Getting Over the Good Girl Syndrome: On the Occasion of International Women’s Day

For many years now, I have spoken at women forums, mentored and taught young women, and have had several women as part of my team.

The one message I try to give has been ‘don’t be a good girl’. What I meant was: don’t be confined by what your family and society expect of you; don’t do things just because someone thinks you should; you don’t have to be obedient; do think things out for yourself and rebel, disobey and question when you are convinced that is the right thing for you.

But I could never articulate it right. It often came out as if I was asking girls to be ‘bad girls’ or to be defiant just for the sake of being defiant! And I began to think maybe that is not what I should be telling them.

Till recently, when I started coming across the term ‘good girl syndrome’. I have been trying to read up a bit on this, and have discovered that it is not only a ‘thing’, but that it has been the subject of some (though not too much) academic interest.

Beverly Engel’s 2011 book ‘The Nice Girl Syndrome’ is a break-through book in this area, and I would rather quote her than try to define and explain the term myself:

‘A Nice Girl is more concerned about what others think of her than she is about what she thinks of herself. Being a Nice means that a woman is more concerned about other people’s feelings than she is about her own.’

‘Nice girls are compliant: they do what they are told. They’ve learned that it is easier to just do what someone asks than to risk an argument. Nice girls are passive; they let things happen. They are often too afraid to stand up for themselves… Nice girls are wishy-washy. ..They want to please everyone all the time…Because they are afraid of telling other how they feel, Nice Girls can be phony; they pretend a lot.’

From The Nice Girl Syndrome: Beverly Engel. (2011)

Characteristics of ‘good girls’ include: fear of disappointing others, fear of speaking out for fear of hurting others, need to always excel, avoid conflict, obey rules. They also find it difficult to refuse to do what they are asked.

I don’t know if it is true, but I find the need to conform and to be good girls is actually increasing. For women born in the sixties like me, any of us worth our salt did defy curfew times; did fight with mothers about dressing and hairstyles; did assert ourselves to pursue professional education and careers; did sometimes have to go on the warpath about when and whom to marry; and fight for space in the marriage to define ourselves. And each of those arguments made us stronger. And we emerged as strong women, who carved our own paths.

We of course stood on the shoulders of the women of the forties and fifties—they were pioneers: the early engineers, the early doctors, the women who defied purdah, the women who travelled alone, the women who fought family and society to create their own paths. We were not half as brave, but we did advance the agenda a bit.

Today, many of these things are taken for granted, and the girls don’t seem to be fighting any new battles. They in fact don’t seem to have as strong a sense of self as we did. I see them treading the path that society expects them. The paths that we trod and that they are treading look the same. But the difference is it is now the beaten path. We were bad girls when we trod this path, but now it is the norm, and good girls are expected to tread them and they are doing it! I would have thought they would go further, branch out, breach new barriers, reach new heights.

But maybe it is the world’s oldest story–one generation cribbing about the next!


At any rate, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, here is to BAD GIRLS. They are the ones who change the world!


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