Arthur Siegel, Nude and Projection, 1947, gelatin silver print
Arthur Siegel, Nude and Projection, 1947, gelatin silver print

What does a “good girl” look like?

When feminist author and educator Rachel Simmons posed this question to a small but attentive audience at a Women’s Center event last month, a dozen hands leapt into the air. “Polite,” one female student answered. “Pretty, but not a slut,” another reflected. “The girl next door,” a voice near the front added. Seated in the second-to-last row, I was struck by how completely and unanimously we could reconstruct this trope. On first hearing the words “good girl” from Simmons, I’d felt myself instinctively recoil from the phrase. It felt outdated, childish, the kind of cheesy diminutive reserved for pets and toddlers. Yet as I listened to more and more women contribute to an increasingly complex definition, it became clear that we all had some form of personal relationship to these words. For a term we’d never speak out loud, we had evidently spent a lot of time thinking about it.

I’d come to Simmons’ talk prepared to be critical. Titled Lean Inside—a play on Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In—the presentation promised to help women overcome self-doubt and grow into “confident, authentic female leaders.” As a college-aged woman interested in the tenuous relationship between femininity and authenticity, I was as skeptical of this promise as I was genuinely curious about it. In a world where women are punished as often for not being “authentic” as they are for not being “professional,” what did an authentic female leader actually look like?

Was such a thing even possible?

Not familiar with Simmons’ work, I’d based my expectations on the promotional material for the workshop, which left me cynical. Beyond the buzzwords in the title—confidence, leadership, authenticity—the event description was brimming with the kind of language I associated with pop psychology books and professional development forums. Simmons, it claimed, would teach us to “face down failure with grace” and “be true to [ourselves].” I anticipated some overly general, idealistic speech stuffed with unnecessary acronyms.

Instead, Simmons offered a moving, if somewhat cozy presentation on the gendered and paralyzing nature of perfectionism. Drawing on the trope of the polite and selfless “good girl,” she argued that women, more than men, feel compelled to meet superhuman standards in all spheres of life, from our physical appearances and reputations to our performance at school and the workplace. In theory, this high-pressure mindset seems advantageous—the tougher we are on ourselves, we believe, the more we will strive. In reality, however, this criticism is often more crippling than it is beneficial. Fearful of cracking our all-too-fragile façades of competence, we box ourselves in, turning down challenges without giving ourselves the opportunity to rise to them. If we lowered our standards, she claimed, we would actually achieve more.

There were, of course, cheesy moments, from the sugary power pop playing while we took seats to the title of her slideshow, “How to Connect with Me.” But these done-before details faded in light of insights that made me question my own skepticism. Because, as much as I winced at the term good girl, I couldn’t help but wonder if my resistance masked the ways it still influenced my own choices, perhaps more than I let myself admit. I could dismiss it as clichéd, sappy, dumb. But hadn’t I stopped myself from speaking in a philosophy seminar just that afternoon, ceding to the self-assured voices of the male students who composed roughly eighty percent of the class? Hadn’t I panicked over five pounds at a doctor’s appointment the day before, fearful my female body occupied too much space? And why was I so concerned that my attendance at an educational event for women would signify some kind of vulnerability?

Perhaps to put us at ease in our own introspection, Simmons grounded much of her advice in her own life’s story. A self-proclaimed “recovering overachiever,” she attended Vassar College, later earning a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a graduate degree in political theory at Oxford. Her time there, however, was short-lived. Overworked and depressed among what she described as “the deadest white people you’ll ever meet,” she dropped out of the program to the disappointment of her mentors, who told her she had “embarrassed Vassar.” Even harder to grapple with than the scorn of others, however, was the disappointment she felt in herself. “I didn’t know how to fail,” she explained, in a matter-of-fact tone that suggested she was securely on the other side of that struggle.

