The Makings of a Good Girl
Parents can protect daughters from the perfection trap
Posted April 9, 2013
For many little girls, the more they perceive others valuing them, the more they experience themselves as lovable and worthwhile. Girls often sacrifice their independent discovery of who they actually are in order to live out the need to please others. In early childhood, girls are so good at the job of pleasing that they expect to hear they did a “good job,” are “perfect,” “nice,” “beautiful,” “well-behaved,” “quiet.” Research suggests girls tend to hear and focus intently on these labels more than boys, because girls are more emotionally mature and better behaved in early childhood.
As they integrate positive labels into their self-image, some girls pour everything they have into being perfect by way of grades, friendships and meeting changing parental expectations. They relish the resulting accolades. By middle school and high school, life typically becomes more challenging as girls face increasingly demanding academics and more complex relationships. The ability to be perfect ends. With the added difficulty that life and school bring, girls begin to hear less and less that they are perfect and as a result their self-esteem may plummet.
Instagram, a photo-sharing and social networking site, is becoming a medium through which middle-school age girls work to raise this plummeting self-esteem. Thousands of young girls are participating in beauty pageants on Instagram where they offer photographs of themselves up to be judged by other Instagram users. According to Cecilia Kang, writer for the Washington Post, once a contestant’s photograph gets enough negative comments the photo receives a large red “X” or the word “Out” is etched across her face. This trend seems to mirror my sense of many girls at this age in that they are not socialized toward inward fulfillment. As a result, they engage in self-destructive, risky behaviors in the hope that they will earn some level of approval and thus ease their debilitating need to please and be good enough.
Unfortunately when achieving someone else’s definition of perfection is the primary standard, girls discount their own feelings so sharply that by the time they turn into women they find it natural to embrace those who do not take their feelings seriously. As women they continue to turn to external avenues for self-validation, picking partners and products that take them further away from self-knowledge and emotional intimacy.
In lieu of self-understanding a kind of anxiety invades the young woman’s sense of self that causes her to focus more on appearing good enough to others and less on her own internal needs and desires. The thrill of being wanted and desired can be so intoxicating for girls who are hyper-focused on being valued that they may consent to a sexual experience before their feelings are fully on board.
Once the sexual event is over, they often feel guilty and swing back to the chaste, good girl persona. When another attractive guy comes around, the exhilaration of his desire makes the bad girl reappear. Moving between these poles causes an inordinate amount of anxiety and tension and, perhaps even more troubling serves to keep women in the dark about how they might get more from their romantic experiences.
In Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships I outline a road map for finding happiness and security in romantic relationships.
The more women focus on appearing perfectly physically pleasing and good for the men in their lives, then the more disconnected they become from their own experience of pleasure and desire. Fostering healthy, sexually fulfilling and emotionally intimate relationships with men means giving up raising or being a “good girl” in favor of helping girls and women to act in accordance with who they really are.
Jill Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber and learn more about her at www.drjillweber.com.
2. The Washington Post, April, 5, 2013. Cecilia Kang.