Just when I thought that I was about to fall into a great writing routine with the start of the school year, Life happened. You know how that goes, right? Your work schedule has extra trainings, so you fall behind on housework. And then the city is repairing the sewer in front of your house so you can’t use your driveway for a week and the deafening thunder of jackhammers breaking concrete ruins your two-year-old’s nap time. And then your phone is lost or stolen and your husband is out of town for four days. And then the kids get sick and generously share it with you . . . You get the picture. Confession: Life happened for a good two weeks around here and nothing got done but watching lots of Doc McStuffins and surviving.
So I’ve been hanging on by my fingernails. I revisited my Little Rituals for When Things Suck post and slipped in some self-care when I could. I’ve been trying to read more, when possible, in place of social media time, which led me to start reading Daring Greatly by the bold and wonderful Brene Brown. I haven’t finished it yet – I’ll post a review and add it to my books page once I’m done – but even just the beginning has brought up some important questions for me. The problem with Brene Brown is that she is so darn insightful when it comes to courage, vulnerability, and risk that reading her books makes you want to do crazy, terrifying things.
Last Sunday, as I sat quietly at my Friends meeting, I was reflecting on what I’ve been reading in Daring Greatly and I asked myself. What am I afraid of? There were a lot of answers – I’m a big chicken – but one in particular stood out to me: I’m afraid that I’m too boring, too vanilla, too “good”to have anything interesting or worthwhile to say.
I don’t have any dark secrets to reveal. I don’t have an arrest history. I don’t even like drinking anymore because it makes me feel like crap, so a trendy and fascinating coke or heroin habit is completely out of the question. I’m a freaking stay-at-home mom who was an English teacher – can you think of anything anything nerdier than that!? – and valedictorian of my high school class. As an adolescent, I played varsity tennis, wrote for the school newspaper, and stayed up late every night reading romance novels.
I’m not claiming that I’ve always been perfectly behaved, but I am not known for my rebellious nature, sisters.
Which makes me a little too sensitive, I think, when it comes to how conversations occasionally unravel in feminist communities. Sometimes it feels like in order to shut down the “shaming” – sexual shaming, mental health shaming, etc. – the narrative reaches so far as to subtly put down other women.
For example, I was reading a really great post by Constance Hall – who I like very, very much – in which she completely took down some creep of a guy who went on social media and tried to shame her for her past sexual experiences. She was having none of it. And as a feminist, I was loving her response. Until I got to the end and the second to last paragraph read:
“So to all my little love lovers and intimacy creeps out there, keep on creeping on. You are still precious pearls and delicate Snow Flakes, you are just as if not more so loveable then your virgin mates.”
It took my breath away for a moment, how much of a direct hit that was for me. And I’m not even a virgin, for crying out loud, but neither did I ever have the lifestyle that she proudly embraced in her post. I’ve never had a one-night stand. Does that mean that I’m less loving? That I desire less love – or less sex, for that matter – than my sisters who have? I don’t think so. I think we’re all doing our best to find love, intimacy, and connection. The fact that we go about it different ways doesn’t mean that some sisters are more or less loveable. Right?
Similarly, there was a post from Glennon a few months ago. (Just for the record, I deeply admire Glennon and the work she does. Which is maybe why this stung a bit for me.) The post was about surviving mental illness, and it was – in very typical Glennon fashion – inspiring. And then toward the end, there was this passage:
“Those with the capacity to feel great pain are also those with the capacity to feel deep joy. Those who fall hard, RISE gloriously. Those who are deeply wounded become the greatest healers. Those who come close to death often become those who are MOST ALIVE. You might be one of the extra bad ones – but that means you are also one of the extra good ones.”
Just for the record, I totally understand – on an objective level – what Glennon was saying and doing here. She was taking away the shame and stigma of mental illness and giving her readers a silver lining, something to feel proud of. And I don’t want to take away from that. I’m not trying to be the All Lives Matter to Black Lives Matter here.
But can you also see how that might feel to her “good girl” readers out there? We love Glennon for her everyday truth telling and unconditional acceptance, and we also love her for the struggles she’s overcome, even if we haven’t struggled in the same ways she has. But can you see how – to us rule-following “good girls” – that passage might sound a bit like we’re less joyful, less alive, and maybe just a bit mediocre?
I get it. In many ways the rebels are more fun. Women who’ve had more sexual partners often have better stories to share. Illegal substances add an element of danger and fascination for people. People love a grand adventure.
And the “good girls” know this. Because, whether we talk about it publicly or not, we too have our “gremlins,” as Brene Brown calls them. And this cultural narrative that some types of women are more emotional, more tuned in, more “ALIVE” than others is a big old gremlin for rule-following sisters. We just typically don’t talk about it because it might make people uncomfortable, and that’s not how we roll.
