School, Seattle Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center

September 24
Palo Alto, CA

Gunn High School
7:00 pm
Sponsored by the Girls Leadership Institute

September 25
Corte Madera, CA

Book Passage
7:00 pm

September 29
Boston, MA
Boston Public Library (Raab Lecture Hall)
6:00 pm

Co-Sponsors: Beacon Street Girls, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Dedham Middle School, Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, Holliston Youth and Family Services, Massachusetts Conference for Women, Mayyim Hayyim, Moving Traditions, Newton High School South, The Rashi School, Strong Women Strong Girls

October 3
Washington, DC
Politics and Prose
1:00 pm

RachelSimmons

As I mentioned before, I’m a ‘tough sell’ due to limited time crunches on speaker circuit/events, but Rachel is one you will NOT want to miss in person. If you get a chance bring your girls! (aunties, gal pals, BFFs, sisters)

Her warmth and approachable style comes through like a comforting big sister as she explained, entertained, and amused us all with slice of life stories and refreshingly helpful insights on our daughters, and ourselves. A big thumbs up here. (And echoed by our pals at Parents Place, who have a stellar fall ’09 education series coming up too, as does Kepler’s books in Menlo; check it out! )

Comments

  1. Ah, I remember taking my own daughter to hear Rachel Simmons years ago. It’s interesting now to hear my 3rd graders talk about relationsip aggression they’re experiencing or seeing – ugh, too young! As far as the pressure to be good girls, I think this is where dads can help too. I suffer strongly from the Curse (thank you midwestern upbringing) but my husband doesn’t and he’s an excellent role model to our daughters for standing up for yourself and even being confrontational sometimes. And speaking of confrontational, and Kelly Clarkson who is mentioned above, I read yesterday that she’s standing up to Clive Owen. Go girl!!

  2. Love that Rachel Simmons book…I try to reframe my worldview with that knowledge often (I notice the theme surfacing in multiple media plotlines lately in terms of character development/behavioral stifling and struggling, etc. so clearly she hit a chord)

    As for Kelly Clarkson, it’s such a great opportunity to be able to use social media to ‘correct the record’ in one’s own voice…fast and effective self-mgmt of reputation and sensationalized media spin. She’s definitely coming into her own element in terms of understanding her personal power extends beyond a stellar voice. Loved her blog callout reflecting her personality too, ‘hey y’all…http://www.whosay.com/kellyclarkson/content/515466?wsref=tw&code=GLO5cY7

    Righting the wrongs is something I’ve personally never shied away from, even WITH the curse of the good girl…from a professional level. If anything I have to watch being TOO honest/forthright as it can be misconstrued as ‘confrontational/combativeness/self-righteousness’ (particular in this blog!) but the little voice inside of me speaks, “tell it” fearlessly, because the walking on eggs/financial tethers etc. that many ‘brands’ have precludes the real stories surfacing. And that’s a shame. So yep, working on ‘burying’ the ‘curse of the good girl’ in favor of fortitude. Now if I can just use that applied science in the personal realm…lol…working on it. Still.

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