Looking back, of course, Simmons noted that her decision to leave Oxford was hardly a failure. The publication of her first book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, not long afterwards elevated her overnight to a level of “nonfiction writing celebrity,” which she reflected on with a sort of humble disenchantment. She followed Odd Girl Out with two more books on girlhood, simultaneously working as an educator and consultant, and freelancing for various journalistic publications. At some point on this non-linear trajectory, she resolved to abandon the perfectionist mentality she had clung to as a Rhodes Scholar. “I didn’t know why I was achieving,” she reflected of her Rhodes years. Instead, she came to realize, it was possible to find happiness without persistent self-criticism. “You can be successful without that feeling of not-enoughness,” she urged. This, for Simmons, was the crux of authentic leadership: embracing the flawed person you feel you are and letting go of the person you believe you must be.

As I listened to Simmons’ story, I found myself searching for plot holes. How much of her ability to embrace her own shortcomings had been made possible by the external validation of being published? (When I asked her this question after the presentation, she admitted probably quite a bit). Mostly, however, I struggled to reconcile her decision to let her guard down, to lower her standards, with her continued professional success. How could a woman so at peace with failure achieve so much?

This, of course, was precisely the kind of assumption Simmons intended to debunk. Raised to believe we are held to higher standards than our male peers, many women, specifically women from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds, are terrified to abandon the competitive mindsets we credit for our success. In reality, however—at least, according to Simmons—these beliefs are less motivating than crippling. And this goes deeper than simply avoiding risks. What, after all, is the difference between believing women must actually work harder, be nicer—essentially, try more—than men, and genuinely believing in our own inferiority?

By the end of the presentation, I was firmly on Simmons’ side in rallying against perfection. Even the clichés peppering her slides seemed earnest rather than empty, as my cynicism began to feel more defensive than productive. Yet I couldn’t fight creeping doubts about just how effective this sort of personal, psychological liberation could be in undoing the broader assumptions about gender that made perfectionism a largely female issue in the first place. Having acknowledged, even accepted, our unpolished selves, we might learn to take risks, to move confidently and naturally through our social and academic lives. But who could guarantee that, coming from a woman, this confidence wouldn’t be read as laziness?

Towards the middle of the lecture, Simmons asked all audience members to sit like a man, at which point most of us spread our legs, slouched, and otherwise tried to take up space. She then invited us to sit like women, and most of us returned to how we’d been previously sitting: legs or ankles crossed, upright, shoulders tense. How, she asked, did each pose make us feel? Almost unanimously, we associated the male pose with self-assuredness and comfort; sitting like a woman made us feel small and anxious in comparison. I felt myself growing angry—why had we learned a body language that deprived us of self-confidence? The solution she offered—not to be afraid to claim space—was all well and good, except that I couldn’t imagine walking into a job interview and sitting in the masculine position I’d just practiced. I might feel confident, sure, but I would also look impolite, conceited, even sloppy. To be fair, Simmons wasn’t advocating for women to actually sit like men, merely to sit with confidence. Yet if propriety, and the self-consciousness that comes with it, are inextricable from our performance of femininity, how can we make room for confident women without rethinking what femininity itself looks like?

Simmons ended her presentation by turning to the crowd and encouraging each audience member to share why they were “enough.” The answers were simple and heartfelt, their clichéd nature a clear attempt to push back against the critical lens through which we scrutinize so much of our self-expression. “I love my parents,” one woman said. “I have great friends,” posited another. “I’m alive,” I said. There was something genuinely touching about this activity, so different from the cutthroat exceptionalism of so much of Princeton’s culture. And as we sat there, legs uncrossed, I wondered how much my anxieties about others’ perceptions weren’t yet another lingering shadow of the “good girl” I’d resolved to abandon. Letting go of perfectionism, after all, is a risk. If it has constrained us, it has also carried us to where we are now. And the social forces driving it are much broader and deeper than our own internal resolutions. But if Simmons’ advice seemed idealistic, I figured, it was at least worth a try.