But there is a secret that I want to share: “Good girls” don’t love less. We don’t desire less. We’re not avoiding one-night stands because we’re cold-hearted ice queens. We don’t feel less. I honestly believe that we feel just as much emotion and feel it just as passionately. We simply express it differently.
All of us want the same things. We want connection. We want validation as human beings. We want to be seen and acknowledged. We just go about it in different ways.
“Good girls” pursue love, connection, and validation by seeking the almighty Approval. We follow the rules because we’ve been taught (or wired) to understand that if we meet society’s expectations, validation, connection, and even love will follow. We’re not going to shout every opinion from the rooftops because that would make some people uncomfortable, and we don’t want to risk losing their Approval, which is so easy to confuse with love and admiration. We don’t make risky choices because our first thought is always, “How will this affect my family’s/friends’/teachers’/co-workers’ Approval of me?”
On the other hand, I’d guess our more extroverted and risk-taking sisters pursue love, connection, and validation by seeking Attention. They break the rules because it’s a pretty sure bet that it’s going to garner Attention. Does their opinion make you uncomfortable? Well, they’re pretty sure to get a rise out of you, and you’re sure as hell going to acknowledge them. They’re more willing to take risks because it might get them negative Attention, but at least it’s Attention.
Is either of these better than the other? I absolutely don’t think so. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. The approval-seekers are good at thinking about how their actions affect others, which is essential for strong communities. On the other hand, they need too much nudging before they’re willing to push the status quo, which oftentimes needs to be pushed for the sake of progress. The attention-seekers (and I’m not comfortable with the connotations of that term but I’m not sure what to replace it with) are the ones who are willing to push us out of our comfort zones, which we sometimes really, really need. On the other hand, attention-seeking can sometimes lead to behaviors that hurt themselves and/or others.
However, as much as I can see the pros and cons to both sides of this dichotomy, more than anything I want to challenge the idea that this dichotomy even really exists. None of us are “good girls” or “bad girls” or “virgins” or “whores.” We’re complex girls and women who spend way too much of our lives trying desperately to walk the fine line between these divisive, destructive dichotomies that I’m pretty damn sure were not created by women. I mean really, was “a lady on the streets and a freak in the bed” written by a woman? I don’t think so. We’re constantly terrified of veering too far in any direction – rule-following ice queen or promiscuous whore – and rendering ourselves completely unlovable.
Do you notice that these dichotomies offer no good options? Nobody wants to be labeled as any of those things – good girl, bad girl, virgin, or whore – and yet these paradigms are still shaping the discussions we’re having among our own female communities. I’m honestly struggling just writing this short blog post because I feel like there is no neutral language for me to use.
But I think one thing is absolutely true. We are all scared. We are all seeking love and connection. We all feel deep and powerful emotions, and we all struggle with how to deal with them. As women, we have much more in common than we have dividing us. Our outward actions may be different, but the internal motivations are very often the same. We’re just reaching out in different ways.
Jane Austen told this story long ago when she wrote Sense and Sensibility. The two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, both have loves that go awry. The staid and more introverted Elinor deals with it more stoically while Marianne makes herself sick with grief. Does this mean that Marianne loves more passionately or deeply than Elinor? I don’t think so. Ultimately, Elinor ends up happily married to the object of her affections, while Marianne recovers from her illness and goes on to marry someone else. They were just two young women both doing their best to navigate the muddy waters of love and affection and coping to the best of their abilities. Like we all are.
And even though for the purposes of this post I essentially labeled myself a “good girl,” I’m sure there are people who would disagree. I’m divorced, for one. And although I don’t feel any shame about it, I know there are others out there who would put a solid mark in the “bad girl” column for that one. And although I tend to play it safe, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone in regards to travel, which probably gives me some bonus “adventure points.” But when it comes right down to it, at my core I’m probably too academic and bookish to ever truly earn a “bad girl” badge, although I’ve been very consciously working on overcoming my approval-seeking ways in recent years, for the sake of personal authenticity.
The truth is that these labels don’t truly fit anyone. Constance Hall wasn’t a “whore” – she was seeking love and intimacy in the best way she could, just like we all do. Glennon was never “crazy” – she was reacting to a challenging world the best way she could, just like we all do. I was never an ice queen or a snob in high school – I was scared of being hurt by someone who couldn’t see or understand the real me.
We feminists love to talk about “smashing the patriarchy.” I would humbly suggest that we begin by smashing the patriarchy’s limiting language – the “virgin vs. whore” and “good vs. bad girl” dichotomies – that turn sisters into competition. It’s all division, sisters, because if we’re busy convincing ourselves that our “label” is more valid or more loveable than the other one, then we’re not focused on why the hell they would try to control us with these stupid labels to begin with.
Smash the labels, smash the patriarchy.